Capote: A Biography

Capote: A Biography

by Gerald Clarke


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781439187500
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Publication date: 09/21/2010
Pages: 638
Sales rank: 837,439
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.60(d)

About the Author

Gerald Clarke is the author of Capote: A Biography and Get Happy: The Life of Judy Garland. He has also written for many publications, including The Atlantic, The New Republic, Rolling Stone, Architectural Digest, where he is a contributor; Time, where he was a senior writer; and Esquire. A graduate of Yale, he now lives in Bridgehampton, New York.

Read an Excerpt


In those days people moved more slowly down there, and Arch, who did just the opposite, might almost have been taken for a Yankee. Strutting down the street on that April afternoon, pausing only long enough to raise his hat to ladies he knew, he seemed to walk faster, talk faster and think faster than anybody else in Troy, or anybody else in all of Alabama for that matter. But then Arch was a young man on his way, and the day he met Lillie Mae, like most other days, he was working on a deal that would set him on the road to riches.

They passed each other on East Three Notch Street, right in front of the Folmar Building, and Arch, who thought he knew every attractive girl in town, was stopped by the prettiest young woman he had ever seen: small, just an inch or two above five feet, with dark blond hair and eyes the color of fine bourbon whiskey. "She like to have knocked me dead," he later remembered, and without hesitating a second, he turned around and followed her. When she walked into McLeod's Pharmacy, he waited nervously outside, wanting to strike up a conversation but not sure, probably for the first time in his life, what to say or how to say it. He was still deliberating when she came out and solved the problem for him.

"Hello there, Arch Persons," she said. "How's Bill McCorvey getting along?" Now, Bill McCorvey was an old friend of Arch's from Monroeville, a little farm town to the west, and Lillie Mae, who came from there, was using his name to tell Arch that she knew who he was even if he did not know who she was.

"Honey, I know you," he lied. "But I've forgotten your name."

"I'm Lillie Mae Faulk," she answered.

After that Arch had no trouble finding things to say. He walked her back to her dormitory — she was in her first year at the teachers college on Normal Avenue — and returned after dinner to talk some more in the parlor. What they discussed has long been forgotten, but Arch, who, with his bottle-thick glasses and thinning blond hair, was not really a handsome man, must have wound his charms around her, as he did around nearly everyone else, because when he left for Colorado on one of his money-making expeditions the next day, she promised she would write.

She was as good as her word. They corresponded nearly every day, and when he came back to Alabama at the end of the summer, that road to riches still waiting to be discovered, he headed straight for Monroeville and Lillie Mae. They resumed their courtship where their letters had left off, and after a stop at the courthouse to get a license from Judge Fountain, they were married a short time later, on August 23, 1923. Arch was less than two weeks away from his twenty-sixth birthday; Lillie Mae was seventeen.

Her widowed mother had died four years before, leaving a comfortable estate for her five children, and since then all but one of them had been living with their Faulk cousins, three old maids and a bachelor brother. It was in their home on Alabama Avenue that the wedding took place. Giant ferns lined the front hallway, Mrs. Lee from next door played the piano, and a Baptist minister read the vows. The day was typical of that tropical month, so hot and steamy that men tugged at their collars, women wilted inside their heavy corsets, and everyone crowded into the dining room after the ceremony to cool off with lemonade before tasting the wedding cake. When the time came for the happy couple to leave, Mr. Wiggins, the local odd-job man, drove them forty miles to Atmore, which was the nearest stop of the Louisville and Nashville Railroad. There, in high spirits and high hopes, they boarded a train for their honeymoon on the Gulf Coast.

For Lillie Mae, however, disappointment was as near as the end of the ride. Short of funds, as was usually the case, Arch passed up the grand, white-shingled hotels that dotted the Gulf and took her instead to a rooming house near Gulfport, Mississippi, whose owner, an old business acquaintance, offered him a discount. They spent a week or so there and then moved on to New Orleans, where they had a few more days before there was an even greater disappointment: Arch ran out of money and their honeymoon skidded to a halt.

While he stayed behind to try to raise some cash, he put Lillie Mae back aboard a train and sent her home to Monroeville, calling ahead to her guardian, her cousin Jennie Faulk, to pick her up in Atmore. He did not let on to Jennie, who was famous for her fierce temper, that he was broke. His story was that he was working on a big deal that required him to travel and he did not want to leave an unsophisticated girl like Lillie Mae alone in a strange city. If Jennie, who was as shrewd as she was suspicious, did not guess the truth then, she soon learned it from Lillie Mae, and when Arch came to reclaim his bride, four or five weeks later, Jennie informed him that he was no longer welcome in her house. "Get out and don't ever darken my door again!" she screamed. "Don't even put your foot in my yard!" Only after he had spent the night in the Purafore Hotel did she relent and allow him to join his wife in her old back bedroom.

