McCrum on books

How ‘Tiny Terror’ Truman Capote reeled in wealthy women with dull husbands – then betrayed them

Truman Capote was captivated by his set of wealthy, glamorous ‘swans’. Laurence Leamer’s mash-up of literary biography and celebrity gossip is as enthralled by them as the ‘In Cold Blood’ author himself, writes Robert McCrum

Sunday 23 July 2023 06:30 BST
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Truman Capote and one of his ‘swans’, CZ Guest
Truman Capote and one of his ‘swans’, CZ Guest (Penske Media/Getty)

In the United States, some of its greatest writers, from Mark Twain onwards, have led self-invented, double lives with all the perils of half-truths. Among American bestsellers, few were as seductive, or as monstrous, as Truman Streckfus Persons, aka the “Tiny Terror”, Truman Capote. Self-fabricating, and finally self-destructive, the celebrated author of In Cold Blood and Breakfast At Tiffany’s died of drink, drugs and degeneration in 1984, shattered by the failure of Answered Prayers, what he boasted would be the novel of the age, his “magnum opus”. Since then, Capote’s life and work have inspired two feature films (Infamous, starring Toby Jones in 2006; and Capote, with Philip Seymour Hoffman in 2005), plus a major 1988 biography by Gerald Clarke.

Within the hothouse of American fame, this captivating afterlife has inspired some bewildering sub-plots. In Capote’s Women, Laurence Leamer, described as “a leading biographer of the rich and scandalous”, becomes the perpetrator of a breathless rapprochement between literary exegesis and celebrity gossip.

Where Leamer struggles with Truman, the precocious upstart from the South, he revels in the socio-sexual mountaineering of his “swans”, the posh wives whom a lonely homosexual courted with the desperate ardour of the outsider. Here, in that old flirtation between gay men and smart women, the reader watches the hot air of magazine journalism inflate the sad story of a writer who flew too close to the sun.

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