The Magazine

A Lad of the World

Truman Capote and the cost of charm.

Dec 6, 2004, Vol. 10, No. 12 • By JOSEPH EPSTEIN
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Too Brief a Treat

The Letters of Truman Capote

edited by Gerald Clarke

Random House, 487 pp., $27.95

CHARM was Truman Capote's specialty, the propellant that lifted him early off the launching pad of obscurity and sent him, for a brief while, into the stratosphere of celebrity of a luminosity given to only a few writers in the history of this country: After Mark Twain and Ernest Hemingway, no one else comes to mind. Capote could be charming on the page or in person. His prose, always rhythmically on beat, featured lilting phrases. In no other writer would Haitian ladies on the porch of a bordello "flourish paper fans that beat the air like delirious moths"; or a middle-aged woman take off her rimless spectacles to reveal eyes that, "nude and moist and helpless, seemed stunned by freedom; the skimpily lashed lids fluttered like long captive birds abruptly let loose." Who but Capote could write to a friend that "there is going to be a beauty contest on Saturday to pick a Miss Taormina: if I win will send you a telegram"?

Truman Capote was of course gayer than a leap year Mardi Gras. Small, delicately featured, with a famously high and piping voice, he would have had a tough time passing, to use the old-fashioned phrase. Not that it often occurred to him to do so. He appears to have been perfectly at ease with his homosexuality. He played it, too, for charm.

Charm is the desire to delight, light-handedly executed. In most definitions of charm the word "magic" turns up, and there is, in fact, somethingmagical about the gift of charm, for it reminds us that the world, for all its dreariness and depression, suffering and sadness, is still a highly amusing place. When he was up to it, which he was most of the time, Truman Capote could almost unfailingly provide such reminders.

The standard--and rather boring--line on Capote's charm is that it was a dodge through which he hoped to attain the love he had missed as a child. In a letter to Perry Smith, one of the two killers who are at the center of his immensely successful work of reportage In Cold Blood, Capote provided a quick sketch of his childhood:

I was an only child, and very small for my age--and always the smallest boy in school. When I was three, my mother and father were divorced. . . . My father (who has been married five times) was a traveling salesman, and I spent much of my childhood wandering around the South with him. He was not unkind to me, but I disliked him and still do. My mother was only sixteen when I was born and was very beautiful. She married a fairly rich man, a Cuban, and after I was 10 I lived with them (mostly in New York). Unfortunately, my mother, who had several miscarriages and as a result developed mental problems, became an alcoholic and made my life miserable. Subsequently she killed herself (sleeping pills).

Not enough love in the home, the verdict is, and so poor little Truman sought it everywhere else. ("Too much love in the home," I long to write on papers by many undeservedly confident students.)

To obtain that love, the argument runs, Capote's craving for fame, his desire to produce beautiful prose, were all so much sublimation. But to hold such a view is to dishonor the complexities of human character. Life is not, after all, a Barbra Streisand song. People who need people, I have discovered, are not usually the luckiest people at all. And the world--please believe me on this one--needs a hell of a lot more than love, sweet love.

Too Brief a Treat, the title chosen by Gerald Clarke for his edition of Truman Capote's letters, comes from a phrase Capote used to complain of the shortness of a letter sent him by a friend. These letters, scrupulously edited, with exactly the right degree of annotation, are themselves too brief a treat, ending roughly in 1966, though Capote lived on to 1984. The reason they end so early in their author's life is that he no longer needed to write his friends as often, having returned to the United States after living abroad (chiefly in Switzerland, Sicily, Italy, and France). What is more, the success of Breakfast at Tiffany's and In Cold Blood made him a wealthy man and, consequently, one who wrote less and less and drank and doped himself with pills more and more. Success killed Truman Capote, who is thought to have died of a drug overdose, just short of the age of sixty.