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.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Gothic revival: artist Dave McKean’s poster for Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination
Exhibition
Arts and Entertainment
Diana Beard has left the Great British Bake Off 2014

TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Lisa Kudrow, Courtney Cox and Jennifer Anniston reunite for a mini Friends sketch on Jimmy Kimmel Live

TV
Arts and Entertainment
TVDessert week was full of the usual dramas as 'bingate' ensued
Arts and Entertainment
Clara and the twelfth Doctor embark on their first adventure together
TVThe regulator received six complaints on Saturday night
Arts and Entertainment
Vinyl demand: a factory making the old-style discs
musicManufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl
Arts and Entertainment
David Baddiel concedes his show takes its inspiration from the hit US series 'Modern Family'
comedyNew comedy festival out to show that there’s more to Jewish humour than rabbi jokes
Arts and Entertainment
Puff Daddy: One Direction may actually be able to use the outrage to boost their credibility

music
Arts and Entertainment
Suha Arraf’s film ‘Villa Touma’ (left) is set in Ramallah and all the actresses are Palestinian

film
Arts and Entertainment
Madame Vastra and Jenny Flint kiss in Doctor Who episode 'Deep Breath'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Steve Carell in the poster for new film 'Foxcatcher'
filmExclusive: First look at comic actor in first major serious role
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Kingston Road in Stockton is being filmed for the second series of Benefits Street
arts + entsFilming for Channel 4 has begun despite local complaints
Arts and Entertainment
Led Zeppelin

music
Arts and Entertainment
Radio presenter Scott Mills will be hitting the Strictly Come Dancing ballroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and Clara have their first real heart to heart since he regenerated in 'Deep Breath'
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce performs in front of a Feminist sign at the MTV VMAs 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus has taken home the prize for Video of the Year at the MTV Video Music Awards 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Paige and Scott Lowell in Queer as Folk (Season 5)
tvA batch of shows that 'wouldn't get past a US network' could give tofu sales an unexpected lift
Arts and Entertainment
books... but seller will be hoping for more
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Ukraine crisis: The phoney war is over as Russian troops and armour pour across the border

    The phoney war is over

    Russian troops and armour pour into Ukraine
    Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

    Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

    The world’s entire food system is under attack - and Britain is most at risk, according to a new study
    Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

    Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

    Seoul's plastic surgery industry is booming thanks to the popularity of the K-Pop look
    From Mozart to Orson Welles: Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

    Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

    After the death of Sandy Wilson, 90, who wrote his only hit musical in his twenties, John Walsh wonders what it's like to peak too soon and go on to live a life more ordinary
    Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

    Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

    Fears are mounting that Vladimir Putin has instructed hackers to target banks like JP Morgan
    Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years

    Salomé: A head for seduction

    Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years. Now audiences can meet the Biblical femme fatale in two new stage and screen projects
    From Bram Stoker to Stanley Kubrick, the British Library's latest exhibition celebrates all things Gothic

    British Library celebrates all things Gothic

    Forthcoming exhibition Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination will be the UK's largest ever celebration of Gothic literature
    The Hard Rock Café's owners are embroiled in a bitter legal dispute - but is the restaurant chain worth fighting for?

    Is the Hard Rock Café worth fighting for?

    The restaurant chain's owners are currently embroiled in a bitter legal dispute
    Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival

    In search of Caribbean soul food

    Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival
    11 best face powders

    11 best face powders

    Sweep away shiny skin with our pick of the best pressed and loose powder bases
    England vs Norway: Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

    Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

    Lack of Englishmen at leading Premier League clubs leaves manager hamstrung
    Angel Di Maria and Cristiano Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

    Di Maria and Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

    They both inherited the iconic shirt at Old Trafford, but the £59.7m new boy is joining a club in a very different state
    Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

    Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

    Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
    Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

    Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

    The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
    America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

    America’s new apartheid

    Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone