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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.

Into their posh salons Truman Capote swam effortlessly: rich, famous, effeminate, brilliant, and deliciously wicked of tongue. He called them his “Swans.” (Others, not so charitably, called them “fruit flies.”) He was seen with them at fashionable restaurants for lunch, notably La Côte Basque. Their husbands tolerated the five-foot-three author—also known as the “Tiny Terror,” an appellation bestowed on him by Aileen Mehle, the “Suzy” of gossip columns—because he amused their wives. He was sometimes also referred to as their lapdog.

In 1966, Truman threw himself a huge party at the Plaza Hotel in the name of Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham. Called the Black and White Ball, the masked affair became the talk of the town for months over speculation on who would (and would not) be invited, and remains legendary after saturation press coverage that was almost obscene. But as sometimes happens when persons are abruptly covered with fortune and fame, weird behavior set in, occasioning our psychobiographer to shift into high gear. To coin a phrase from my Great Uncle Marshall, a sage Southerner if ever there was, Truman Capote, basking in all his celebrity, had suddenly become a “Big Ass Pete.”

His drinking increased; he tried cocaine. He began to have ugly public spats with luminaries such as Gore Vidal and Tennessee Williams. He made up falsehoods about befriending celebrities such as Greta Garbo and having sexual affairs with Hollywood stars like Errol Flynn. He frequently made a spectacle of himself, drunk or stoned, on television. He was arrested for drunk driving. It was also about this time that the Answered Prayers scandal broke.

Depending on which version of Truman’s story you believe, he had planned, at least as far back as 1958, to do a big “faction”-type book about high society, which he felt himself uniquely destined to write. In some versions of the tale it was the sole reason he had kissed up to the Swans, to get into their boudoirs and learn their innermost, dirtiest secrets. In other accounts, he merely realized at some point that there was good stuff in his private conversations with these upper-crust mavens, with whom he had become the closest of friends. Whichever it was really doesn’t matter; the result was the same: Answered Prayers was arguably the most shocking betrayal since Judas sold out Jesus Christ. No one was spared. The vilest, most repulsive acts were described in the filthiest language imaginable. Ann Woodward, the socialite suspected of having murdered her husband in 1955 (later immortalized by Dominick Dunne in The Two Mrs. Grenvilles) actually committed suicide after seeing an advance copy of a chapter entitled “La Côte Basque, 1965.”

The book, in fact, was never finished, but that didn’t stop anything. Seven years after its due date, four chapters of the “by-then-much-anticipated” Answered Prayers began to appear in Esquire, at that time the smartest magazine around. Some of it is witty, some of it is bitchy, but practically none of it is printable in a respectable magazine such as this. By the time “La Côte Basque, 1965” appeared, the Swans were furious. The barely disguised characters of Keith, Paley, Guggenheim, Onassis, Vanderbilt, Woodward, and others were publicly dragged through the sordid lies, infidelities, abortions, indiscretions, and other abominations which, until then, they had so naïvely revealed (or cavalierly gossiped about) across restaurant tables and in drawing rooms with “that dirty little toad,” “hideous fag,” “snake,” “monster,” etc., etc. Most vowed never to speak to Capote again, and most kept their word.

Nevertheless, Answered Prayers was not only the talk of the town, it scandalized a large segment of the nation. For his part, Truman seemed, at first, amused and then defensive at the reception of his work, which his publisher had foolishly compared to Proust.

“Well, who did they think they were talking to?” he hissed. “I’m a writer.” He seemed to think that, sooner or later, his Swans would get over it and all would come right again. But to his dismay—and ultimately to his horror—that did not happen, and Truman began to realize that a considerable part of his life was suddenly closed to him forever. To absorb this, he began spending more time away from the city, at his country house in Bridgehampton, which is where I encountered him for the first time.

For a young writer in the late 1970s and early ’80s, “the Hamptons” at the tip end of Long Island was a golden place to live. I had left my Washington newspaper job to write a novel, and when it was well-received, I took a house in the Hamptons, where I had friends. Much of the literary world was out there then: Irwin Shaw, James Jones, Kurt Vonnegut, Shana Alexander, Joe Heller, John Knowles, Betty Friedan, Wilfrid Sheed, Willie Morris, George Plimpton, Peter Matthiessen, and Bruce Jay Friedman. Others, such as Bill Styron, Gay Talese, and Norman Mailer, would visit.

Truman morphed easily back into this old crowd, lunching again among his own kinds of people at Bobby Van’s or dining at Mortimers. He was open and friendly when I met him, likely because I was a fellow Alabamian, and we struck up a casual, speaking friendship. He sometimes drank too much, and once I drove him home after he had lost his driving license. He asked merely to be dropped off at the end of his long driveway to the ocean, and I watched him lurch into the night toward home.

