Friday, February 16, 2024

Capote and The Swans

First published in The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, February 17, 2024

When Truman Capote died in 1984, his arch rival Gore Vidal called his death “a wise career move.” Unkind as that suggestion was, it hasn’t turned out to be untrue. Capote’s career was indeed at a low ebb when he died at the age of 59. He hadn’t produced a full-length prose work since In Cold Blood (1966). Mainly he had spent the last third of his life destroying himself with drink and drugs. 

Since his death, things have taken a positive turn for Capote. He has published a series of posthumous works, including the lost novel Summer Crossing (2005). He has been the subject of three major screen productions. Philip Seymour Hoffman won an Oscar for playing him in Capote (2005). Some said that Toby Jones made an even more convincing Capote in Infamous (2006). 

Now we have Feud: Capote vs. The Swans (Binge), in which Tom Hollander brilliantly becomes Capote at all phases of his career, from glittering wunderkind to bloviating old wreck. Feud has put Capote back in the headlines. Suddenly he’s the talk of the town again. Gore Vidal must be spinning in his grave.

What other American author has been portrayed on screen three times? But Capote was always a one-off: the story of his life is as extraordinary as anything he wrote himself. At his peak, he was the most celebrated writer in America. Norman Mailer, who wasn’t known for heaping praise on his contemporaries, called Capote “a ballsy little guy” and “the best writer of my generation”.  

The ballsy little guy had humble origins. An only child, Capote was unwanted by his father and mother. When he was 6, his mother left him to be raised by a houseful of her elderly cousins in rural Alabama. 
Apart from the Bible, there were few books in the house. As a reader and then a writer, Capote was largely self-taught; his favourite childhood toys were his dictionary and typewriter. By a remarkable coincidence, the young Capote lived right next door to the young Harper Lee, future author of To Kill a Mockingbird. The two became fast friends; Lee later helped Capote do the legwork for In Cold Blood.

Capote’s first novel, Other Voices, Other Rooms, was published in 1948, when he was 23. It caused a sensation, partly because of the brooding photo of the boyish author on the back cover. Capote was a striking figure. He stood at just 5 feet 3 inches, or 160cm. His head looked too big for his body. He spoke in a voice so high-pitched that – as Vidal quipped – it could be understood only by dogs. 

Right from the start, Capote made not the slightest attempt to conceal his sexuality. Considering the era he grew up in, this policy was astoundingly courageous. In the 1970s, when the novelist Jacqueline Susann went on TV and implied he was gay, Capote was unfazed. “Big news!” he said.

Capote’s career as an author of pure fiction peaked with the novella Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1958). When Audrey Hepburn was cast to play Holly Golightly in the movie, Capote was peeved. He had wanted Marilyn Monroe.

After Tiffany’s, Capote felt an itch to turn from fiction to the documenting of American fact. In 1959, his eye was caught by a newspaper story about a brutal unsolved murder in Kansas. He set out to chronicle the crime from all angles, using all the tools of a novelist. He even claimed to have invented a new form: the non-fiction novel. 

But writing about reality had its challenges. When Capote went to Kansas to start the book, his story had nothing more than a beginning. If it was going to have a middle and end, he would have to wait until reality supplied them. 

He soon found himself saddled with ethical and emotional problems, too. After the two murderers were captured and convicted, Capote spent hundreds of hours interviewing them on death row. He formed an especially intense bond with one of them, the diminutive, poetry-writing Perry Smith. 

This put Capote in an agonising position. Clearly, his book couldn’t be finished and published until “the boys”, as he called them, were executed. On the human level, he dreaded that outcome. But as a writer, he couldn’t help wishing that the denouement of his story would hurry up and happen. 

Smith and his partner in crime, Dick Hickock, were hanged in 1965. In Cold Blood appeared the following January. Immediately hailed as a masterpiece, it earned its author $2 million by the end of the year. Capote celebrated by throwing a lavish masked ball at the Plaza Hotel in New York. Among his 500 guests were Frank Sinatra, Lauren Bacall, and the Duke and Duchess of Windsor.

