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A Tale of Three Parties

Truman Capote was a born writer who died a celebrity, a downfall that has always seemed particularly painful to me because it was Capote the writer who changed my life. I was 20 years old: For three years, I'd been wrestling with the quicksands buried under every sentence I wrote, and rewrote. I was desperate to read a book that didn't exist, one I didn't yet know how to write. By chance, one bright blue 6 a.m., I plucked a copy of Capote's short novel The Grass Harp out of a stack of bedside paperbacks, read the first chapter, and heard the music I'd been listening for in my own blank pages, a prose so right that one misplaced word would destroy it:

Verena's closed quiet windows loomed above us; we moved cautiously past them and silently out the gate. A fox terrier barked at us; but there was no one on the street, and no one saw us pass through the town except a sleepless prisoner gazing from the jail. We reached the field of Indian grass at the same moment as the sun. Dolly's veil flared in the morning breeze, and a pair of pheasants, nesting in our path, swept before us, their metal wings swiping the cockscomb-scarlet grass. The China tree was a September bowl of green and gold: Gonna fall, gonna bust our heads, Catherine said, as all around us the leaves shook down their dew.

Here was a deep and mellifluous voice - in stark contrast to Capote's tweetybird twang, which I'd heard, and sneered at, on Johnny Carson. (I'd even laughed at that voice as a small child in the '50s, in the guise of Ernie Kovacs' Capote-inspired caricature, "Percy Dovetonsils.") Capote's writing obliterated any such prejudice. Within the space of three months, I devoured everything of his that was in print - Breakfast at Tiffany's, In Cold Blood, Other Voices, Other Rooms (his first novel), scores of essays, the infamous Marlon Brando interview (so revealing the actor never gave another as candid), and a slew of short stories that, among deeper attributes, demonstrated their creator's good ear for titles: "A Tree of Night," "Children on Their Birthdays," "A Diamond Guitar."

My head at 20 was a crowded bookshelf in which Nabokov, Hemingway, Salinger, Fitzgerald, Flannery O'Connor, J.F. Powers, Katherine Anne Porter and Joan Didion all vied for attention. But Capote's preeminence stemmed, in my mind, from a simple fact: Ordinary people read him. Every other writer I loved was almost exclusively the beloved domain of other writers and artists. In Cold Blood was a book my grandmother (a formidably impatient reader who chucked Dr. Zhivago by page 30) read cover to cover. Myself, I marveled at the book's vastness and drive, its passionate exactness - a conscious effort by Capote, after his hero Flaubert. Any writer who could speak to my subtlest, loftiest ambitions and yet make Nana sit still for 343 pages sets an example I was keen to comprehend.

I've been thinking a lot about Capote these past several weeks, provoked by George Plimpton's new book, Truman Capote. Partly a biography, mostly an oral history, it evokes an era as much as a man and is best described by its subtitle: "In Which Various Friends, Enemies, Acquaintances, and Detractors Recall His Turbulent Career."

Capote's life, like Napoleon's, reads like a novel when laid out in chronological order, and has already made for several excellent books. The most thorough of these is Gerald Clarke's 1986 Capote; the most insightful is poet John Malcolm Brinnin's memoir from the same year, Dear Heart, Old Buddy. Plimpton's is the most entertaining.

Born in 1924, cast off among Alabama cousins by his divorced, high-living parents, Capote was marked by a desolate sense of rejection from birth, for which he compensated with a flair for storytelling. After his mother remarried in the early 1930s, he was taken north, where he spent his adolescence miserably bouncing in and out of various prep schools but developing with prodigious speed as a professional writer. By 20 he was publishing short stories in major magazines - a quick path to fame in the mid-1940s. Before he had published so much as one book, Life magazine ran a full-page photo of Capote in a roundup of promising writers. Gore Vidal, who had published a book, was given mention the size of a postage stamp on the following page - sparking a lifelong enmity between the two. In 1948, when President Truman's bid for reelection looked doomed, one Missouri man wrote a letter to the editor: "Your newspaper seems to be full of two things these days - Truman Capote and Truman Kaput."

Through the 1950s, Capote courted wealth and celebrity. By the early '60s, he was engaged in the six-year struggle to research and write In Cold Blood. A tiny item in a New York paper about the slaughter of a wealthy farmer and his family had lured Capote to Kansas, on a hunch. There, he interviewed everybody involved: the last to see the doomed family alive; the townfolk and police who discovered the bodies; the detectives who worked around the clock to crack the case, and, when they succeeded, the two killers - Perry Smith and Dick Hickock. In Perry, the runty, artistically gifted misfit who most likely pulled the trigger in all four killings (accounts differ, Rashomon-style), Capote discovered a nightmarish mirror image of himself. Perry's voice takes over the book, combining seamlessly with Capote's impeccable sense of rhythm: "Just before I taped him," Perry says of the wealthy farmer, "Mr. Clutter asked me - and these were his last words - wanted to know how his wife was, if she was all right, and I said she was fine, she was ready to go to sleep, and I told him it wasn't long till morning, and how in the morning somebody would find them, and then all of it, me and Dick and all, would seem like something they dreamed. I wasn't kidding him. I didn't want to harm the man. I thought he was a very nice gentleman. Soft-spoken. I thought so right up to the moment I cut his throat."  

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.

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