Truman Capote

Author of In Cold Blood

Author Truman Capote
American author Truman Capote (March 1, 1966). (Photo by Evening Standard/Getty Images)

Who Was Truman Capote?

Truman Capote, an American novelist and short-story writer, achieved tremendous celebrity status for his elegantly detailed writing, sensitive characters, and his witty social tendencies. Capote is mostly remembered for his novella Breakfast at Tiffany’s and novel In Cold Blood, which were both made into major motion pictures.

Dates: September 30, 1924 – August 25, 1984

Also Known As: Truman Streckfus Persons (born as)

A Lonely Childhood

Truman Capote’s parents, 17-year-old Lillie Mae (nee Faulk) and 25-year-old Archulus “Arch” Persons were married on August 23, 1923. Lillie Mae, the town beauty, quickly realized her mistake in marrying Arch, a conman who was always chasing get-rich-quick schemes, when he ran out of money on their honeymoon. But ending the marriage quickly was out of the question when she found out she was pregnant.

Realizing her bad predicament, young Lillie Mae wanted to get an abortion; however, that was not an easy feat in those days. Little Mae ended up giving birth to Truman Strekfus Persons in New Orleans, Louisiana, on September 30, 1924. (The middle name of Strekfus was the last name of the family Arch worked for at the time.)

The birth of Truman only kept the couple together for a few short months, after which Arch chased more schemes and Little Mae chased other men. In the summer of 1930, after dragging Truman from place to place for several years, Lillie Mae dropped five-year-old Truman off in the small town of Monroeville at the house shared by her three unmarried aunts and one bachelor uncle.

Truman disliked living with his great aunts, yet he became close to the oldest aunt, Nanny “Sook” Faulk. It was while living with his great aunts that he started writing. He wrote stories about Sook and others in the town, including “Old Mrs. Busybody,” which he submitted in 1933 to a children’s writing contest in the Mobile Press Register.

The printed story upset his neighbors, who instantly recognized themselves.

Despite the setback, Truman continued writing. He also spent a considerable amount of time hanging out with his tomboy neighbor, Nelle Harper Lee, who grew up to become the author of the 1960 Pulitzer Prize winning To Kill a Mockingbird. (Lee’s character “Dill” was fashioned after Truman.)

Truman Persons Becomes Truman Capote

While Truman lived with his great aunts, Lillie Mae moved to New York, fell in love, and got a divorce from Arch in 1931. Arch, on the other hand, was arrested a handful of times for writing bad checks.

Lillie Mae came back into her son’s life in 1932, now calling herself “Nina.” She took seven-year-old Truman to live in Manhattan with her and her new husband, Joe Garcia Capote, a Cuban-born New York textile broker. Although Arch contested it, Joe adopted Truman in February 1935 and Truman Strekfus Persons became Truman Garcia Capote.

Although he had dreamed for years that he could live again with his mother, Nina wasn’t the loving, affectionate mom he had hoped her to be. Nina was enthralled with her new husband and Truman was a reminder of a past mistake. Plus, Nina couldn’t stand Truman’s effeminate mannerisms.

Capote Embraces Being Different

In the hopes of making Truman more masculine, Nina sent 11-year-old Truman to St. Joseph’s military academy in the fall of 1936. The experience was awful for Truman. After a year at the military academy, Nina pulled him out and put him into the private Trinity School.

Short of stature, with a high-pitched voice that continued into adulthood, light blond hair, and bright blue eyes, Truman was unusual even in his general appearance. But after military school, instead of continuing to try to be like everyone else, he decided to embrace being different.

In 1939, the Capotes moved to Greenwich Village and his uniqueness intensified. He would purposely set himself apart from other students, wear sloppy clothes, and look down at other students. Yet his close friends at the time remember him as fun, witty, unconventional, and able to mesmerize groups of peers with his storytelling.1

Despite his mother’s persistent nagging about his effeminate mannerisms, Truman embraced his homosexuality. As he once stated, “I always had a marked homosexual preference and I never had any guilt about it at all. As time goes on, you finally settle down on one side or another, homosexual or heterosexual. And I was homosexual.”2

By this time, Capote was also singular of purpose – he wanted to become a writer. And, to the dismay of many teachers and administrators at his school, he would ignore all his classes except those he thought would aid him in a writing career.

Truman Capote Becomes an Author

A couple of years later, the family moved back to New York City’s Park Avenue, where Capote attended the Franklin School. While others went off to fight in World War II, 18-year-old Truman Capote acquired a job in late 1942 as a copyboy at The New Yorker. He worked for the magazine for two years and submitted several short stories, but they never published any of them.

