A Côté Capote

Answered Prayers: The Unfinished Novel

by Truman Capote
Random House, 180 pp., $16.95

The Capote Reader

by Truman Capote
Random House, 768 pp., $25.00

Some twenty years ago Truman Capote and I spent part of the summer in Venice. Although acquaintances rather than friends, we ended up seeing each other every day, thanks to my traveling companion, Virginia Chambers. Virginia was an elderly American widow who had lived in Paris since the Twenties—hard-drinking, card-playing, and worldly, nonetheless passionate, intuitive, and bright. Truman was very fond of her: she was outspoken and, more to the point, a great friend of many of the “beautiful” people by whom he set such store. He was also captivated by her gutsy wit in the face of almost total blindness—an affliction which she handled as deftly as if it were a game of miniature golf. On her side, Virginia was thrilled to have Truman around. Listening to Answered Prayers in embryo made a welcome change from Library of Congress records for the blind.

If we had Truman to ourselves, it was largely because his Venetian friends, Count and Countess B., who had lent him part of their palazzo, were away. So apparently were all the other gens chic of his vast acquaintance. Or were they, I wondered, in hiding? For Truman was traveling with a man I’ll call Jimmy N., a nice, dim, blue-collar worker whose name could easily be mistaken for a popular poet of the day and whom “Little T.” had enticed away from a wife and a job repairing refrigerators in Palm Springs. Instead of keeping this humble love object dark, Truman insisted on showing him off to one after another of his smart friends. This caused problems. A socially ambitious Palm Springs lady had thought Truman said he wanted to bring the poet to dinner and had organized a disastrous evening around Truman’s poor friend, who knew even less about poetry than she did.

Next, one of Truman’s cult figures had decreed that if Jimmy came to the house, “he had better use the tradesman’s entrance.” Finally the Italian friends who had been prevailed upon to invite Jimmy for a cruise on their luxurious yacht had done their best to put the Palm Springer at his ease, but to no avail; he would clearly have been happier with the crew.

It was now our turn to cope. A run-through of some of the themes destined for Truman’s work-in-progress proved to be the reward for putting up with Jimmy. No problem really, except for constant moans about the lack of air conditioning, comics, TV, above all baked potatoes. Every meal Truman would ask on Jimmy’s behalf for baked potatoes—he would describe exactly what he meant—“in their jackets.” Yet at every meal crisp little sauteed cubes would be served. Jimmy grew sulkier and sulkier. Finally I volunteered to scour the market for the nearest thing to an Idaho potato, and give the chef very explicit instructions. Such was our anticipation that Truman for once stopped talking about himself in the same breath as Balzac, Proust, and Clark Gable; even Jimmy perked up. But we were out of luck. Once again the hateful cubes arrived. Fortunately I had found some comics in which Jimmy could bury his sad thin face.

There and then he seemed to lose what little heart he had for Italy and for Truman. A week or two later they headed back toward England, where Lee Radzi-will had asked them to stay. On the plane Jimmy apparently announced that he was not cut out for smart life and would rather tinker with refrigerators than with Truman. This rejection brought on a traumatic breakdown—months of suicidal sobbing—from which the writer never totally recovered, nor in fact did his writing.

In Venice Truman was forever claiming the Comédie humaine and A la recherche du temps perdu as the exemplars of Answered Prayers. Except that his book would of course be “better,” that is to say more authentic, than Proust’s. He wasn’t going to disguise his characters; he was going to put real people in just as they were. In fact if Truman identified with Proust at all, it was only insofar as he too had been a homosexual outsider who crashed the beau monde and then shut himself in a soundproof room to write about it. The trouble with Truman was that he shut himself away in the room he had specially soundproofed to drink and pop pills rather than write. And far from keeping aloof from the world and not giving an inch like Proust, he allowed himself to become enslaved by Society, or rather Café Society, which was closer to hand. As a result he ended up being a court-dwarf-jester to a lot of bored billionaires and a “walker” to their wives. The real victim of the Answered Prayers syndrome was thus Truman himself.

