The Truman I Knew



Photograph by: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Famed for his books Breakfast at Tiffany’s and In Cold Blood, his socializing with high society and celebrities, and his legendary Black and White Ball, Truman Capote ended up an alcoholic and drug addict with his reputation in shreds and his friends ostracizing him. Now he’s returned to the spotlight with the success of the recent movie Capote; another one, Infamous, due out in September; and a just-published book about the Black and White Ball plus Christie’s re-creation of the ball in March. The Capote legend lives on as people who knew him, including some in Greenwich, share their recollections. 

In 1966, the second time we met, Truman Capote invited me to what became the most talked-about party of all time. The invitation was prompted as much by guilt as by friendship. He was going to miss a writing deadline.

As the editor of McCall’s magazine, I had admired his story “A Christmas Memory” and hoped he would write more in that vein. Over drinks in his new United Nations Plaza apartment, flushed with the success of In Cold Blood, he expansively outlined another childhood adventure with his beloved cousin, Sook, to be called “The Thanksgiving Visitor.” I savored the sunset from his wide-screen view of Manhattan and left in a glow of anticipation.

Summer came. Our November issue loomed. “The Thanksgiving Visitor” did not appear. Truman suggested lunch.

Across an expanse of linen, crystal and silver, he beamed at me the slyly excited look that always suggested he was about to disclose a wonderful secret. “I’m giving a party,” he said. “I’ve just been to Tiffany’s to order invitations. Will you come?”

I said yes and, all through lunch, waited to ask if “The Thanksgiving Visitor” would be arriving before or after the invitation. But he was clearly obsessed with plans for his party: a dance at the Plaza, men in black tie, women in white or black gowns, wearing masks until midnight. That was where all his creativity was going. Ah, well, there would be another November issue next year.

At the peak of his powers as a self-publicist, Truman kept the gossip flowing all fall. Who would attend? Who wouldn’t? A mutual friend told me he had called to ask about my wife. Was she...attractive? He was inviting only spouses who passed muster on appearance.

He called often with Black and White bulletins. “People are leaving the country,” Truman giggled, “so no one will know they weren’t asked.” (That was prescient. In an act of delicious malice, the New York Times the day after the ball published a list of the 540 who had been invited, thereby exposing all those who had claimed to have declined because “We’ll be away.”) During another call, he said, “People are offering thousands of dollars for an invitation.”

“I’m not one of your rich friends, Truman. Would you mind if I sold mine?” He whooped with pleasure.

Setting out for the Plaza that rainy Monday night, my wife and I, dime-store masks in her purse, were hailing a taxi when a neighbor smiled at the tux and white gown.

“I know where you’re going,” she sighed.

“I saw it on the six o’clock news.”

In everything he did, Truman had a storyteller’s way with the truth. His writing and even his casual conversation abounded in astonishments, wondrous coincidences and weird juxtapositions. He would tell colorful tales, unlikely but not necessarily untrue, often at the expense of macho figures: how Marlon Brando tried to get him into bed after an all-night interview in a Japanese hotel; how during the filming of Beat the Devil, he bested Humphrey Bogart, who persisted in calling him Caposy, at arm-wrestling for $150 and sealed the humiliation of the actor, known for his nightclub brawls, by using judo to put him flat on his back.

The ball was another work of Truman’s imagination. He set black and white figures — like those in his friend Cecil Beaton’s Ascot scenes for My Fair Lady — in the Plaza ballroom against candlelit scarlet and pink decor overflowing with roses. He mixed the rich and powerful, the talented and famous, his publishing and show business friends, the Kansas townspeople of In Cold Blood and, for security, off-duty detectives in tuxedos.

Two orchestras took turns playing while the Champagne flowed. Everybody danced except the maharajah of Jaipur and a dour Frank Sinatra, who told my wife “I don’t dance,” as he watched his wife, twenty-one-year-old Mia Farrow, with one energetic partner after another.

Truman’s guests basked in the glow of what Alice Roosevelt Longworth, Teddy Roosevelt’s dowager daughter, called “the most exquisite of spectator sports,” self-validation. I danced with my colleague on McCall’s, Lynda Bird Johnson; gabbed with Lillian Hellman and Gloria Steinem; watched Lauren Bacall and Jerome Robbins do a passable imitation of Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire; and observed with disbelief as George Plimpton and John Kenneth Galbraith played a touch football game with a top hat.

The next day, Charlotte Curtis, a merciless critic of social preening, gave Truman’s production a rave review in the Times, declaring that the guests, “as spectacular a group as has ever been assembled for a private party in New York, were an international Who’s Who of notables.”

Truman had staged a small social masterpiece to go with his books, short stories, plays and movie scripts, taking the public’s fascination with fame, wealth and power — and his own — to a new level.

Later he wrote an account of that night for me, replete with his usual tales, including one about the movie star who called days later to tell him a man she had danced with and taken home was just leaving her apartment. “I thought he was one of the detectives,” she said, “but it turned out he was an elevator boy!” When Truman asked if it made any difference, she “laughed her famous smoky laugh” and answered, “No, I don’t suppose it does. It was the most beautiful party I’ve ever been to.”

Winter came and went. Truman and I talked on the phone, had lunch, but the story he had promised me did not appear.

I sent him a slim leather-bound book with blank pages and, in gilt along its spine, “The Thanksgiving Visitor by Truman Capote,” along with a note: “Here’s a book I’d love to read. Wouldn’t you?” He called with that delighted laugh of his. “I’ll write the story in the book, and we’ll sell it for a fortune at Sotheby’s!”