In 1944, Truman Capote moved back to Monroeville and started writing his first novel, Summer Crossing. However, he soon shelved that project and starting working on other things, including a new novel. After moving back to New York, Capote wrote several short stories which he sent out to magazines. In 1945, Mademoiselle published Capote’s haunting short story “Miriam,” and the following year the story won an O. Henry Award, a coveted American honor given to outstanding short stories.

With that success, more of his short stories appeared in Harper’s Bazaar, Story, and Prairie Schooner. Truman Capote was becoming famous. Important people were talking about him, inviting him to parties, introducing him to others. Capote’s striking physical characteristics, high-pitched voice, charm, wit, and attitude now made him not only the life of the party, but unforgettable.

One perk of his new-found fame was being able to attend Yaddo, a gilded-age mansion retreat for gifted artists and writers in Saratoga Springs, New York in May 1946.

Here he began a relationship with Newton Arvin, a Smith College professor and literary critic.

More Writing and Jack Dunphy

Meanwhile, Capote’s short storyMiriam” had attracted Bennett Cerf, a publisher at Random House. Cerf contracted Truman Capote to write a full-length Southern Gothic novel with an advance of $1500. At the age of 23, Capote’s novel Other Voices, Other Rooms was published by Random House in 1948.

Capote fashioned his character “Idabel” after his old friend and neighbor, Nell Harper Lee. The dust jacket photo, taken by photographer Harold Halma, was considered a bit scandalous due to Capote’s smoldering look in his eyes while sensually reclining on a sofa. The novel made it to the New York Times bestseller list for nine weeks.

In 1948, Truman Capote met Jack Dunphy, a writer and playwright, and began a relationship that would continue throughout Capote’s life. Random House then published Truman Capote’s A Tree of Night and Other Stories in 1949. This collection of short stories included Shut a Final Door, which won Capote another O. Henry Award.

Capote and Dunphy toured Europe together and lived in France, Sicily, Switzerland, and Greece. Capote wrote a collection of travel essays titled Local Color, which was published by Random House in 1950. In 1964, when they had both returned to the States, Capote bought adjacent houses in Sagaponack, New York for him and Dunphy.

In 1951, Random House published Capote’s next novel, The Grass Harp, about three misfits in a small, Southern town. With Capote’s help it became a Broadway play in 1952. That same year, Capote’s stepfather, Joe Capote, was fired from his company for embezzling money. Capote’s mother Nina, now an alcoholic, continued to rage at her son for being homosexual. Unable to cope with Joe’s incarceration, Nina committed suicide in 1954.

Breakfast at Tiffany’s and In Cold Blood

Truman Capote threw himself into his work. He wrote Breakfast at Tiffany’s, a novella about a light-hearted girl living in New York City, which was published by Random House in 1958. The novella, which Capote dedicated to Dunphy, was made into a popular motion picture in 1961 directed by Blake Edwards and starring Audrey Hepburn in the lead role.

In 1959, Capote became drawn to non-fiction. While looking for a topic that would excite his curiosity, he stumbled upon a short article on November 16, 1959 in The New York Times titled, “Wealthy Farmer, 3 of Family Slain.” Despite the few details about the murder and the fact that the killers’ identities were unknown, Capote knew this was the story he wanted to write about. A month later, Capote, accompanied by his childhood friend Nelle Harper Lee, headed to Kansas to do research on what would become Capote’s most famous novel, In Cold Blood.

For Capote, whose personality and mannerisms were unique even in New York City, it was difficult at first for him to integrate into the small town of Garden City, Kansas. However, his wit and charm ultimately won out and Capote eventually gained semi-celebrity status in town.

Once the killers, Perry Smith and Dick Hickock, were captured at the end of 1959, Capote interviewed them too.  Capote especially gained the confidence of Smith, who shared a similar background as Capote (short of stature, with an alcoholic mother, and a distant father). 

After his extensive interviews, Capote and boyfriend Dunphy went to Europe in order for Capote to write. The story, which was extremely morbid and unsettling, gave Capote nightmares but he kept on with it.3 For three years, Capote wrote In Cold Blood.  It was the true story of an ordinary farming family, the Cutters, who were unknowingly targeted and brutally murdered by by two killers. 

But there was no ending to the story until the killers’ appeals to the courts were heard and either accepted or denied. For two years, Capote corresponded with the killers while he waited for an ending to his book.

