Truman Capote – George Plimpton

“I’m an alcoholic. I’m a drug addict. I’m homosexual. I’m a genius. Of course, I could be all four of these dubious things and still be a saint.” – Truman Capote

The full title of this book is Truman Capote: In Which Various Friends, Enemies, Acquaintances and Detractors Recall His Turbulent Career and it takes the form of an oral biography. George Plimpton is the originator of this form with the book Edie: An American Biography (with Jean Stein) where the narrative is told in interview form by people who knew the subject. Edie is a brilliant book which I discovered while on holiday in South Africa seventeen years ago and the oral biography style was energetic and compelling, with vivid detail supplied by her friends and family. Certainly the form suits a biography of Truman Capote who was one of the most visible and social of the 20th Century’s American writers.

Harold Halma’s provocative portrait of Truman

The book chronicles Truman’s life from birth, and career from the publication of his first book Other Voices Other Rooms in 1948 when he was just 24 years old. The author photograph caused a stir due to the fact that it was a provocative and inviting shot of the baby-faced Truman reclining on a sofa, heralding a career that would be filled with attention and controversy. Capote is best known for his classic novel Breakfast at Tiffany’s (interestingly, he wanted his friend Marilyn Monroe to play Holly Golighty – what a different film that would have been!) and for his ground breaking non-fiction novel In Cold Blood. He was eccentric, funny, intelligent, good company and a great listener, a gifted raconteur given to embellishing his stories beyond recognition.

Truman was something of a social climber and he cultivated relationships with prominent women whom he called his “swans”, including Babe Paley, Gloria Guinness, Gloria Vanderbilt, Marella Agnelli, Slim Keith and Lee Radziwill. In November 1966, just after the publication of In Cold Blood, Capote hosted the Black and White Ball in The Plaza in New York and it was the hottest ticket in town. The ball represented the zenith of Truman’s popularity and was attended by Frank Sinatra and Mia Farrow, Norman Mailer, Douglas Fairbanks Jnr., Tallulah Bankhead, Lauren Bacall and many others. (This stunning book gives more detail on the ball with beautiful pictures.)

However with the publication of his book Answered Prayers, which contained thinly disguised portraits of his cafe society friends, he found himself ostracised and bereft of the elevated social standing he had worked so hard to attain. It’s hard to understand why Truman committed social suicide in such a public manner, but many interviewed in the book talk about his naughty side, his desire to stir up trouble, and others say that he honestly had no idea people would take it so badly. His abrupt social isolation brought on depression and his early literary promise became mired in alcoholism, drug use and mental breakdowns. Truman died aged 59 from liver cancer without having produced any further serious work.

In a way I think there are comparisons to be drawn between F. Scott Fitzgerald and Truman; both published at an early age, both socially aspirational and fascinated by the rich, both groundbreaking writers in their own way, both alcoholics whose illness derailed a brilliant career. This biography by George Plimpton provides much information on Capote’s work, relationships and social life and it rattles along at a furious pace, with many great stories from Truman’s friends and enemies providing a comprehensive and interesting portrait.

Truman Capote by Irving Penn
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2 thoughts on “Truman Capote – George Plimpton

  1. If the reader has no idea what Truman Capote did, than this is not the book to read. A traditional biography is the place to start. If, however, the reader is interested in finding out who Truman Capote was as a man, there is no better way to explore someone’s humanity than by what people experienced with and thought of him. In the end the reader comes away from this book not with facts, but with emotion, as if Truman Capote was a friend.

  2. The analogy, I suspect, suits the world of Plimpton as much as it does the world of Capote. And that is one of the book’s strengths: Plimpton, like James Boswell, is an enthusiast for the world he is conjuring; he knows it well, knows all the figures in the carpet; the people are for the most part his acquaintances too, and his way of arranging their words is bent by his own understanding of how it all was. Though filled with the noise of coffee-houses, and café society, The Life of Johnson is an oral biography of a quite different sort – and Boswell a sharper prism than any other biographer – but there is nevertheless something pleasingly Boswellian in Plimpton’s arrangements. He, too, has a subject who suits the gossipy method, and whose adult life and achievements give themselves to an endless parade of anecdotalists, filled with all the loquacious wonder of the day. But the party analogy shows a fault, too. People at parties like to talk about other people at parties. The areas of Capote’s life which are served well by this compendium of chatterers are all the public parts – his debut, his celebrity, his big party, his success, his open betrayals, his decline – while the more private occasions are mere whispers in the corner of the room. So Plimpton fills 31 pages with talk of the night of Truman’s Black and White Ball, but only 24 pages with his entire childhood. (This is a less happy Boswellian trait.) The party method favours the party-goers, and you’d be better off in the company of Gerald Clarke’s biography, published ten years ago, if you wanted to know about Capote’s more private world, or were curious about who he was sleeping with. What we have here is Plimpton’s people speaking for themselves, some for the first time, and very few of them seem shy of the opportunity, or of Plimpton’s probable vodkas. They give us the talked-about Truman Capote. Perhaps the only Capote Capote would have cared for.

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