Truman Persons would never have done. But, fortunately, little Truman’s mother married a second time. Instead of evoking sexless bureaucracy, the future writer had the name of a bullfighter’s cloak. His mother also provided him with a wretched childhood, so, along with talent and ambition, he had everything.
George Plimpton tells Truman’s story by scissoring dozens o f interviews and arranging the snippets in chronological order. It is a form that worked brilliantly for Edie, his biography of a Warhol groupie, but is less successful when the subject is the author, as Norman Mailer says, of one of the two best novels about New York (or three, if you include one by Edith Wharton, which Mailer never would; the others are, of course, The Great Gatsby and Breakfast at Tiffany’s). With particularly cruel irony, the book spends far less time on Truman’s literary merit than on his social success and disaster; chatter, not serious comment, reflects the milieu in which he spent his last years.
Truman (as he is called throughout) grew up in Monroeville, Alabama, a freckle on the map that also produced his friend Harper Lee. His mother and father, uninterested in him from the first, left him with relatives when he was two, and took off ‘to live the high life’, then separated. In the dirt-road town (‘We just dusted and dusted, but you could still write your name on every mirror in the house by lunchtime’), Truman stood out like a peacock in a pigeon factory. He looked like a beautiful doll, and was dressed like one too, in perfect tennis whites or Little Lord Fauntleroy suits. His speech was also literary and colourful, and he began writing in earnest at eight. A neighbour remembers that ‘the old Negro woman who lived in our house always said, “That boy’s gonna be a writer because he’s always writing lewd things on the sidewalks all over town.”’
Soon after this, Truman went to live with his mother and stepfather in Connecticut. His farewell Halloween party was broken up by the Ku Klux Klan, who suspected that a black child was inside one of the costumes; it was instead the original of the reclusive Boo Radley in To Kill a Mockingbird. As early as twelve, Truman was showing what friends considered an unhealthy preoccupation with society. ‘He knew people who were terribly boring, but he was interested in their houses and the way they lived. He was always fascinated by the intricacies of that society. People who loved him and knew him said, “For God’s sake how can you stand those people?”’
The Capotes moved to New York, where the society people were even more dazzling to Truman, and where he worked as a messenger (‘an absolutely gorgeous apparition’, says one heterosexual writer) at the New Yorker. He got to know absolutely everyone, and always made sure he was delightful enough to be invited back. In 1948 (he was twenty-four), his novel Other Voices, Other Rooms was published. Reviewers were enraptured by its prose, homosexuals by its notorious jacket photo; one sent him a blank cheque with one word on it: ‘Come’.
When Truman was thirty, his mother, terrified that her husband would go to prison for embezzlement, killed herself. ‘It’s my opinion’, says a friend, ‘that this suicide was so traumatic to Truman that it became an obsession.’ He saw his mother as ‘glamorous, bigger than life….She’d found a rich man, put herself into an elegant lifestyle, been accepted by cafe society. Though her dream had come true, she was still pursuing it, as these people do.’ But ‘her obsession with being accepted by these people, her addiction to their lifestyle is possibly what destroyed her and her husband.’
Truman worked on Broadway plays that flopped but enabled him to know many more people. Then came Breakfast and his feast with panthers, In Cold Blood. Truman not only met quite a different sort of person with the latter work but fell in love with one of them. Disappointingly, however, his infatuation with the more personable of the Kansas murderers is no more than alluded to, and there is no discussion of how it affected the book. The other new acquaintances Truman made in the Midwest were of the sort which high society despises more than it despises attractive serial killers, but that didn’t stop him from openly consorting with them in New York. He took a prison official to the 21 Club, where he introduced him as a friend to every celebrity who came to their table, and to the theatre. ‘Backstage after, he introduced me to Art Carney and Waiter Matthau. I shook their hands! This is tall clover for a farm boy from Mahaska!’
Far more attention than that paid to Truman’s books is given to his Black and White Ball, the event that announced his position as an arbiter of the haut monde. Here the gossips are in their element: ‘He told me once, “The point and fun of giving a party is about those you don’t invite.”’ ‘I mean certainly the world was there, and you wouldn’t have wanted to be left out of the world.’ ‘Truman always claimed he invited five hundred of his friends and made 15,000 enemies.’ Some of the lucky few are still enthusiastic (‘marvellous’, ‘great fun ‘, ‘divine’), and some are vague (‘My memory is entirely of my beauty’), but the majority felt that, after the excitement of getting an invitation and putting on their black velvet and white feathers, the ball itself was an anticlimax.
The people who meant most to Truman, however, were not on the guest list. Always stirred by a challenge, he had passionate affairs with two men who were married, had children, and had never had a homosexual experience. The first was loathed by Truman’s other friends: ‘I’m sure that there are loads of [air-conditioning repairmen] who are bright and attractive and well-read and lively-headed. This one wasn’t.’ The second, a Catholic bank official, was merely disliked: ‘…this bank teller in a dark-grey suit and puce-coloured hair….He was so ordinary that it was breathtaking.’
The most extraordinary testimony in the book is not from any of the party animals or intellectuals but from the banker’s daughter, Kate, who, from age twelve, lived with Truman for several years after her father left them all for an actress and her mother had a breakdown; her room ‘had beautiful taffeta curtains that were lavender.’ When she asked where the television was, Truman pointed to a bookshelf. ‘He changed my entire life because he had me read everything….He taught me in a very gentle, understated way. He would never embarrass me.’
Truman’s decision to publish part of his unfinished Answered Prayers in a magazine not only damaged his literary reputation but destroyed him socially. While a few stuck by him, most of the discreet rich turned their backs on the betrayer of their nasty, sordid and sensational secrets; one woman killed herself. Instead of the Proust of Park Avenue, Truman was once again, to his neighbours, a scribbler of filth. ‘Shit,’ says John Richardson, ‘served up on a gold dish.’ Truman began his own suicide, with drugs and alcohol; it took some time.
There is a great deal of agonising about Truman’s reason for publicly dishing the dirt: one commentator says he wanted revenge on the world that had destroyed his mother, another that he didn’t realise what a stink he would stir up: ‘He was a very shrewd person, but he was also very innocent.’ His motivation, though, doesn’t seem too mysterious. Like his mother, Truman knew that to stay in the same place, he had to keep running. He could never rest. He did not have the money to be one of the gilded few, and he couldn’t marry it. Like a child that is loved only when its behaviour is exemplary, Truman longed to be naughty and still be loved. Still a child who had never had mother love, Truman hadn’t learned that you don’t get it from anyone else.
Truman died in the house, off Sunset Boulevard, of a dizzy, rich woman with whom he had been living (‘China was very important to him. It was the only country he hadn’t actually been to’), but his social mischief-making was not finished. His hostess followed Truman’s instructions – ‘He wanted half of his ashes kept in Los Angeles and half in New York, so he could continue to be bi-coastal’ – but did not tell the other friend, Jack Dunphy. He ‘didn’t find out about it until a picture of Truman’s bedroom with the urn on the bedside table appeared in People magazine. He said it was a lie, there was no way I could have half Truman’s ashes. But if you look at that picture, which shows the urn very clearly, on the urn it indicates that this was partial cremation of Truman Capote. So as a result Jack’s not speaking to me.’