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

Truman Capote
Truman Capote; drawing by David Levine

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…

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