Finally, on April 14, 1965, five years after the murders, Smith and Hickock were executed by hanging. Capote was present and witnessed their deaths. Capote quickly finished his book and Random House published his masterpiece, In Cold Blood. The book catapulted Truman Capote to celebrity status.

Party of the Century

In 1966, New York socialites and Hollywood movie stars alike invited Truman Capote, the best-selling author of their generation, to parties, to vacations, and to appear on TV talk shows. Capote, who had always been energetically social, ate up the attention.

To reciprocate the many invitations and to celebrate the success of In Cold Blood, Capote decided to plan a party that would be the best party of all time. In honor of his longtime friend, Katharine Graham (owner of The Washington Post), the Black and White Ball would be held at Manhattan’s Plaza Hotel on Monday, November 28, 1966. It was to be a classy, masked ball, where the invited guests could only wear the colors of black or white.

When word got out among the New York socialites and the Hollywood elite, it became a frenzy to see who would get an invitation. It wasn’t long before media began dubbing it “The Party of the Century.”

While many of the 500 guests were the richest and most famous people in America, including politicians, movie stars, socialites, and intellectuals, a few were from his time in Kansas and others were some non-famous friends from his past. Although nothing exceedingly extraordinary occurred during the party, the party itself became a legend.

Truman Capote was now a super celebrity, whose presence was begged for everywhere. However, the five years working on In Cold Blood, including becoming so intimately close with the killers and then actually witnessing their deaths, took a huge toll on Capote. After the success of In Cold Blood, Capote was never the same; he became cocky, arrogant, and reckless. He began drinking heavily and taking drugs. It was the beginning of his downfall.

Upsetting His Friends

For the next ten years, Truman Capote worked on-and-off again on Answered Prayers, a novel about his social elite friends, which he attempted to disguise with made-up names. Slowing him down was the high expectations he had of himself – he wanted to create a masterpiece that would be even better and more acclaimed than In Cold Blood.

In the first couple of years following In Cold Blood, Capote did manage to finish two short stories, A Christmas Memory and The Thanksgiving Visitor, both of which were about Sook Faulk in Monroeville and both were also made into TV specials in 1966 and 1967 respectively. Also in 1967, In Cold Blood was made into a popular motion picture.

However, in general, Capote had difficulty sitting down to write. Instead, he flitted around the world, was frequently drunk, and, although ostensibly still with Jack, had several long-term affairs with boring and/or destructive men who were only interested in his money. Capote's banter, usually so light and funny, had turned dark and acerbic. His friends were both worried and aghast at this change in Capote.

In 1975, ten years after the release of In Cold Blood, Truman let Esquire publish a chapter of the still-incomplete Answered Prayers. The chapter, “Mojave,” received rave reviews. Heartened, Capote then released another chapter, titled “La Côte Basque, 1965,” in the November 1975 issue of Esquire. The printed story shocked his friends, who instantly recognized themselves: Gloria Vanderbilt, Babe Paley, Slim Keith, Lee Radziwill, and Ann Woodward -- all New York society fixtures Capote called “swans.”

In the story, Capote revealed the swans and their husbands’ infidelities, betrayals, vanity, and even a murder, thus spurring the outraged swans and their husbands to sever their friendship with Capote. Capote thought they understood that he was a writer, and that everything a writer hears is material. Surprised and crushed by being snubbed, Capote began drinking even more and partaking heavily of cocaine. Answered Prayers was never finished.

For the next decade, Truman Capote appeared on TV talk shows and in a small part in the motion picture Murder by Death in 1976. He wrote one more book, Music for Chameleons, which was published by Random House in 1980.

Death and Legacy of Truman Capote

In August 1984, Truman Capote flew to L.A. and told his friend Joanna Carson, former wife of the late-night TV talk show host, Johnny Carson, that he thought he was dying. She let Capote stay with her for a few days and on August 25, 1984, 59-year-old Truman Capote died in Carson’s Bel Air, Los Angeles, home. Cause of death was thought to have been due to his drug and alcohol addiction.

Truman Capote was cremated; his ashes remained in an urn in his Sagaponack, New York home, inherited by Dunphy. Upon Dunphy’s death in 1992, the homes were donated to the Nature Conservancy. Jack Dunphy and Truman Capote’s ashes were scattered throughout the grounds.

 

1. Gerald Clarke, Capote: A Biography (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1988) 51.

2. Truman Capote as quoted in Clarke 62-63.

3. Clarke 332.