My first job was as a designer at The New York Public Library. Beside a major screw up when I handled a business card run for the executive team containing a misspelling, The New York Pubic Library, I had a wonderful time. In 1987, I designed the materials for an exhibition of Truman Capote artifacts. I asked the print and photograph division head for an image of Capote for the poster. He gave me a telephone number and suggested Dick might have a photo. Surprisingly, Richard Avedon answered the phone and asked me to come over to see a photo he took of Capote during the filming of In Cold Blood in Kansas.
I won’t go into Capote’s entire biography. In brief, Capote grew up in a chaotic environment, moving between relatives, an alcoholic mother, and stepfather. His first novel, Other Voices, Other Rooms was a critical success and bestseller in 1948. Over the next decade, he became one of America’s most celebrated authors.
Part of Capote’s success was his genius at self-promotion. He used his sexuality as a counterpoint to the accepted idea of macho masculinity in post-war America. His portraits are clearly gay, often seductive, and always flamboyant. He tackled subjects that challenged polite society. In his short story, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Holly Golightly is clearly a prostitute.
In 1966, Random House published Capote’s book In Cold Blood. The book is based on the 1959 murder of the Clutter family in rural Kansas. During the writing, Capote developed a close relationship with one of the killers, Perry Smith. After Smith’s execution, Capote changed. It was as though his childhood terrors caught up with him.
In the 1960s, Capote’s friends were New York society, upper class women who shopped and gossiped. His black and white ball in 1966 was the party of the decade. In 1975 Esquire magazine published excerpts from his unfinished novel, Answered Prayers. He based the short story, “La Côte Basque 1965,” on the secrets of his society friends. In turn, they rejected him. This led to years of alcoholism, drug use, and endless parties at Studio 54. Capote died in 1984 at 59.
What I find remarkable is the split between Capote’s life pre and post In Cold Blood. The ability to overcome a tragic childhood was lost. We are taught to expect stories of a hard childhood, incredible struggle, success, and a happy ending. In this instance, the narrative took a turn toward tragedy. It was as if his psyche was a sweater, and one thread began to unravel it.
For further reading: Capote: A Biography.