The Truman I Knew
Photograph by: Hulton Archive/Getty Images
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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.