His biographers have produced evidence that, during this period, he was inconsolable over the loss of his Swans, nearly unraveled, went into depression, and developed “writer’s block.” It was said that he made overtures to regain the Swans’ companionship. I was personally caught up in one of them.

A “beard” is an old-time New York expression used to describe a man who is actually something other than what he seems to be. On a Saturday afternoon in February 1978 I inadvertently became Truman Capote’s beard. He had called me out of the blue one day in Manhattan, and asked if I could come for lunch at his apartment in the U.N. Towers the following week. Unable to think of anything else to say, I said “yes”—which soon had me wondering who else was coming, and what my role in this luncheon was to be. Part of the puzzle was solved a few days later when Truman called to see if I’d mind bringing “a girl,” whom he had also asked to the lunch. Her name was Hilary Byers, and she turned out to be an attractive woman in her thirties. We arrived at Truman’s apartment and were the only people there besides Truman and a tall Chinese butler dressed in a white cutaway. The apartment, which overlooked the East River, was decorated entirely in white: white rug, white furniture, including a white leather sofa, and mostly white art on the walls. The pièce de résistance was a large stuffed rattlesnake on the center coffee table, coiled in the act of striking, its great fangs and open mouth aimed toward anyone coming through the door. I was momentarily taken aback, but the Chinese butler intervened by taking drink orders.

Truman showed me to a chair and sat himself next to Hilary, engaging her in low, familiar conversation. (When I think about it, the way he curled up on the sofa, he did sort of remind one of a lapdog.) The drinks came and Truman pursued his conversation with Hilary, which continued unabated until lunch was served by the butler. I tried not to listen, and kept one eye on the snake, because it seemed to be a personal, private kind of talk; but occasionally I would catch the names of people such as “Slim” or “Gloria” or “Babe,” sometimes accompanied by laughter. The table conversation was unmemorable, but at least I was involved in it, if I remember correctly. After lunch, however, Truman returned to his sofa and picked up wherever he had left off talking to Hilary. This went on for another hour until it became time to go.

When the elevator door opened, I told Hilary that I was going downtown to an art show opening but would be glad to drop her off in the taxi. She wouldn’t hear of it, and as we waited for our cabs, I couldn’t resist asking her what all the conversation with Truman was about. She looked at me and smiled as she got into her cab.

“Babe Paley,” she said, “is my stepmother.”

Truman’s ruse to worm his way back into the Paley family’s good graces did not work. Babe Paley had been ill with cancer and died later that year, having never spoken to Truman again. I shed my role as beard and resumed my writing, while Truman sank deeper into the depths of his degradation, abusing alcohol, drugs, and, occasionally, people. The last time I saw him was in Bridgehampton in the summer of 1980 at the “new” Bobby Van’s, across the street from the “old” Bobby’s. I sat with him for awhile as he drank three vodkas and grapefruit juice—before lunch. He died in 1984 of complications from his behavior.

He never finished Answered Prayers, although there were rumors that he had, and had hidden it away, or left it in a bus station locker, or burned it. The parts of it that were published in Esquire were bad enough, for him and for everyone concerned. His publisher bound them in a short book entitled Answered Prayers: The Unfinished Novel. They should have sold it in a plain brown wrapper.

Schultz the psychobiographer does not provide us with a clear explanation of why Truman wrote the book, but he posits several theories. One is that it was an act of self-destruction harking back to an unhappy childhood filled with rejection. As a weird sort of corollary, he suggests that Truman may have actually used the book as a defense against rejection in that, since he knew its publication would alienate the Swans, it was actually him doing the rejecting—a sort of you-can’t-fire-me-I-quit scenario.

Then there is the notion that Truman really didn’t understand the ramifications of publishing Answered Prayers, that he somehow believed the Swans would enjoy the publicity. I rather subscribe to this last theory, which sounds pretty stupid until you recall how much he was drinking and drugging during the period when he wrote it, and how the dangerous emotional highs and idiot celebrity he was riding after In Cold Blood can cause a man to lose his perspective.

In the end, however, I’m not sure we need to know all, or even any, of this, except as a cautionary tale. I remain a subscriber to the Intentional Fallacy school of literary thought, which holds that people ought not to be prying into how or why a writer wrote something, or what demons possessed him, or what he “meant”—that the work itself is the one and only statement of any importance.

By that standard, what little we have of Answered Prayers not only seems to have failed, but failed Frankenstein-like, bringing down its creator with it.

Winston Groom is the author, most recently, of Vicksburg, 1863, and of the upcoming Kearny’s March: The Epic Creation of the American West, 1846-1847.

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