The first chapter of Too Brief a Treat: The Letters of Truman Capote follows our hero’s adventures from 1936 through 1948, a particularly heady period of his life. Capote leaves Alabama for New York City, joins the staff of The New Yorker, sells his first stories (for which he wins several national awards), becomes a popular fixture in the New York literary scene and in the salons of Paris, meets the love of his life and signs a major book deal with Random House for his novel Other Voices, Other Rooms. By the time the chapter ends, Capote is a bestselling and critically lauded novelist, and even a national celebrity. He has just turned 24, though with his slight, 5’3″ frame, skirling falsetto voice and golden bangs, he looked not a day older than 12. “For God’s sake!” shouted New Yorker editor Harold Ross, upon seeing Capote for the first time in his office. “What’s that?”
On the first page of this opening chapter, which editor Gerald Clarke understatedly titles “The Exuberant Years,” there is a photograph that captures perfectly Capote’s spirit at the time. Taken in Tangiers by Cecil Beaton, the photograph shows a singing Capote mid-leap, spread-eagled and arms outstretched like a bounding Lindy Hopper. The ground is not even in the frame–for all we know he is thirty feet in the air. Although Capote would go on to even greater literary success and celebrity with the publication of Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1958) and In Cold Blood (1966), he was never more full of hope and excitement than in these early years. Each piece of correspondence reads like a love letter, breathless and exclamatory. He was always very affectionate toward his friends, often effusively so, but in these letters, written before he had made his first enemies or alienated those closest to him, he seems in love with everything and everyone–with New York, his editors, his friends, his lovers and, most of all, his work. Here is the beginning of a letter written to Mary Louise Aswell, his editor at Harper’s Bazaar:
Marylou, divinely beloved,
This must be love! For you are the only one I ever write: yes, it is love…
A letter to Leo Lerman, a writer friend who held weekly parties attended by prominent New York writers and film stars:
Dearest baby, have I ever told you that I loved You? I do, you know, very, very much.
To his Random House editor, Robert Linscott:
I am working on the book and it is really my love and today I wrote two pages and oh Bob I do want it to be a beautiful book because it seems important to me that people try to write beautifully, now more than ever because the world is so crazy and only art is sane…
The fiction Capote wrote at this time tells a very different, less happy, story than the letters. On the eightieth anniversary of Capote’s birth, Random House has published, in addition to the volume of selected letters, his complete short fiction and a new Modern Library edition of Other Voices, Other Rooms. Although it’s often tempting to peruse an author’s private letters in search of some kind of secret biographical key to his fiction, in Capote’s case it is the fiction that reveals much that lies hidden in the letters. Reading Capote’s fiction (and to a lesser extent, his nonfiction), one is overwhelmed by the preponderance of characters burdened not with an abundance of love but with its absence.
Other Voices, Other Rooms is the story of Joel Knox, a young boy who, after his mother’s death, is sent to live with a father he has never met. Joel arrives at a crumbling old mansion where he meets Miss Amy, his father’s second wife, the amiable, eccentric Cousin Randolph and Zoo, their maid. His father, however, is nowhere to be found. Nor will anyone tell Joel where he is, despite his desperate questioning. The only evidence that there is anyone else in the house is a red tennis ball that bounces slowly down the stairway from time to time, causing the adults of the household to rush upstairs. Joel waits below, confused and daydreaming images of his mysterious, longed-for father.
While playing outside one afternoon, Joel believes that he sees someone sitting in a window on the top floor of the house. It is a strange old lady, her white hair like “the wig of a character from history: a towering pale pompadour with fat dribbling curls.” She smiles and nods at Joel. Despite Cousin Randolph’s and Miss Amy’s efforts to convince him otherwise, Joel is certain that she is real. He does not know who she is, but on some level she must seem familiar, since “the hazy substance of her face, the suffused marshmallow features, brought to mind his own vaporish reflection.” When the book ends, Joel has found a father figure, and has found someone to love him. But the man he finds is not his father.
Capote himself was abandoned early by both parents and sent at the age of 5 to live with three middle-aged cousins in the small town of Monroeville, Alabama. He rejoined his mother after her marriage to Joe Capote, a Cuban businessman, who legally adopted Truman and brought him to live with them in New York. Although Capote’s childhood is not reflected in great depth in Too Brief a Treat, the volume begins with one early note, sent by a 12-year-old Capote to his estranged father, Arch Persons. Bearing neither greeting nor signature, the letter tersely requests that Persons address him in the future as Truman Capote, not Persons, “as everyone knows me by that name.” It is the coldest, least affectionate letter in the entire collection. While later letters to his father are more forgiving, they express only the obligatory affection with which one addresses a distant relation, a striking contrast to his many tender letters to acquaintances and friends. When Capote receives a letter from his grandmother chastising him for being unkind to his father, Capote curtly responds: “As for Arch, and all his complaining about my supposed neglect–well, I entered into a most friendly correspondence with him last spring.” Which is to say, Arch asked for money, and Capote flatly refused him.
