Truman Capote (1924-1984)

Truman Capote was born in New Orleans in 1924. His parents divorced when he was young, and his childhood was marked by family upheavals and frequent moves. Capote found solace early on by identifying himself as a writer and he spent a substantial amount of time from the age of eight onward practicing and honing his craft. He eschewed college in favor of writing short stories. After receiving critical acclaim for “Miriam,” a short story that was published in Mademoiselle magazine in 1945—and with the help of fellow Southern writer Carson McCullers, Capote was to a signed writing contract by legendary Random House publisher Bennett Cerf, which was the beginning of an association with Random House that would last the rest of Capote’s life.

Capote’s initial contract with Random House resulted in the semi-autobiographical novel Other Voices, Other Rooms (1948), the success of which made him a celebrity not just within the literary world, but with the public at large as well. A prime example of the Southern Gothic tradition, the novel tells the story of Joel Knox, a lonely 13-year-old boy named with feminine mannerism and behaviors who, after his mother dies, is sent to live in decaying Mississippi mansion amidst a group of eccentric local characters. Capote described the novel as “an attempt to exorcise demons,” and drew heavily from his own life—including his childhood friendship with fellow author Nelle Harper Lee—in creating the story. (Capote is thought to have been the inspiration for the character of Dill Harris in Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird.)

During the two years Capote spent writing Other Voices, Other Rooms, he also worked on his transition from obscurity to fame. The novel garnered immense pre-publication buzz and made Capote a celebrity, thanks in no small part to the provocative photo of the author by photographer Harold Harma that appeared on the book's dust jacket. Other Voices, Other Rooms spent nine weeks on the New York Times bestseller list and was groundbreaking at the time for its straightforward depictions of gay and lesbian characters. The novel describes Joel (the character based partly on Capote himself) as coming to terms and accepting of his homosexuality, so it should come as no surprise that Capote was openly gay. However, it must be kept in mind that being out was highly unusual at the time—especially for someone as well-known as Capote.

Capote’s writing career can be divided into two distinct 18-year periods, with 1966 and the publication of In Cold Blood marking its midpoint and apex. The 18 years between the publication of Other Voices, Other Rooms in 1948 and of In Cold Blood were a period of growth and success, while the 18-year period from 1966 to his death at age 59 in 1984 were marked by decline—both professionally and personally.

1948 to 1966: Other Voices, Other Rooms to In Cold Blood

During the 18 years from 1948 to 1966, Capote successfully published short stories, magazine articles, and novellas, and did some play and screenwriting as well—but he produced no novels. This success and Capote’s growing reputation resulted from has immense talent as a writer, especially in the crafting of language, but also from his burgeoning celebrity status. A 1949 collection of short stories, A Tree of Night and Other Short Stories, includes the title story as well as “Miriam.” One of Capote’s best-known stories, the autobiographical “A Christmas Memory,” was originally published in Mademoiselle in 1956, and then published as a separate volume in 1966.

In the nonfiction realm, a collection of Capote’s travel writings called Local Color was published in 1950, and in 1956 a compilation of his articles published in The New Yorker chronicling Capote’s travels with a production company for George Gershwin’s opera Porgy and Bess in the Soviet Union was published as The Muses Are Heard. After having spent much of the 1950’s in Europe, Capote moved to the New York City neighborhood of Brooklyn Heights late in the decade, and in 1959 he published the essay Brooklyn Heights: A Personal Memoir about living there. It was re-published in a book addition (as A House On the Heights) in 2002, and again in 2015 along with photographs taken around the time the essay was first published.

Capote wrote two well-received novellas during this period. He adapted one, Grass Harp (1951), into a Broadway play in 1952. However, Capote’s best-known work between publishing Other Voices, Other Rooms and In Cold Blood is his 1958 novella Breakfast at Tiffany’s. The novella is significantly different from the even more famous 1961 movie of the same name directed by Blake Edwards, but both tell the story of a writer recalling his remarkable acquaintance with his neighbor, an unforgettable character named Holly Golightly—who Capote would later call his favorite literary creation. The novella was a huge success and attracted enormous praise for its author, including from Norman Mailer, who responded to the novella by calling Capote “the most perfect writer of my generation.”

