Biography of Truman Capote, American Novelist

Author Truman Capote
American author Truman Capote, photographed March 1, 1966.

Evening Standard / Getty Images

Truman Capote was an American writer who authored short stories, pieces of narrative nonfiction, journalism articles, and novels. He is mostly known for his 1958 novella Breakfast at Tiffany’s and his narrative nonfiction In Cold Blood (1966). 

Fast Facts: Truman Capote

  • Full Name: Truman García Capote, born Truman Streckfus Persons
  • Known For: Pioneer of the genre of literary journalism, playwright, novelist, short story writer, and actor 
  • Born: September 30, 1924 in New Orleans, Louisiana
  • Parents: Archulus Persons and Lillie Mae Faulk
  • Died: August 24, 1984 in Los Angeles, California
  • Notable Works: Other Voices, Other Rooms (1948), The Grass Harp (1951), Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1958), In Cold Blood (1965) 
  • Famous Quote: “Finding the right form for your story is simply to realize the most natural way of telling the story. The test of whether or not a writer has divined the natural shape of his story is just this: after reading it, can you imagine it differently, or does it silence your imagination and seem to you absolute and final? As an orange is final. As an orange is something nature has made just right” (1957).

Early Life (1924-1943)

Truman Capote was born Truman Streckfus Persons in New Orleans, Louisiana, on September 30, 1924. His father was Archulus Persons, a salesman from a well respected Alabama family. His mother was Lillie Mae Faulk, a 16-year-old from Monroeville, Alabama, who had married Persons thinking he was her ticket out of rural Alabama, but then realized he was all talk and no substance. Faulk enrolled in business school and went back to the family house to live with her extended family, but soon realized she was pregnant. Both parents were negligent: Persons made some questionable entrepreneurial efforts, including attempting to manage a sideshow performer known as Great Pasha, while Lillie Mae embarked on a series of love affairs. In the summer of 1930, Lillie Mae left the family to try to make it in New York City, leaving her son with relatives in Monroeville, Alabama.

Truman Capote
Truman Capote poses with a pile of toys and dolls shortly after his first novel, Other Voices, Other Rooms, was published in 1948. The book, published when Capote was just 23, was a semiautobiographical account of a Southern boy coming to terms with his homosexuality. Corbis Historical / Getty Images 

The young Truman spent the two following years with the three Faulk sisters: Jennie, Callie ,and Nanny Rumbley, all of whom were the inspiration for characters in his works. His neighbor at the time was the tomboyish Nelle Harper Lee, the would-be author of To Kill a Mockingbird, who protected Truman from bullies. In 1932, Lillie Mae sent for her son. She had married Cuban Wall Street broker Joe Capote and changed her name to Nina Capote. Her new husband adopted the boy and renamed him Truman García Capote.

Lillie Mae despised her son’s effeminacy and was wary of having other children with Joe Capote out of fear they would turn out like Truman. Fearing he was homosexual, she sent him to psychiatrists and then dispatched him to a military academy in 1936. There, Truman endured sexual abuse by the other cadets, and the following year he returned to New York City to study at Trinity, an elite private school on the Upper West Side. Lillie Mae also found a doctor who would administer her son male hormone shots.

The family moved to Greenwich, Connecticut, in 1939. At Greenwich High School, he found a mentor in his English teacher, who encouraged him to write. He failed to graduate in 1942, and when the Capotes moved to an apartment in Park Avenue, he enrolled at Franklin school to retake his senior year. At Franklin, he befriended Carol Marcus, Oona O’Neill (future wife of Charlie Chaplin and daughter of playwright Eugene O’Neill), and heiress Gloria Vanderbilt; they all enjoyed the glamorous New York nightlife. 

Gloria Vanderbilt and Truman Capote
Writer Truman Capote and Gloria Vanderbilt Lumet arrive at New York's 54th Street Theatre for the opening performance of "Caligula". Bettmann Archive / Getty Images

A Versatile Writer (1943-1957)

  • "Miriam" (1945), short story
  • "A Tree of Night" (1945), short story
  • Other Voices, Other Rooms (1948), novel
  • A Tree of Night and Other Stories, collection of short stories
  • “House of Flowers" (1950), short story, turned into a Broadway musical in 1954
  • Local Color (1950), collection of travel essays
  • The Grass Harp (1951), novel, adapted for theatre in 1952
  • “Carmen Therezinha Solbiati—So Chic” (1955), short story
  • The Muses Are Heard (1956), nonfiction
  • “A Christmas Memory” (1956), short story
  • “The Duke and His Domain” (1957), nonfiction

Truman Capote had a brief stint as a copyboy for The New Yorker, but then returned to Monroeville to work on Summer Crossing, a novel about a wealthy 17-year-old debutante who marries a Jewish parking lot attendant. He set it aside to begin Other Voices, Other Rooms, a novel whose plot reflects experiences of his childhood. He was interested in the problem of southern racism, and the news about the gang rape of an African-American woman in Alabama was included and adapted in his novel. He returned to New York in 1945 and started making a name for himself as a short story writer when “Miriam” (1945) appeared in Mademoiselle and A Tree of Nightwas published in Harper’s Bazaar.

Capote befriended southern writer Carson McCullers, who took him under her wing as they hailed from the same region and they both explored alienation and loneliness in their writing. Thanks to her, he signed with Random House for Other Voices, Other Rooms, published in 1948, which became a bestseller. The novel caused a stir, as it dealt with a young boy’s coming to term with his homosexuality and came out around the same time as Alfred Kinsey’s Sexual Behavior in the Human Male, which argued for sexuality being on a spectrum. 