In Capote’s stories, the horrors and pain of one’s past have a way of coming back, with more haunting consequences than a money request. In “The Shape of Things,” a shell-shocked soldier onboard a train just after the war suffers violent convulsive fits, to the great discomfiture of his fellow passengers. In “A Tree of Night,” a young woman on a train meets a hydrocephalic midget woman and a mute manchild with grabby hands; when she escapes to the observation platform she is overcome by an amorphous, senseless fear, whose source she cannot quite trace. Then she realizes:
it was a memory, a childish memory of terrors that once, long ago, had hovered above her like haunted limbs on a tree of night. Aunts, cooks, strangers–each eager to spin a tale or teach a rhyme of spooks and death, omens, spirits, demons. And always there had been the unfailing threat of the wizard man…
In “The Headless Hawk,” a lonesome art dealer discovers a mesmerizing painting whose gruesome image prompts him to examine the failures of his past. Looking at the painting, he realizes that “he was…a poet who had never written poetry, a painter who had never painted, a lover who had never loved…” In “Shut a Final Door,” a miserable social climber is driven mad by a voice, “dull and sexless and remote,” that telephones him incessantly. The mysterious caller never identifies itself but says only, “You’ve known me a long time,” before hanging up. And in the eerie, perfect “Miriam,” the story that helped win Capote his first book contract, an elderly woman, Miriam, is tormented by a strange young girl with long silver-white hair, also named Miriam. Only at the end of the story do we realize that the shared name is no coincidence. Even in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, which is not included in the Complete Stories, Holly Golightly is visited by a figure from a squalid past she has tried to forget: Doc Golightly, her husband, a horse doctor who has come to bring her back from Manhattan to his farm in Tulip, Texas. When the story’s narrator, a Capote alter-ego, meets Doc, he mistakes him for Holly’s father.
Capote took a break from fiction to write In Cold Blood, a heartbreaking account of the massacre of an innocent family in the small town of Holcomb, Kansas. He spent over five nerve-racking years on the project, obsessively researching the town, the crimes and the lives of the two killers. In the process he made convenient friendships with both the chief investigator on the case, Alvin Dewey, and the killers, Perry Smith and Richard Hickock–especially Smith, who came from a troubled family background much like Capote’s. “My life…has a few certain similarities to yours,” he writes to Smith in an autobiographical letter that ends, “I am not in the habit of making such confidences. However, I do not mind telling you anything.” Meanwhile, Capote regales the starstruck Dewey family with gossip about his other pals, like Audrey Hepburn, Jackie Kennedy and Cary Grant, and floods them with airplane tickets, boxes of chocolate, fifths of J&B Scotch (Alvin’s favorite) and cash (“please use the enclosed to buy a Christmas present all the family will enjoy”), while at the same time soliciting confidential information about the prolonged murder trial. Capote, who had always started work on a story by writing the ending first, had to wait five agonizing years to find out how In Cold Blood would end. “The strain is just too much,” he complained to the Deweys, a full four years before the book would be completed. “Every morning of my life I throw up because of the tensions created by the writing of this book.” Once the killers were finally hanged and the book published, Capote, now a literary giant with movie-star fame, left for a well-earned holiday. He never really returned.
In the following years, Capote played wife-sitter and court jester to his new friends the Paleys, the Vanderbilts and the Radziwills, and his correspondence dwindled to a smattering of postcards and telegrams. Whenever he wanted to reach someone now, he just picked up the telephone. After all, he could afford to pay long-distance. In the mid-70s Esquire published several chapters from the long-awaited Answered Prayers, which Capote claimed to have been writing for nearly a decade and believed would be his masterpiece: an epic novel about the Very Rich that he likened to Remembrance of Things Past (never mind that he had most likely not actually read Proust). If In Cold Blood was a nonfiction novel, Answered Prayers was lightly fictionalized gossip, in which Capote dished about the private scandals of his Very Rich friends. (Capote’s jilted society friends would get a chance to return the favor in George Plimpton’s excellent Truman Capote: In Which Various Friends, Enemies, Acquaintances, and Detractors Recall His Turbulent Career, published in 1997, which can be read as a more salacious, and often more revealing, companion to Clarke’s biography and the collected letters.) The Very Rich promptly stopped taking his calls.
For the second time in his life Capote felt a profound sense of abandonment by those he believed to have loved him. This time he would not recover. “But they know I’m a writer,” he would say in the coming months, in a dazed state of depression. “I don’t understand it.” Now he bounced between rehab clinics instead of yachts and private islands, battling worsening addictions to sleeping pills and vodka. Although Capote was reluctant to discuss his declining health, his letters do reflect one startling change. As a young man, always eager to elicit sympathy and affection, he would often alarm his friends with letters describing the various physical woes he claimed had beset him. In one three-year period he complained of such afflictions as tonsillitis, a mysterious ailment “rather like leukemia,” serious electric burns, temporary blindness, gastroenteritis, cholera, toothache, grippe, dysentery, a weak heart, tooth loss, crabs and numerous fevers, infections and influenzas. “Dramatic as it may sound,” he wrote in 1946, “I wonder really whether I shall be able to live through the winter.” But by the late 1970s his flair for self-pity had been transformed into a delusional optimism, which must have been far more alarming to his few remaining friends. “Am the picture of health. Have become a lifetime teetolar [sic], and really enjoy it,” he wrote in a letter to William Styron, after drunkenly crashing his car into an oncoming vehicle. “I feel so clear and optimistic,” he wrote, shortly before being informed by doctors that his prolonged addictions to drugs and alcohol were shrinking his brain. “Am soberer than ever,” he reported, while suffering drug-induced epileptic fits and violent paranoid hallucinations.
In 1982, two years before his death, Capote published a final short story, “One Christmas.” Written just after Arch Persons’s death, the story recalls a rare childhood visit between Capote and his father in New Orleans. The 6-year-old Capote dreads the trip and when he arrives, is embarrassed to observe that his father has become a drunk and a gigolo to wealthy older women. Late on Christmas Eve, unable to fall asleep, the boy spies his father laying out his presents beneath the tree. He is devastated. Having already lost faith in his father, he is now forced to lose faith in Santa Claus. On the bus ride home, he writes,
I felt the strangest pain. A crushing pain that hurt everywhere. I thought if I took off my heavy city shoes, those crucifying monsters, the agony would ease. I took them off, but the mysterious pain did not leave me. In a way it never has; never will.