But despite Capote’s continuing success and ever-growing fame throughout the 1950s and leading into the 1960s, some worried that his celebrity status was becoming an impediment to his focus and to his writing. The fact that he’d only published shorter works since Other Voices, Other Rooms could be explained in different ways—perhaps depending on how one felt about Capote. A positive interpretation might focus on the fact that Capote was an absolute master of short stories, magazine articles, and other short works—so, while he may have been a miniaturist, he was one of the best if not the best miniaturist of his time. A less charitable explanation might be that Capote lacked or had lost the talent and concentration for longer, more sustained efforts.

Since returning to the United States in the late 1950s, Capote had been seeking to compose what he termed "an epic nonfiction novel."  In 1966, In Cold Blood became that book as well as the response to detractors who felt he lacked the capacity for longer, more serious writing. The book’s enormous success (which you can read more about in “Background on In Cold Blood” below) resulted in Capote reaching what most consider to be the zenith of Capote’s writing career. Unfortunately, he was not able to follow it up, and over time the criticisms of Capote grew, as did his celebrity status (which may not have been a coincidence).

1966 to 1948: In Cold Blood to Death

Capote’s writing—both in its volume and in the critical appraisal of it—went into steep decline after the triumph of In Cold Blood. The success of that work had boosted his celebrity status, but he now seemed to be spending more time displaying his abundant wit on talk shows and hanging out with a group of ultra wealthy women he dubbed his “swans” than he did engaging in his craft. Capote reneged on an agreement with Rolling Stone magazine to write an article about the band the Rolling Stones after following them on their US tour as a correspondent for the magazine. He wrote a screenplay for the 1974 adaptation of The Great Gatsby that the studio rejected. Capote was also drinking more heavily and was becoming increasingly more prone to arguments and petty feuds with one-time friends. 

It was his association with his “swans” that proved to be the source of Capote’s most pronounced literary and personal failure. Going back as early as 1958, Capote had been planning a roman à clef novel that would be a tell-all about the people in his wealthy social set. The title, Answered Prayers, references a quote (by Saint Teresa of Ávila), “More tears are shed over answered prayers than unanswered ones,” that Capote chose for the book’s epigraph. According to his Random House editor, Joseph Fox, Capote intended Answered Prayers to be the modern American response to Marcel Proust’s multi-volume novel In Search of Lost Time that examined and at times skewered the high society of belle époque France. It was to be Capote’s masterpiece and the height of the “nonfiction novel” format that he championed. However, almost from the start, Answered Prayers ran into difficulties.

Capote could not meet his deadlines for the originally planned 1968 publication, which meant he had to return money he’d received for film rights to the novel to a Hollywood studio. In the ensuing years, Capote continued to talk about the work-in-progress during his frequent television appearances, but there was no indication when publication would occur. Finally, in 1975 and 1976, four chapters from Answered Prayers were published by Esquire magazine. The publication of the second chapter, “La Côte Basque, 1965,” precipitated the end of the social connections that Capote had grown so accustomed to when his friends and now-former confidants realized after reading the story that he could not be trusted to be discreet. The access to the rich and powerful that Capote craved and enjoyed for many years was suddenly and permanently cut off.

More important than his social suicide, however, was the hit that Capote’s reputation as a writer took at the same time. “La Côte Basque, 1965” and the two chapters published by Esquire in 1976 were judged to be merely gossipy, meandering, and distinctly lacking in structure or literary merit.

Capote and his reputation would not recover from this double setback. He spent much of the last decade of his life drinking, doing drugs, going to rehab, feuding (including with former friends), and relying on the kindness of the few friends who had stood by him. He also still frequently appearing on talk shows—although sometimes inebriated when he did so—where he would talk about the supposed imminent publication of the full book of Answered Prayers and take verbal swipes at whomever he happened to be feuding with at the moment.