The little star-struck monster from Alabama was not going to forgive the beautiful people for being so beautiful, so remorselessly low-key with their mink-lined raincoats, and their oh-so-simple dinners of baby lamb-chops and unborn vegetables. Nor was he going to forgive himself for selling out to them. And so when Truman asked us whether we wanted to hear the “true story” of Claire Luce, or Mrs. Gilbert Miller, or whoever else was on that day’s menu (and let’s face it, we always did), there would be a mean edge to the cute voice. He would serve up a great deal of brimstone and very little treacle. Answered Prayers, I realized, was to be about people getting their comeuppance—Truman included.

Everything, we were told, was going to revolve around the narrator, P.B. Jones—“sort of a Pal Joey with class,” Truman said. And he provided a further clue—“just like our friend, Johnny X.” He must have changed his mind: Johnny X. bears far more resemblance to Aces Nelson, the “backgammon bum,” who appears later in the book. In the course of the first and by far the best written chapter, “Unspoiled Monsters,” P.B. Jones comes more and more to resemble Truman, at least to sound like him—campy, snide, and a shade fractious, like a very knowing, very spoiled child—but then in the book everybody eventually suffers this awful fate.

As for Kate McCloud, the irresistible red-haired, green-eyed heroine, Truman was always very cagey about her identity. “Some old booby from Colorado Springs was the only person to spot who she is,” Truman said after this section came out in Esquire. “The rest of you will just have to go on guessing.” Guessing was no problem. McCloud is compounded of two once well-known café society beauties: Mona Harrison Williams (later Countess Edward Bismarck), who, like Kate, was the daughter of a groom and married the boss and had huge emerald-green eyes; and Nina Dyer, the doomed allumeuse, who was successively the wife of Baron Thyssen and Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan. Truman spun many a tale about the curse of “poor Nina’s” unfailingly aphrodisiac effect on men and women and how it ultimately drove her to suicide. After a few days in Truman’s company, everybody turned out to be a victim of Answered Prayers.

The pyrotechnical display that Truman had put on for our benefit in Venice was far more entertaining than the three surviving chapters that have finally appeared in book form. Answered Prayers strikes me as the burned-out aftermath of fire-works—blackened Catherine wheels, fag ends of fusees, rockets that never made it to the sky. And where are all those other chapters that Truman discussed over and over again in such detail: “Yachts and Things,” “A Severe Insult to the Brain” (the phrase was borrowed from Dylan Thomas’s death certificate), “Father Flanagan’s All-Night Nigger-Queen Kosher Café”? How fascinating he made them sound! And what about the Hollywood chapter described so graphically to Clay Felker?

It takes place in Kate McCloud’s bedroom at 550 Park Avenue. Kate and her lover, whom Truman named to Felker, are making love, and she answers the phone. Without stopping as they assume different oral positions, she has a long conversation with a “Zipkin-like figure” (these are Felker’s words, Capote was more specific) calling from Beverly Hills. In this 98-page chapter…he told all the Hollywood gossip he had been collecting for years…. Capote asked $30,000 for the piece, but he never gave it to Felker, eventually saying there was some confusion as to who owned the rights.1

In his compassionate preface to the present edition, Joseph M. Fox, for many years Truman’s editor at Random House as well as a most supportive friend, tries to answer these questions. He surmises that “Truman did indeed write at least some of the above-mentioned chapters…but at some point in the early 1980’s deliberately destroyed them.” So much for the rumors that the complete manuscript was “either stashed in a safe-deposit box somewhere,…seized by an ex-lover for malice or for profit, or even…kept in a locker in the Los Angeles Greyhound Bus Depot.” Fox’s theory is confirmed by Lady (“Slim”) Keith, Truman’s closest woman friend (not, however, after the publication of the chapter called “La Côte Basque” in Esquire). Lady Keith reports that Truman insisted on reading certain sections of Answered Prayers in the early 1970s. “He nailed me to the cross,” she says. “It was all a terrible mess and I couldn’t understand where the book was going.”