The manuscript came soon afterward, neatly typed. It was a lovely story, full of longing for the childhood sweetness seldom seen in his later life or work. By the time it appeared in the November 1967 McCall’s, I was no longer editor of the magazine.

Truman took me to dinner. My successor wanted an interview with him, and the publisher had asked him to be guest of honor at a party for advertisers. After the book and the ball, he was, ugh, a hot property.

“I’m going to tell them to go to hell,” he said. “I wrote the story for you.”

His willingness to forego publicity was touching, but I persuaded him to agree to the interview and the party. Later I learned, not from him, that he had tried to get his friend Bill Paley, the head of CBS, to hire me.

In a sphere where mutual use passes for friendship, I felt Truman was genuinely my friend and I his, albeit in a daytime way. While there were too many differences for true intimacy, as outsiders in a world where being “in” is everything, we could count on each other.

 

When the movie of In Cold Blood was planned, he told me he wanted Richard Brooks to direct it. I asked why.

“Because he has no style of his own.”

“Bad reason,” I said. “If he just puts your book on the screen, it will turn out flat. You should risk a director with as distinctive a voice as your own to translate it into film.”

Brooks made the movie, and, after a screening for his friends, Truman backed me into a corner.
“Well?”

“The actors were perfect, and it had just the right look.”

He kept staring.

“Overall it was a little too ham-handed for me.”

He was silent for a moment. “Will it get good reviews?”

“Mostly, but mixed.”

His eyes narrowed. “Will it make money?”

“Yes.”

He touched my forearm and walked away. It was like telling a friend his child was brain-damaged.

After the book and the ball, Truman was on top of the world, but soon, in the throes of writer’s block, drugs and alcohol, his life started to fall apart.

He wrote a few pieces for me when I returned to edit McCall’s in 1972. This time they were scribbled in dime-store notebooks, and he urged me to keep them. “Someday,” he said wistfully, “they may be worth something.”

He would disappear for months, into rehab clinics or his own private darkness, then call to make a lunch date.

We usually met alone but, on one occasion, he showed up with a man and gave me a glimpse into his other life. All through drinks and the meal, Truman was giddy, telling stories and glancing sidewise at his companion, whose expression remained impassive, a mask of confidence in his sexual power over my friend.

After lunch they persuaded me to go with them to a shop called the Pleasure Chest, where they pored over “sexual aids,” Truman exclaiming every once in a while about some item. Finally, he eyed me and said, “These things don’t interest you?” I said no and left.

His life got worse after three swatches from his novel Answered Prayers appeared in Esquire, one with him on the cover in a black hat and cloak, paring his fingernails with a stiletto. Inside was a thinly veiled version of a messy sexual episode involving Bill Paley. The Paleys cut him dead. So did their friends. All the bejeweled ladies, his “swans,” who had glided through the Black and White Ball, turned and swam away.

We were at his front table in La Grenouille, but no one stopped by for air kisses and gossip.

“What did they expect?” he asked plaintively. “They knew I was a writer.”

Truman’s endless obsession with the rich had started to unravel his life. He had once told a friend he wanted to write a book about them like The Origin of Species.

“You’re not kidding yourself,” the friend asked, “that all you’re up to is a little research? Did you ever hear of anyone rattling the pearly gates trying to get out?”

The last time I saw Truman was a disaster. Early in 1980, he wrote from California: “I was very aware of how considerate you were during all my trials and travails. I’m returning to Answered Prayers shortly, and I think you might like the chapter I’m working on. It’s really quite an invention — though it seems to puzzle some people.”

The fact that McCall’s had advanced him a modest amount of money was weighing on him.

“Maybe we could do a question and answer. Who are the world’s ten most attractive women? Why do so many society women have two husbands (a legal husband, who is straight, and a playmate husband, who is gay)? Why has that figure of the twenties, the gigolo, been resurrected? Why do all Elizabeth Taylor’s old friends dislike her current husband? Ask the questions, and I’ll answer them. I’m full of new and sassy opinions.”

I said no because I was saddened by the recycling of his old outrageousness, the self-parody that was surfacing in lectures and on TV to produce painful headlines. Even so, our last project together, which had been my idea, ended badly.

When Jacqueline Kennedy, the media’s sainted widow, married Aris-totle Onassis, she unleashed all the suppressed venom that underlies extravagantly admired celebrity. There were books, articles and even an atrocious movie to tear her down. I wanted an article on all this “Jackie Trash” and asked Truman to write it.

He had not seen the movie The Greek Tycoon, so I set up a screening. When I picked him up, he looked awful. Under huge dark glasses, his eyes were clouded, his skin was pasty and he could barely speak between low moans. I wanted to reschedule, but he insisted he was all right.

The movie was a striking reminder of Truman’s lost life — lavish yachts, exquisite Mediterranean hideaways, gilded doings — but it was garbage. Halfway through, he leaned to my ear: “I have to go. Please.”

I helped him to the door. I stayed to the end and told our hosts: “Mr. Capote was taken sick. I don’t think it was the picture that did it.”

Truman did not write the piece (the theme of falling from publicity grace would have been too painful), and I never saw him again.

At his funeral in 1984, there were readings from his works and music ranging from Mozart to Billie Holiday’s “Good Morning Heartache.” Friends spoke feelingly about him, but, as usual, Truman was ahead of them. He had left his own mordant epitaph in a collection of pieces he wrote, a couple of them for me, while struggling vainly with Answered Prayers.

In the last piece in that last book, he summed himself up: “I’m an alcoholic. I’m a drug addict. I’m homosexual. I’m a genius.”

 

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