There were a handful of successful publications from Capote in his final decade. With the help of Andy Warhol (who had long admired Capote) he conducted and wrote a series of semi-fictionalized interviews based on recorded conversations that were first published by Warhol’s Interview magazine and then published in 1980 in a best-selling volume entitled Music for Chameleons. In December 1982 he published a new short story called “One Christmas” in the Ladies’ Home Journal, and in 1983, Playboy magazine published essay called “Remembering Tennessee” honoring his recently deceased old friend Tennessee Williams (who Capote had often been less than kind to in the preceding years).

Capote died in August of 1984 at the age of 59. In 1986, his unfinished draft of Answered Prayers was published, and it confirmed suspicions that work that had bedeviled Capote for the last 25 years of his life wasn’t at anywhere near the high standards of his earlier output.  In 2006, Summer Crossing, an unfinished novel that Capote had been working on throughout the 1940s, but set aside to work on Other Voices, Other Rooms, was published. The work—which editors and Capote thought had merit, but which lacked Capote’s later distinctive voice and style—was thought to have been destroyed by Capote, and indeed, that may have been his intention.

In the years since Capote’s death and the final unproductive and disheveled phase of his life, his reputation as a writer has rebounded. Focus has shifted away from the trivial controversies that consumed him in the 1970s and early 1980s and back towards his rightfully deserved reputation as one of the best writers of the second half of the 20th century. Part of this current acclaim rests in Capote’s bold willingness to embrace innovation in his writing—including his having been an openly gay writer who sought out rather than shied away from topics that made conservative, post-war America uncomfortable. He is also recognized today as a pioneer in several types of writing that have exploded in popularity since Capote was astute enough to experiment with them. These include New Journalism, the “nonfiction novel,” and the true crime genre. All three of these types of writing are relevant to Capote’s most successful and famous book, In Cold Blood.

Background on In Cold Blood

Truman Capote’s nonfiction novel was first published in a series of long-form magazine articles in The New Yorker starting in September 1965. The articles generated a tremendous amount of attention, and when Random House published the book version in January of 1966 it immediately dominated the best-seller lists. Revolving around the brutal murder of a family in rural Kansas in 1959, the book was painstakingly researched and skillfully written. Capote employed an unusual triple-narrative technique which gives alternating descriptions of the murders, the victims, and members of the community in which the murders occurred.

The preparation that Capote undertook in developing In Cold Blood is now legendary in its scope and intensity. It began in 1959, when Capote noticed a brief newspaper article in the New York Times describing the recent murders of four members of the Cuttler family in Holcomb, Kansas, which was still being investigated. He decided that this might be the perfect story for the “epic nonfiction novel” that he sought to write. Six years of intense research—including lengthy stretches in Kansas interviewing those involved—followed. It is said that Capote ended up with over 8,000 pages of notes. Aiding Capote in this research was his childhood friend Nelle Harper Lee, who was on the verge of publishing her massive bestselling novel, To Kill a Mockingbird (1961).

As fellow “New Journalism” author Tom Wolfe later pointed out, In Cold Blood was neither a “who-done-it nor a will-they-be-caught,” since the killers—two small-time Kansas criminals named Richard Hickock and Perry Smith—were apprehending and confessed to the killings very early on. Instead, In Cold Blood progresses as masterfully written tight description of the rural Kansas setting and its principals—the victims, the investigators, and the killers—in a style that combines elements of the true crime genre and the “New Journalism” magazine writing—both of which were new ideas in the early 1960s when Capote was writing his book.

New Journalism, the Nonfiction Novel, the True Crime Genre, and In Cold Blood

New Journalism, a term that was defined by Wolfe, is a writing style used by writers including Wolfe and Capote, as well as others including Gay Talese and Hunter S. Thompson in magazine articles (that often were used as the basis for later books) appearing in Rolling Stone, The New Yorker, Esquire, and The Atlantic Monthly. Its characteristics include the authors’ immersing themselves in their stories and the practice of employing a subjective perspective to their reportage that rejects the cardinal rule of traditional journalism—which is to report dispassionately and objectively. The result is that the writing resembles long-form nonfiction far more than traditional short-form journalism. When practiced in the manner that Capote employed it with In Cold Blood, it can also be appropriate to refer to a works as “nonfiction novels”—that is to say, works whose style, tone, and fluid writing resemble that found in novels, but which are about real-life, nonfiction people and events.