Compared to Truman’s fastidious earlier work, Answered Prayers is dismayingly vulgar: vulgar in humor (“Lady Dudd Cooper”); vulgar in style (Kate McCloud wears the “best-fitted of Balenciaga’s box-jacketed black bombazine suits”); above all vulgar in its shoddy exploitation of a potentially ironical theme: “more tears are shed over answered prayers than unanswered ones,” one of Saint Teresa of Avila’s more questionable pronouncements. The only prayers that interest the author are crassly materialistic or libidinous ones: unscrupulous hookers of either sex out to entrap rich husbands—that sort of thing. Indeed it is difficult to decide which is the more offensive: Truman’s campy salaciousness as he sets the sinful scene, or his moralistic gloating over the consequences.

Take, for instance, Truman’s portrait of the notoriously beautiful pre-1939 hustler Denham Fouts: so quintessentially boyish that he had been lavishly kept in jewelry, drugs, and Picassos by kings and queens and maharajahs; so fragrant in body odor that at least one writer made off with his linen. And then compare the darker portraits of this Jacksonville Antinoüs by Christopher Isherwood and Gore Vidal.2 Truman’s characterization is cheap filigree. Isherwood, by contrast, takes material originally fashioned by Vidal into an amusing short story (1956) and transforms it into a full-length portrait (1962) of a fallen angel as cool, perplexing, and alien as David Bowie.

As for the plot, it is sheer kitsch. That Truman failed to develop it is not surprising. Only Danielle Steel or Judith Krantz would have the ingenuity to do so. The scenario, such as it is, resembles nothing so much as one of those spoof movies about unbelievably glamorous women being victimized by unbelievably wicked millionaires in unbelievably luxurious settings, which Manuel Puig had such fun concocting for Kiss of the Spider Woman.

The vicissitudes of the bog-Irish heroine, Kate McCloud—“so beautiful that she is some kind of freak”—boil down to being the victim of two maniacally jealous husbands. The first, Harry McCloud, whose “mother was an Otis from Baltimore, and his father owned a lot of Virginia…tore up a flower garden [she’d] planted,” and then “went down to the stable and…broke all of [her palomino] Nanny’s legs with a crowbar.” Whereupon she flies to Sun Valley for an Idaho divorce, and swears she’ll never marry again. Within a few months, however, Kate finds herself in Düsseldorf Cathedral, marrying yet another evil cliché—this one from the pages of Harold Robbins with overtones of Ouida’s Moths. Axel Jaeger (“easily the richest man in Germany—and possibly Europe”) boasts “an ammunitions fortune from his grandfather, a fortune he has astronomically increased.” We hardly need be told that he is a thin, almost emaciated man in his late fifties “with a Heidelberg sword-scar across his cheek”; a recluse living “in a colossal, and colossally ugly, château on a mountainside about three miles north of St. Moritz.” “One year later, the prayed-for heir arrives.” Heinie he is called.

For no apparent reason Kate is dismissed from Chateau Jaeger, leaving the boy in the custody of the father and two evil “old maid” uncles, though she is “granted certain highly limited visiting privileges.” After “several months…cloistered at the Nestlé Clinic in Lausanne” “she had moved to Paris, and over the years, became a goddess of the fashion press;…on a bearhunt in Alaska,…at a Rothschild ball, at the Grand Prix with Princess Grace, on a yacht with Stavros Niarchos.” Since Jaeger is a Catholic he cannot divorce her; murder is his only option; meanwhile she contemplates murdering him.