Truman Capote 1959
Truman Capote photographed in 1959. Public Domain 

After the novel’s publication, Capote traveled to England and to Europe and took up journalism; his 1950 collection Local Color contains his travel writing. He tried resuming Summer Crossing, but set it aside in favor of The Grass Harp (1951), a novella about a boy living with his spinster aunts and an African American housekeeper, which was modelled on autobiographical information. The novella was so successful that it was adapted into a Broadway play, which was a critical and commercial failure. He continued with journalism; The Muses Are Heard (1956) is the account of the performance of the musical Porgy and Bess in the Soviet Union, while in 1957, he penned the lengthy profile on Marlon Brando “The Duke and his Domain” for The New Yorker. 

Widespread Fame (1958-1966)

  • Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1958), novella
  • “Brooklyn Heights: A Personal Memoir” (1959), autobiographical essay
  • Observations (1959), art book in collaboration with photographer Richard Avedon
  • In Cold Blood (1965), narrative nonfiction

In 1958, Capote penned the novella Breakfast at Tiffany’s, which revolves around a sexually and socially liberated woman who went by the name Holly Golightly, going from man to man and from one identity to another in search of a wealthy husband. Holly’s sexuality was controversial but reflective of the findings of Kinsey’s reports, which went against the puritanical beliefs of 1950s America. One can see echoes of Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin-demimonde-dwelling Sally Bowles in Holly Golightly. The 1961 movie adaptation is a watered down version of the book, with Audrey Hepburn playing the lead who ends up being saved by the male protagonist. Even though the film was a success, Capote was not enthusiastic about it.

'In Cold Blood' Window Display
A window display at the Random House building for 'In Cold Blood,' the book written by American novelist, short story writer, and playwright Truman Capote and based upon a 1959 murder case in Kansas. Carl T. Gossett Jr / Getty Images

On November 16, 1959, while reading the New York Times, he stumbled upon the story of four brutal murders in Holcomb, Kansas. Four weeks later, he and Nelle Harper Lee arrived there and Lee helped with research and interviews. Six years later, he completed the project In Cold Blood: A True Account of a Multiple Murder and Its Consequences. In addition to covering the actual murders, it was also a commentary on American culture and how it approaches poverty, violence, and Cold War fears. Capote called it his “nonfiction novel,” and it first appeared in four installments in The New Yorker. The sales of the magazines broke records at the time and Columbia Pictures optioned the book for $500,000.

Later Works (1967-1984)

  • “Mojave” (1975), short story
  • “La Cote Basque, 1965” (1975), short story
  • “Unspoiled Monsters” (1976), shot story
  • “Kate McCloud” (1976), short story
  • Music for Chameleons (1980) collection of fiction and non-fiction short-form writings
  • Answered Prayers: The Unfinished Novel (1986), published posthumously
  • Summer Crossing (2006), novel published posthumously

Capote always struggled with substance abuse, but, in the aftermath of In Cold Blood, his addiction worsened, and he spent the rest of his life in and out rehabilitation centers. He started working on his next novels, titled Answered Prayers, an indictment of the ultra-rich which angered his wealthy friends, who saw themselves reflected in the characters, a reaction that surprised Capote. Several chapters appeared in Esquire in 1976. In 1979, he managed to get his alcoholism under control and completed a collection of short-form writing titled Music for Chameleons (1980). It was a success, but his working manuscript for Unanswered Prayers remained disjointed. 

He died of liver failure on August 24, 1984 at the home of Joanna Carson in Los Angeles. 

Liza Minelli & Truman Capote at Studio 54 in New York City 1979
Liza Minelli and Truman Capote at Studio 54 in New York City 1979. Vinnie Zuffante / Getty Images

Style and Themes

In his fiction work, Truman Capote explored themes such as dread, anxiety, and uncertainty. Characters retreat into isolated spaces, idealizing their childhood in order to avoid coming to terms with the dreariness of adult life.

He also mined his own childhood experience for content in his fiction. Other Voices, Other Rooms features a boy coming to terms with his own homosexuality, while The Grass Harp has a boy living in the South with three spinster relatives. The character of Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, despite sharing some similarities with Sally Bowles, also takes after his mother Lillie Mae/Nina. Her real name is Lulamae and both she and Capote’s mother left the husbands they married as teenagers, abandoning loved ones to try and make it in New York, climbing the ranks of society through relationships with powerful men.

As for his nonfiction, he was a versatile writer; as a journalist, he covered the arts, entertainment, and the travel beat. His nonfiction, most notably his profiles and his longform project In Cold Blood, contains lengthy verbatim quotations. Truman Capote claimed he had ''a talent for mentally recording lengthy conversations” and said he committed his interviews to memory as a way to put his subjects at ease. “I devoutly believe that the taking of notes, much less the use of a tape recorder, creates artifice and distorts or even destroys any naturalness that might exist between the observer and the observed, the nervous hummingbird and its would-be captor,” he told The New York Times. His trick, he claimed, was to immediately write down everything he had been told right after an interview.

Legacy

With In Cold Blood, Truman Capote pioneered the genre of narrative nonfiction which, alongside Gay Talese’s “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold” is one of the foundational texts of the so-called literary journalism. Thanks to work like In Cold Blood, we now have longform literary journalism such as Beth Macy’s Dopesick (2018), on the opioid crisis, and John Carreyrou’s Bad Blood (2018), on the secrets and lies of health startup Theranos.

Sources

  • Bloom, Harold. Truman Capote. Blooms Literary Criticism, 2009.
  • FAHY, THOMAS. UNDERSTANDING TRUMAN CAPOTE. UNIV OF SOUTH CAROLINA PR, 2020.
  • Krebs, Albin. “Truman Capote Is Dead at 59; Novelist of Style and Clarity.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 28 Aug. 1984, https://archive.nytimes.com/www.nytimes.com/books/97/12/28/home/capote-obit.html.