Friday, September 30, 2016

Birthday: "A conversation is a dialogue, not a monologue. That's why there are so few good conversations: due to scarcity, two intelligent talkers seldom meet."


Truman Streckfus Capote (1924-1984)

He grew up in the same town as Harper Lee. He became a character in To Kill a Mockingbird; she spent four years helping him research In Cold Blood. He took up the pen at 11, and by 12 had won a student writing award.

His mother’s second husband was a Cuban textile executive who adopted the boy and renamed him Truman Diego Capote. Their Park Avenue, New York lifestyle vanished when the stepdad was convicted of embezzlement; Capote bounced through a succession of private schools before landing a job as a copyboy for The New Yorker magazine. He lost that job, after two years, by irritating the poet Robert Frost.

A 1945 short story caught the eye of Random House publisher Bennett Cerf, who published Capote’s first collection of short stories in 1948. He spent the next decade going from success to success in that form. His work culminated in Breakfast at Tiffany’s and A Christmas Memory (1958), prompting Norman Mailer to call Capote “the most perfect writer of my generation.”

Capote was oddly photogenic: bookstores had window posters of him in poses, the Los Angeles Times said, “dreamily contemplating some outrage against conventional morality.”

And he usually was. Openly gay at a time when that was illegal in most parts of America, he spoke in a high-pitched drawl and dressed to surprise, if not always impress. He engaged in celebrated literary feuds; his with Gore Vidal prompted Tennessee Williams to wonder if the two thought they were competing for some giant gold medal. Vidal, always the snob, accused Capote of trying to break into the social set Vidal was trying to break out of.

For a long time the social set seemed to welcome him with open arms. His 1966 fictionalization of a real Kansas multiple murder, In Cold Blood, caused a sensation, and he leveraged his celebrity into hosting the famed Black and White Ball for Washington Post columnist Katherine Graham. The event vaulted both into the stratosphere, and being in the right stack of cards from which Capote compiled his invitation lists was de rigueur.

Capote planned a Proustian portrayal of American high society next; he spent a decade writing it, finally publishing several chapters in a magazine in 1975-76. It was too easy to identify his thinly-veiled, if highly-ridiculed targets, and all the doors once so open slammed shut. He decamped to California, and settled into the life of a celebrity.

He wrote a screenplay for the 1974 film, The Great Gatsby; it was rejected, though one wonders how it could have been worse than the one Paramount filmed. He followed The Rolling Stones through their 1972 American tour but never wrote the article Rolling Stone Magazine hired him to write. He turned up on TV talk shows, often drunk or drug-addled, but always entertaining.

After 1980 his much-abused health began to fail. He suffered hallucinations, liver problems, and a myriad of other ailments. He died at the home of one of Johnny Carson’s ex-wives, to whom he left half his ashes.

They were stolen several times by groupies, one of whom took them to a performance of the Broadway play of his life,Tru; he was nabbed in the lobby on the way out. Another batch- in the possession of his partner, Jack Dunphy- was reportedly scattered in Long Island Sound from what is now a nature preserve.

Capote left a foundation which administers the annual Capote Prize for literary criticism at the University of Iowa; he created it in honor of his friend Newton Arvin, a Pulitzer Prize-winning Smith College professor whose career was destroyed by a trumped-up gay porn prosecution in the 1950s.

Life, Capote said, “is a moderately good play with a badly-written third act.”

The box of Capote’s ashes Joanne Carson kept was auctioned as part of her estate in September 2016. The Guardian reported,

“He loved to create press opportunities and to read his name in the paper. I think he would love it that he’s still grabbing headlines today,” [Julien Auctions president Darren] Julien said. “Truman told Joanne that he didn’t want his ashes to sit on a shelf. So this is a different way of honouring his request. It is just furthering the adventures of Truman Capote.” 

The auctioneer had given the ashes a starting price of $2,000, but they ended up selling for the much higher price to an anonymous collector. “We had people from Russia, Germany, China, South America and here in the US who had interest in them,” Julien told CNN. “I anticipated it could sell for over $10,000, but didn’t anticipate it going to $43,750”. 
Along with his ashes, the clothes Capote was wearing at the time of his death were sold for $6,400 and two lots of his prescription pill bottles went for a combined $9,280.

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