The main event in the story is Kate’s employment of P.B. Jones, the bisexual gigolo-masseur-writer narrator, to protect her (“Tomorrow I would buy a .38 revolver and start practice at a shooting range”) and help kidnap her child from the wicked Jaegers. “I was a man with a mission in life, an assignment.” “Gumshoe” Capote—as the author mockingly described himself to me when he was writing In Cold Blood—would ride again, this time in the guise of P.B. Jones.

So ends the action of this book. True, there is one more chapter, “La Côte Basque,” but it stands on its own. It is in fact a rehash of the second of two articles entitled “Blind Items,” commissioned by Ladies Home Journal in 1973. “A master writer turns gossip into an art form,” the Journal boasted when it published the first section in January 1974. “Turns gossip into libel” would have been nearer the mark. For the “blind item” was a device made notorious by Truman’s hero Walter Winchell in the Forties: the libelous story about the unnamed celebrity that contained enough clues to titillate the knowing reader but not enough to give the victim grounds for legal redress. That he should stoop this low was the first sign that Truman’s conscience as a writer and friend had warped beyond hope of recovery. The “blind items” were Winchellesque in style as well as content, and four out of five of them libeled people who were close to Truman. “Can you guess who’s who?” the Journal asked.

The only passable story had the virtue of not being a blind item at all but an old chestnut about a man who bounces a ball and, by mistake, a dog out of a twelfth floor window. The feature did not find favor with the ladies of Middle America, and the editor, Lenore Hershey, who had paid $50,000 for the two pieces, decided not to print the second lot; too “terrible, scurrilous and dirty.” According to Julie Baumgold, Truman had also made the mistake of sending Mrs. Hershey a handwritten note identifying the people in the second set of blind items: “an industrialist, a governor’s ex-[“late” would be more accurate] wife, Merle Oberon, Kim Novak, Sammy Davis Jr., Mrs. William Woodward Sr., Mrs. William Woodward Jr., a publishing tycoon, his ex-wife.” “If [Mrs. Hershey] had used them,” Baumgold comments, “Capote’s social life would have been ruined a year earlier.”

During the next year, Truman recycled the five or six of the blind items rejected by Ladies Home Journal into “La Côte Basque,” the third and last surviving section of this ill-fated opus. These items have no relevance whatsoever to the plot or the characters in the previous chapters. The only possible explanation is that Truman saw them as exemplifying Saint Teresa’s theme. For apart from sharing the misfortune of the author’s friendship, his fashionable victims had each lived to regret some answered prayer or other. Instead of furthering the plot or providing some badly needed sense of depth, these little horror stories bear witness to a terminal fizzling out of skill and imagination. Moreover the ventriloquial device of putting them into the mouth of Lady Irla Coolbirth, P.B. Jones’s luncheon companion at the Côte Basque restaurant, was unwise, since it brought an end to his career in the smart set, which meant so much to him. For, deny it though he might, the character of Lady Coolbirth was based on his beloved “Big Momma,” Slim Keith—one of the most popular women around. Saddling her with his most scurrilous tales was the more heinous in that most of the people involved were her closest friends, particularly the victims of the most disgusting story: the one about the Jewish tycoon whose seduction of a WASP lady is avenged by her contemptuous bloodying of his bed.

When “La Côte Basque” came out in Esquire, Truman tried to defend himself against the opprobrium that showered down on him by invoking his right as a latter-day Proust to sacrifice friendship on the altar of art. But even if the writing has an occasional mean glint to it, most of the content is too sleazy to justify any such argument. Assuming the mantle of Lady Coolbirth had proved the ultimate cop-out—like escaping the Titanic in drag. It was also a stylistic solecism. The ditzy tone of her patter establishes Lady Coolbirth as a Capote clone rather than a “big breezy peppy broad…raised on a ranch.” But this solecism was nothing compared to the ostracism that made the subject of Answered Prayers too painful for Truman to address. Socially speaking, he would never return from the Siberian circle of hell to which his outraged friends from now on condemned him.

