By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
The multimillion-dollar success of In Cold Blood spawned a booming industry in true-crime accounts. It also divided Capote's life into Before and After. In the November following the book's publication, the newly rich author threw a legendary masquerade ball at the Plaza Hotel, a personal Mardi Gras still generally referred to as "the party of the century." Capote's coup was not only that he marshaled a guest list from every high level of power and celebrity - but that he got them all to wear masks until midnight. Competition between mask designers - Halston and Oscar de la Renta among them - was good-natured but fierce. Seen now, photographs from the ball make its participants seem timeless, like figures in an exotic bestiary.
Given the tabloid laws of gravity, by which Capote had begun to live, a downward spiral from such giddy heights was perhaps inevitable. From 1966 until his death in 1984, Capote spoke glowingly in interviews of an ambitious novel-in-progress, Answered Prayers, and touched off a firestorm of scandal when Esquire published four chapters in 1975 and '76. The novel - which trafficked in thinly disguised portraits of his most glamorous friends - cost him those friends. Emerging as it did in fragmentary form, it also won him few new admirers, though its vast scope, a global slice of life among the world's most powerful from 1946 to 1965, was certainly ambitious, and might have been a mural to surpass In Cold Blood if he'd had the physical strength to pull it off. By the late '60s, though, alcohol - a companion of Capote's since early childhood - became a slavemaster, and his public life deteriorated, apart from the hope of Answered Prayers, into a trashy assortment of drunk-driving arrests and half-tanked talk-show embarrassments. The novel was never finished. a
Plimpton traces the arc of this narrative with clever diligence. He places the masked ball at the book's center, treating it as the personal and professional apex of Capote's life. Indeed, the book could've been called A Tale of Three Parties. As in his 1982 biography of Edie Sedgwick (co-edited with Jean Stein), in which the Sedgwick family cemetery becomes the organizing principle in a tale littered with tombstones, Plimpton suggests that for Capote, the organic constant - the self-made antidote to the killing loneliness that powered and destabilized his gift - was party giving.
The bash that ends the first chapter was an impressive costume affair he threw at age 8 in Alabama, together with his next-door neighbor and fellow future author, Harper Lee. Rumors that white and black children would commingle freely under their masks aroused the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan to march on the party - a bit of scarifying mischief stopped in its tracks by Lee's father, later played by Gregory Peck when a version of this incident became the climax of both Lee's best-selling novel To Kill a Mockingbird and the Oscar-winning movie it inspired. The second party is the masked ball. The third and last is Capote's funeral - an appallingly discombobulated sendoff in which bandleader Artie Shaw, who barely knew Capote, served as one of the speakers and chose the occasion to reminisce at some length about Duke Ellington. The funeral made a fittingly awful coda to a life that, among other legacies, demonstrated the dangers of courting celebrity over art. It's a bad fit Plimpton has attempted to redress with this book, which is a kind of party in prose, an unmasked memorial whose speakers keep movingly to the subject.
Elegant as Plimpton's methodology is, I must protest - and this may be the valuable if secret point of reading any Capote biography. The deepest organic constant of his life was neither celebrity nor party giving - it was writing. As with Clarke, as with Brinnin, Plimpton's book serves as a cohesive cautionary tale about the deadly seductions at work when the things you're writing about (wealth, fame) are likely to devour the very privacy you need to get the writing done at all.
And yet, for the first two-thirds of Truman Capote's life, the writing did get done. What he achieved in the silence of the blank page will long outlast the parties, the gossip, the testimonials and denunciations. Truman Capote is a fascinating portrait, and a valuable meditation on public life. But at its best, this life was spent making literature. First and last, read that.