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Breakfast at Truman’s

Betrayal, over easy.

Jun 27, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 39 • By WINSTON GROOM
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Tiny Terror
Why Truman Capote (Almost) Wrote Answered Prayers
by William Todd Schultz
Oxford, 208 pp., $17.95

Truman Capote, Katharine Graham

Truman Capote, Katharine Graham at the Black and White Ball, 1966

Harry Benson / Getty Images

Comes now William Todd Schultz, self-styled “psycho-biographer,” to explain the mystery of Truman Capote’s lamentable Answered Prayers, which almost finished him off as a viable author. In a predictable nutshell, Capote wrote it because he had a lousy childhood that he never got over, but let us not get ahead of ourselves; there are other weenies to roast before this tale is done.

Psychobiographers apparently have a challenging job, which is to figure out how to sound more psychoanalytical than ordinary biographers without driving their readers nuts. As one might have guessed, psychobiographers trace most deviant behavior back to childhood, and Capote’s case is no exception. All but abandoned by both of his divorced parents, Truman was raised in a small Alabama town an hour or so north of Mobile, where he became precocious and amused himself by writing and telling stories so well that no one could figure out whether or not they were true. I was personally, if slightly, involved in one of these stories, which serves to illustrate the challenges here for the psychobiographer.

After he became famous, Truman liked to tell interviewers that he got his start in writing by entering, and winning, a children’s short story contest sponsored by the Mobile Press-Register. As luck would have it, in the wake of Forrest Gump, I told a talk-show host on national TV that I (who grew up in Mobile) also got my start in writing at the age of eight by winning the children’s story contest in the Mobile Press-Register. When the then-editor of the newspaper heard of this, he fished out a copy of my original printed story, had it framed, and sent it to me, along with a note adding that, despite many rumors that Truman Capote had once won the paper’s annual short story contest, no evidence existed to support the claim.

The point of all this is that Truman often didn’t tell the truth, which is probably not such a bad thing for a novelist. The late Willie Morris was fond of saying that “sometimes you’ve got to lie a little to tell the truth,” a statement he attributed to the late Shelby Foote, but which most certainly could be applied to Truman—especially with respect to In Cold Blood —but again, I digress. You can see, however, the quandary the psychobiographer faces when the object of his analysis is constantly lying.

Truman was apparently a born writer, since he never had much formal education, and yet published the critically acclaimed novel Other Voices, Other Rooms in 1948, at the age of 24, in which he autobiographically proclaimed his homosexuality. This led, a decade later, to an assignment from the New Yorker to cover the brutal murder of a family in Kansas, which, in turn, led to his groundbreaking tour de force, In Cold Blood (1966), which was once described as “faction”—the novel amalgamation of fact-based journalism and fiction. Despite outrage by conventional journalists as Truman’s wholesale inventions in In Cold Blood leaked out, the book became an international bestseller, and its royalties, plus the subsequent movie, made Truman wealthy. With this behind him, he was ready for the big leagues, both literarily and socially speaking.

In the mid-to-late 1960s, the New York (and subsequently the entire) Social World underwent a profound change: In deference to Women’s Lib, among other things, the ever-venerable New York Times replaced its long-established “society” or “women’s” pages with a new Living section. This meant abandoning coverage of old-line New York WASP socialites in favor of movie stars and similar celebrities, political and otherwise, including Jews, changing forever the way “society” would be perceived. In time, a glamorous but elusive gaggle of wealthy wives, widows, and divorcees emerged—mostly thin, some beautiful, and all powerful within their own affluent circles, bolstered by their husbands’ (or former husbands’) prosperity and renown. Their names rolled giddily off the tongues of aspiring social climbers everywhere: C. Z. Guest, Nedda Logan, Gloria Vanderbilt, Lee Radziwill, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Peggy Guggenheim, Slim Keith (aka “Big Mamma”). But the greatest and most elusive of them all was the redoubtable Barbara Cushing “Babe” Paley, wife of the chairman of CBS.

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