Truman Capote: In Which Various Friends, Enemies, Acquaintances, and Detractors Recall His Turbulent Career
by George Plimpton
Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, 498 pp., $35.00
Chatty, gossipy remembrances of the deplorable history of Truman Capote’s last years may be read, in some instances, as revenge or payment-due for the dead author’s assaultive portraits of friends and enemies, although few of the interlocutors can command Capote’s talent for the vicious, villainous, vituperative adjective. George Plimpton has spent some years tracking down and taking down the remarks of those who crossed Truman’s journey to literary fame and to his unique crocodilian celebrity. The remarks are deftly arranged to avoid lumps of monologue piling up one after another like wood stacked for the winter. Instead the voices having their say about the charms and deficits of the absent one find Plimpton at the console professionally mixing the sound, as it were. His phrase for the effect is the unrehearsed, companionable exchange at a cocktail party. This is a large accommodation to raw opinion, to mincing literary judgments of hapless inappropriateness, to character analysis sweet as peaches or impugning as a jailhouse witness for the prosecution. It must be said that method and result have a suitability to the subject, since Capote himself, when not writing, was party-going, forever receiving and producing banter about feckless stumblings and torrid indiscretions.
He was born in 1924 in New Orleans and spent his early years in Monroeville, Alabama. His mother, Lillie Mae Faulk, married at seventeen a man named Arch Persons by whom she had the child, Truman. He was left in the care of relatives, maiden ladies of an eccentric turn useful to the Southern literature of Capote’s period. After a time his mother divorced and the son was brought to New York and to Connecticut where Lillie Mae, name now changed to Nina, married Joseph Capote, who adopted the child under the name of Truman Garcia Capote. Other Voices, Other Rooms was published when Truman was twenty-four years old and this happy beginning of his creative life was in pitiable contrast to his family life. His mother committed suicide five years later and two years after that Mr. Capote was sent to Sing Sing Prison for forgery and grand larceny.
So Truman was on his own and on his way. He was an early master of camp flamboyance and defiance. He was short, effeminate, with a very noticeable, high-pitched, whining voice. And pretty enough, if never quite as fetching as the photograph that enhanced the cover of Other Voices, Other Rooms. It appears that with his curious voice, his ways, he decided to brazen it out, to be himself with an ornamental courage and an impressive conceit. He was a figure, what old ladies used to call a “sketch,” and smart and amusing, ambitious as a writer and as a society darling, a coquette of wit at the great tables, on the yachts, in the splendid houses, in Italy, France, and Mexico. Southern accent, cascades of anecdote, boy genius, as all including himself conceded, and productive in the hours of the afternoon when the hostess …