A weakness that Truman had transformed into a strength was his voice: an insidious little girl’s whine which he could modulate and color as craftily as an opera singer, and which he exploited in his writing so long as he or some credible extension of himself figured as the narrator. Indeed to have heard Truman doubled the pleasure and occasionally pain (as here) of reading him. When one airless afternoon in Venice he had embarked on what he announced as “the true story of the Woodward murder” (about the hooker who married the old guard banker’s son and by-mistake-on-purpose shot him when he demanded a divorce) which he later used as the climax of the “Côte Basque” section, I found it impossible not to be beguiled, so relentlessly, so effortlessly did the tale slither out of him. No question about it, Capote was in the great tradition of homosexual raconteurs. Just as it took the paradoxical Wilde no more than five minutes to get a roomful of Yorkshire fox-hunting squires to declare “they had never met such an amusing fella,” and just as the mercurial Cocteau could hold a roomful of senators or sailors as rapt as children at a conjuring show, so the outrageous Truman could wheedle his way into the graces of the most belligerent homophobe, thanks to the wit and above all malice of his chitchat. However, as so often happens, the raconteur stifled the writer. Truman allowed too many stories to evaporate in the fashionable air, like those scented candles with which his former friends perfume their rooms. No wonder Answered Prayers has such a vaporous déjà lu thinness.

The fact that all the characters in Answered Prayers sound exactly like Truman would matter less if he had not lost sight of the difference between the written and the spoken word. Those little riffs that had seemed to have such sparkle over drinks by the Cipriani pool look all too embarrassing in cold print. Take this snigger at Ann Woodward (“Ann Hopkins” in the book, “Bang-bang” in conversation): “She was known by every male past puberty as Madame Marmalade—her favorite petit déjeuner being hot cock buttered with Dundee’s best. Although I’m told it’s actually strawberry jam she prefers.” Truman’s once acute ear, it is all too evident, had lost the discrimination it formerly had. Worse, in his hunger for social vengeance he could no longer distinguish between the pen as an instrument for good or for evil. True, Ann Woodward had once made the mistake of calling Truman a “faggot,” in the bar of the Palace Hotel, St. Moritz, but wasn’t it going a bit far to hound her and her sons with Enquirer-like revelations? When she heard that “La Côte Basque” was coming out in the November Esquire, she managed to get hold of an advance copy. By the time the magazine was on the stands, the wretched woman had committed suicide. “Bye-bye, Bang-bang,” Truman said, not displeased with himself.

Bereft of his fashionable constituency, Truman went more and more to pieces. Drugs, drink, and down-at-heel Irishmen (always straight yet madly in love with him, he anomalously claimed). Writer’s block set in. There was no energy left for his vaunted high finish, even if there had been anything to lavish it on. Television appearances confirmed that Valium addiction had slowed and slurred his speech to a state bordering at times on gibberish.3 Rescue came, albeit briefly, from a surprising quarter: Andy Warhol and Interview magazine. Surprising because Warhol, formerly one of the writer’s most assiduous admirers, had hitherto been treated with the dwarfish hauteur that Truman reserved for some of his homosexual fans. Hence a certain coldness between them, especially after Truman dismissed Warhol as “a sphinx without a secret.” But then in 1973 the two monstres sacrés had done a long interview for Rolling Stone—an interview in which Truman went out of his way to attack the “Jewish intelligentsia,”4 just as two years later he would go out of his way to attack café society. Now that lots of lofts as well as most fashionable drawing rooms were off-limits to him, Truman spent much of his time in discos, above all Studio 54, where he made a point of cultivating Warhol and more particularly Bob Colacello, who was editor of Interview. According to Colacello, Truman, who had always been fascinated by literary techniques, realized that the Interview formula could be a godsend for an author who was finding it easier to talk than write.

