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.

Arts and Entertainment

Film Leonardo DiCaprio hunts Tom Hardy

Arts and Entertainment
And now for something completely different: the ‘Sin City’ episode of ‘Casualty’
TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza

    Andrew Grice: Inside Westminster

    Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza
    HMS Victory: The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

    The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

    Exclusive: David Keys reveals the research that finally explains why HMS Victory went down with the loss of 1,100 lives
    Survivors of the Nagasaki atomic bomb attack: Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism

    'I saw people so injured you couldn't tell if they were dead or alive'

    Nagasaki survivors on why Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism
    Jon Stewart: The voice of Democrats who felt Obama had failed to deliver on his 'Yes We Can' slogan, and the voter he tried hardest to keep onside

    The voter Obama tried hardest to keep onside

    Outgoing The Daily Show host, Jon Stewart, became the voice of Democrats who felt the President had failed to deliver on his ‘Yes We Can’ slogan. Tim Walker charts the ups and downs of their 10-year relationship on screen
    Satya Nadella: As Windows 10 is launched can he return Microsoft to its former glory?

    Satya Nadella: The man to clean up for Windows?

    While Microsoft's founders spend their billions, the once-invincible tech company's new boss is trying to save it
    A Very British Coup, part two: New novel in pipeline as Jeremy Corbyn's rise inspires sequel

    A Very British Coup, part two

    New novel in pipeline as Jeremy Corbyn's rise inspires sequel
    Philae lander data show comets could have brought 'building blocks of life' to Earth

    Philae lander data show comets could have brought 'building blocks of life' to Earth

    Icy dust layer holds organic compounds similar to those found in living organisms
    What turns someone into a conspiracy theorist? Study to look at why some are more 'receptive' to such theories

    What turns someone into a conspiracy theorist?

    Study to look at why some are more 'receptive' to such theories
    Chinese web dissenters using coded language to dodge censorship filters and vent frustration at government

    Are you a 50-center?

    Decoding the Chinese web dissenters
    The Beatles film Help, released 50 years ago, signalled the birth of the 'metrosexual' man

    Help signalled birth of 'metrosexual' man

    The Beatles' moptop haircuts and dandified fashion introduced a new style for the modern Englishman, says Martin King
    Hollywood's new diet: Has LA stolen New York's crown as the ultimate foodie trend-setter?

    Hollywood's new diet trends

    Has LA stolen New York's crown as the ultimate foodie trend-setter?
    6 best recipe files

    6 best recipe files

    Get organised like a Bake Off champion and put all your show-stopping recipes in one place
    Ashes 2015: Steven Finn goes from being unselectable to simply unplayable

    Finn goes from being unselectable to simply unplayable

    Middlesex bowler claims Ashes hat-trick of Clarke, Voges and Marsh
    Mullah Omar, creator of the Taliban, is dead... for the fourth time

    Mullah Omar, creator of the Taliban, is dead... again

    I was once told that intelligence services declare their enemies dead to provoke them into popping up their heads and revealing their location, says Robert Fisk
    Margaret Attwood on climate change: 'Time is running out for our fragile, Goldilocks planet'

    Margaret Atwood on climate change

    The author looks back on what she wrote about oil in 2009, and reflects on how the conversation has changed in a mere six years