By the end of 1966, there was no doubt that Capote had made it. The flamboyant outsider from Alabama had become an insider. To prove it, he’d become an intimate friend of New York’s most prominent socialites: Babe Paley, wife of the CBS boss Bill Paley; Lee Radziwill, sister of Jackie Kennedy; the elegant trend-setter Slim Keith. Capote called these women his “swans”; he told them his most outrageous secrets, and they told him theirs. 

But how was he going to follow In Cold Blood? Capote began telling the world that his next book would be his masterpiece: the American answer to Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. Entitled Answered Prayers, it would be a dark comedy about American high society – a world that Capote seemed ideally qualified to describe from the inside.

Capote signed his first contract for Answered Prayers in 1966. Before writing a line of the book, he sold the movie rights for $350,000 – an outrageous sum at the time. He was contracted to deliver the novel on January 1, 1968. Too busy living the high life to meet that deadline, he negotiated the first of many revised contracts, which featured ever-larger advances and ever-later delivery dates. 

By 1975, Capote’s work on Answered Prayers had ground to a halt. After writing a handful of chapters, he’d become lost in the fog of his addictions. People were starting to wonder if he was still a writer. To prove that he was, he took the drastic step of letting Esquire magazine publish four chapters from his work in progress. 

It was a remarkably self-destructive move. Capote’s supposed masterwork turned out to be little more than a hotchpotch of ugly, mean-spirited gossip about thinly disguised real-life figures. Among those easily identified figures were his swans. Stories they’d told him in confidence were plastered all over the text. When a friend warned him that the swans could hardly fail to notice this,  Capote said, “Nah, they’re too dumb.”

He wound up paying for that callous miscalculation. His cherished swans understood what he’d done, all right. Feeling betrayed and hurt, they shut him out of their glamorous lives. 

Capote was shattered. Whether he wrote another word of Answered Prayers afterwards remains a mystery. He assured interviewers that the book was still happening. “Just wait till they see the rest of it,” he said. Some of his friends later swore that Capote had read them other completed chapters of the work. But when his files were searched after his death, no other parts of the novel were found. 

What happened to the rest of the book? For a while, it was rumoured that Capote had stashed the finished work in a safe-deposit box somewhere. Another theory had it that he’d destroyed the manuscript before his death. Others believed that Capote never wrote any more of the book than the fragments published by Esquire, which posthumously reappeared in book form as Answered Prayers: The Unfinished Novel.

Another mystery is psychological. What made Capote betray his swans, and why was he so stunned when they reacted in the normal human way? The best theory is that it had something to do with his mother – “the single worst person in my life,” as Capote called her. When she dumped him in Alabama with his elderly aunts, the young Capote seems to have decided that he would never be rejected again. From then on, he would always get his rejections in first.

In Feud, Capote’s mother appears to him as a garishly dolled-up ghost, played by Jessica Lange. The show is full of juicy roles for fine actresses: Naomi Watts, Diane Lane, Demi Moore. At one point Chloe Sevigny, playing the socialite C. Z. Guest, blasts Capote for his failure to heed the laws of ordinary human decency. 

“What about civility?” she asks him. “Respect for people one loves?” Answered Prayers may well be a work of art, she says. “But it seems too high a price to pay.”

That last point looks stronger when you consider that Capote paid the price without delivering the goods. By the time he wrote Answered Prayers, his literary judgment was fried. Much as he wanted to show the world he was still an artist, he could no longer do it by producing a work of art. The best he could do was make the kind of ruthless, self-destructive gesture that dedicated artists are known to make. 

Capote was already pushing it when he set out to emulate Proust. The idea that he could do it while self-medicated to the eyeballs was a fantasy. Instead of writing a cool satire about American materialism and excess, he became a casualty of those very forces. The title of his doomed book came from a maxim attributed to St Teresa: “More tears are shed over answered prayers than unanswered ones.” Capote began by imagining that his title referred to the answered prayers of his swans. By the end, it also referred to his own.