Warhol and Colacello gave Truman a tape recorder, and over the next year or two Interview published some twelve pieces, most of them in dialogue form. These make up the bulk of Music for Chameleons, published in 1980, though you wouldn’t gather this from Truman’s highfalutin preface to this, his last book, which fails to make any mention of Warhol, Colacello, or their magazine. A pity because the formula was ideally suited to Truman’s conspiratorial chatter. Indeed “A Day’s Work”—his account of accompanying a black cleaning woman on her rounds—is closer to his ideal of “simple, clear as a country creek” prose than most of Answered Prayers.

When Music for Chameleons was published, Truman left New York on a book tour. No sooner was he off the leash that Colacello and Bridget Berlin had contrived for him than Truman went back to his old habits: above all cocaine, which he kept on the top of his toilet in a hollowed-out Bible. (Is this, one wonders, the same hollowed-out book in which, according to Baumgold, his lover keeps Truman’s ashes?) Interview never saw him again. In the course of going in and out of clinics he wrote nothing of any substance. Shortly before he died, he told me that he was at work on a novella to be called Heliotrope in memory of Babe Paley, who had broken his nerve, he said, by dropping him after “La Côte Basque.” Joanne Carson, in whose house Truman died, claims that he was at work on a piece about Willa Cather “for her” on his last day of life. Paige Rense thinks that he was doing it for her magazine, Architectural Digest. Whatever the truth, death, as Gore Vidal put it, was a wise career move.

By bringing out a compendious Capote Reader, containing most of the writer’s better work (with the exception of Other Voices, Other Rooms and In Cold Blood), Random House has provided us with a necessary antidote to Answered Prayers. What a diverting writer Truman once was—less in his novellas and short stories than in his meaner, leaner reportage. The early fiction has faded badly; it also seems flawed by too much fine sewing, too much Butterfly McQueenery, too much dew tinseling the leaves of the old China tree. But the whimsy evaporates when he moves away from the fairy-tale South and takes to the road. Try traveling to Russia with him and the cast of Porgy and Bess in The Muses are Heard. You couldn’t have a better—that is to say wittier, bitchier, more ironical—companion. He is clearly happiest when he manages to keep a certain de-haut-en-bas distance between himself and his subjects, as in The Muses are Heard, where most of the characters are anything but WASP. The same goes for In Cold Blood. Truman is at his sharpest when writing about people—freaks, murderers, hicks—with whom he can feel a twisted, disdainful identification. In the last resort his problems were not brought about by his tiny stature as much as by his tiny standards. Truman had a way of reverentially looking up when he should have looked down, and vice versa; and in so doing he remained an irredeemably petit maître.

  1. 1

    See “Unanswered Prayers,” two well-documented articles on Capote’s decline and fall by Julie Baumgold that appeared in New York (October 29 and November 26, 1984).

  2. 2

    In Isherwood’s Down There on a Visit and Vidal’s short story “Pages from an Abandoned Journal.”

  3. 3

    The best evidence for Truman’s (as well as Sunny vor Bülow’s) drug addiction is the long confessional affidavit (signed March 14, 1983) that he gave for the defense in the Von Bülow murder case. Besides confessing to valium addiction, Truman talks of mixing qualities and amphetamines, Demerol and amphetamines, and, best of all, “a rather long lavender pill” called Lotusate—I used it for a very long time.”

  4. 4

    The entire cultural press, publishing…criticism…television…theater…film industry…is almost 90 percent Jewish-oriented. I mean, I can’t even count on one hand, five people of any importance—of real importance—in the media who aren’t Jewish. I can’t.

    If those people could have done me in, they would have done me in like nobody’s ever been done in. But they couldn’t do me in. They would have done me in, because not only wasn’t I Jewish and wasn’t in the Jewish clique, but I talked about not being part of it. I’ve said it for years: ‘Here’s this god-damned Jewish Mafia working tooth and tong on the New York Review of Books, The New York Times, whether they’re doing it consciously or not.’ And mostly they’re doing it consciously. I’m not in the least bit frightened by them” (Rolling Stone, April 12, 1973).