Books: The golden shoveller

TRUMAN CAPOTE by George Plimpton, Picador pounds 20
TRUMAN CAPOTE threw his first party at the age of seven. A Hallowe'en costume affair, it was to mark the fact that he would soon be leaving his hometown of Monroeville, Alabama, to live with his errant mother and her new husband (who adopted him and gave him the name Capote) in New York. "He wanted it to be so grand that everybody would remember him," says a cousin in the opening pages of George Plimpton's oral biography. It was certainly memorable; the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan, hearing that black children were to be invited, attempted to invade the proceedings, but were rebuffed by the father of Truman's confidante and next-door-neighbour Harper Lee, who later wrote To Kill A Mockingbird. The next day, Truman gathered his friends in a tree house and enthused: "How does it feel to see history in front of your eyes? We saw the Ku Klux Klan commit suicide. They will never have any more support in this county. They died last night."

This episode shows that all the qualities that were to make Capote one of America's most famous writers were already present in the precocious second-grader; the energy, the bravado, the self-dramatisation, and the talent for parties that would culminate in the Black And White Ball of 1966, still the subject of awestruck Vanity Fair profiles three decades on. Capote was both sensualist and sensationalist, a prose stylist whose grasp of the dividing line between reality and fantasy was always shaky, and who insinuated himself, with his Court Jester persona and a gift for empathy that verged on genius, into the heart of that rarefied post-war American realm where the Colossi of the arts, high society and politics all met. Plimpton's book doesn't claim to be the definitive account of The Life (that honour rests with Gerald Clarke's 1988 biography), but you can't help thinking that this blizzard of anecdotes, fawning to scabrous, from Lauren Bacall, Diana Vreeland, Norman Mailer and dozens of others, would be the subject's preferred account.

The book can be divided into three phases, paralleling the arc of Capote's career: his Southern childhood and early success in New York; his celebrity apotheosis, with the publication of In Cold Blood and the patronage of the highest of society hostesses, like Babe Paley and Lee Radziwill, sister of Jackie Kennedy, whom he called his "swans"; and his decline and fall, precipitated by Esquire's publication of portions of Answered Prayers, the roman a clef in which he turned on his coterie with gleeful venom, and which rivals Jeffrey Bernard's collected columns as the longest suicide note in history.

Capote was a misfit, an identity he seized on from an early age. He played up his cuckoo nature in a variety of nests, swooshing down the corridors of the New Yorker in an opera cape when he worked there as an office boy, and alarming the good burghers of Kansas with his fey drawl when he descended on them to research In Cold Blood (though he did take Harper Lee along to play the straight man).

Even physically, he presented a contradiction in terms: according to the writer Leo Lerman, he was "a truck driver from the hips down, and a hermaphrodite from the hips up". His various forms of otherness - Southernness, homosexuality, childishness - together with prodigious ability and drive ("there was only one thing he knew he was going to be," says old friend Phoebe Pierce Vreeland, "and that was a writer") placed him at the vanguard of the great flowering of American culture in the Fifties and Sixties. "People were fascinated by the arts, but particularly by literature," says Vreeland. "Truman was right in the middle of it." He proved himself adept at many genres, from the Southern Gothic of his debut, Other Voices, Other Rooms, to a book of travel sketches, Local Color. But it was the invention of the "non-fiction novel" that was to ensure him his place in history.

The chapters of Plimpton's book devoted to the events surrounding In Cold Blood are the most compelling, particularly in charting Capote's relationship with the young murderers of the Clutter family, Dick Hickock and Perry Smith. While the book's juiciest titbit - a claim by a Kansas Bureau of Investigation member that Capote and Smith became lovers in the latter's prison cell - is specious at best, there's no doubt that he'd formed a deep attachment to Smith in particular, yet needed their executions to give the book "closure". Its enormous success, according to writer John Knowles, marked the point where Capote "lost a grip on himself. He started to unravel."

Increasingly, Capote neglected his writing, transferring his energies to penetrating society's upper echelons. The Black And White Ball gave him an entree just about anywhere, and he exploited it enthusiastically, sailing on the Paleys' yacht, staying on Gloria Guinness's estate, lunching with Slim Keith and C Z Guest. The adoration of the "swans" transcended fag-haggery; Capote blended the true outsider's intense fascination for glamour and his seductive charisma into something truly potent. "He was a catalyst," says old friend John Barry Ryan. "He made their lives entertaining."

However, Capote harboured a dangerous ambivalence toward this world, which burst forth in the excerpts from Answered Prayers. He wanted the novel to be Proustian in its sweep, but its transparent maliciousness - "cafe society gossip of the worst kind, but brilliantly done; shit served up on a golden shovel", in the words of art historian John Richardson - served only to destroy the network of relationships he'd painstakingly built. Paley, Guinness, Keith and the rest never spoke to him again. Capote skipped middle age; his prolonged youth seemed to turn overnight into an extended twilight of drink and narcotics, and the last third of Plimpton's book makes grim reading. However, its babel of contradictory voices does justice to a complex and multi-faceted man, while avoiding the desiccated academic thickets in which more conventional biographies flail around. What one takes away from this book are great stories: Carson McCullers forming a Hate Capote Club, and trying to induce Tennessee Williams to join; Peggy Lee recounting a past life as a prostitute in Jesus's time ("I'll never forget picking up the Jerusalem Times and seeing the headline Jesus Christ Crucified"). And that, in the end, may be a more fulsome tribute to Capote, one of the century's greatest storytellers, than the strictest fidelity to the facts.