• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

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.

  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.”

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print