One distinct risk and criticism of New Journalism and “nonfiction novels” that Capote was particularly and vigorously accused of flaunting in In Cold Blood is that the line between fact and fiction—or, put more directly, truth and lies—can become obscured or erased. In retrospect—and although he always insisted that every word of the book was true and accurate—it is now abundantly clear that Capote (who, after all, was a writer and not a journalist) wasn’t going to let mere facts get in the way of telling a spellbinding story. He clearly exaggerated some descriptions in the book and wholly invented dialogue and entire scenes. Had Capote been willing to admit that every word he’d written was not indeed factually accurate, he might have maintained that his fabricated words and situations were in the service of delivering to the reader truths that were far more important than sticking verbatim to reality.

Criticisms of Capote for In Cold Blood go beyond blurring and obliterating the line between fact and fiction. For instance, he was simultaneously accused both of getting too close to the killers (especially Smith) in his interviews with them and of callously wanting the killers’ executions to take place (in spite of his personal opposition to the death penalty) to give his book a tidy ending.

The other aspect of In Cold Blood that represents Capote’s status as a pioneer is the fact that it is an early true crime book—a genre that has skyrocketed in popularity in more recent years with books as well as with podcasts, films, and streaming service series. The true crime genre is characterized by focusing not just on the crime or the criminal who committed the crime, but also on the milieu in which the crime was committed and the reactions of the community to the crime.

The genre arguably goes back hundreds of years and it enjoyed a resurgence starting in the mid-19th century when cheap “penny press” newspapers became affordable to the masses, and their publishers found that their readers had an insatiable appetite for crime reporting. (This carries over to the modern day and the popular phrase, “if it bleeds, it leads” that is often used to describe 11pm news broadcasts.) In Cold Blood is often credited for establishing the modern standards for books in the true crime genre. In terms of sales, it ranks second only to Vincent Bugliosi’s 1974 account of the Charles Mansion cult and murders, Helter Skelter.

Adaptations of In Cold Blood

The success of the book led to a film version of In Cold Blood that was released in 1967. The movie was well received, and is given high marks for its fidelity to Capote’s book. It was shot in black and white (which was fairly rare by 1967) in part to reflect the grim nature of the subject matter. The book was also the subject of a little remembered two-part television mini-series (of the same name) in 1996 staring Eric Roberts and Anthony Edwards as killers Smith and Hickok.

The events depicted in In Cold Blood as well as the research that Capote (and Harper Lee) conducted for the book are the main subject matter of the 2005 film Capote, for which Philip Seymour Hoffman won a Best Actor Academy Award for his portrayal of the author. The film devotes a lot of focus to Capote’s interactions with killer Perry Smith (portrayed by Clifton Collins Jr.) and to his relationship with Harper Lee (played by Catherine Keener), whose role in researching In Cold Blood had long been underappreciated (largely because Capote neglected to acknowledge it) prior to release of Capote.

Another film called Infamous was released (rather unfortunately for the producers) in 2006—a year after the far better-received Capote, and thus got somewhat overlooked. Infamous is based on a 1997 book (in the oral-biography style that Plimpton had invented and perfected with his book Edie) called Truman Capote: In Which Various Friends, Enemies, Acquaintances, and Detractors Recall His Turbulent Career. The movie does, like Capote, focus a great deal on the events surrounding the writing of In Cold Blood, and many critics believe it was good enough that it would have been far better received than it was had it not come out in the immediate wake of the 2005 movie. In Infamous, Capote was played by Toby Jones, Perry Smith was portrayed by Daniel Craig, and Sandra Bullock played Nelle Harper Lee.