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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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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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