Mortified by the abrupt conclusion of her honeymoon, Lillie Mae was even more chagrined when Arch eventually did show up. One of the reasons she had married him was to get away from her quarrelsome, meddlesome cousins. But here she was, married, yet still living with them, as if there had been no wedding at all. He seemed to assume that it was only right and natural that Jennie take care of him too.

He was obviously not the man he had led Lillie Mae to believe he was, and many people in town who had seen him come and go over the years, breezing into town in an expensive LaSalle or Packard Phaeton when he had money, sponging off his friends when he was strapped, knew it and secretly delighted in her misfortune. Everyone conceded that she was a fine-looking young woman, perhaps the most fetching girl Monroe County had produced in a generation. What people objected to was the fact that she made no secret that she shared their high opinion. She had thrown over one perfectly nice local boy to marry Arch, and she had made it abundantly clear that she did not plan to spend the rest of her days in Monroeville, baking cakes for the Baptist missionary circle. Her eyes were fixed on distant horizons, on New Orleans, St. Louis, even New York City. Yet the sweet but cruel fact was that with all of her airs, here she was, back in town almost before her bridal bouquet had had time to wither. Her fall from pride had come more swiftly than anyone had dared to hope, and her misjudgment was much talked about that fall and winter. "People in Monroeville thought that Arch was a slick operator and that it was a sad, sad day that my sister married him," said her brother Seabon. "They felt that she should have known better."

No one believed that more firmly than Lillie Mae herself. She was too young and too resilient, with far too much spirit, to mope around the house for very long, however. Since Arch could not take care of her, she made plans to take care of herself. Rather than go back to college, she chose a more practical course, enrolling in a business school in Selma. It was there, during an exercise class in the winter of 1924, that she fainted and in that rude way learned that she was pregnant. It was not a happy discovery, given the apparent hopelessness of her marriage, and the prospect of bearing Arch's child must have seemed like a sentence to prison, something that would make her mistake in marrying him permanent and irrevocable. Although Arch by this time had found a job with a steamship company in New Orleans, Lillie Mae was not convinced that he had reformed, and without telling him her news, she abandoned her classes and returned once again to Monroeville, determined to have an abortion. That was not an easy thing to do in 1924, and she very likely asked Jennie for help. And Jennie almost certainly said no, commanding the prospective father to come and retrieve his pregnant wife.

Lillie Mae's resolve to have an abortion was as strong as ever, and she now addressed her demand to Arch, pleading, cajoling, and arguing with him all through the spring of 1924. "Of course I kept stalling and excusing," he explained, "because I wanted a little son more than anything else in the world. Finally, when June came around, I arranged for her to go with some friends of mine to Colorado, which had a wonderful climate for her to be in." When Lillie Mae returned to Monroeville in July, her pregnancy had advanced too far for an abortion to be considered; like it or not, she was going to have Arch's child.

Arch was content to let Jennie and her sisters preside over the birth of his baby, but when Lillie Mae's time came near, Jennie sent her down to New Orleans, where Arch rented a suite in the Monteleone Hotel, on the edge of the French Quarter, and arranged for the services of Dr. E. R. King, one of the city's best gynecologists and obstetricians. Finally, on the morning of Tuesday, September 30, Lillie Mae began having labor pains. After summoning her brother Seabon, Arch carried her to a cab and took her to the Touro Infirmary. While the father and the uncle paced the hallway together, the baby — the boy Arch had wanted so much — was delivered about three o'clock that afternoon. Arch named him Truman after Truman Moore, an old friend from military school, and Streckfus after the New Orleans family that employed him: Truman Streckfus Persons.


At the beginning, anyway, Lillie Mae put aside her earlier misgivings and acted like any other happy new mother, trying, in an almost comical way, to teach Truman to talk and recognize things around him even before he could lift his head off the pillow. Arch surprised her by making a great success of his new job, which was to book clubs and churches aboard the Streckfus Company's fleet of Mississippi excursion boats. Fall and winter he worked out of New Orleans; spring and summer, out of St. Louis.

Rarely is anyone so well suited for a job as Arch was to his, and probably no one since Mark Twain has made a cruise on the Mississippi sound more exciting. Whatever the group, he had the pitch that would bring it aboard. "If you could be sold, Arch could sell you," said his boss, Captain Verne Streckfus. "He was the best." After years of searching, Arch had found his calling. Just as some men are natural athletes, or musicians, or leaders of troops in battle, he was a born salesman. In the time it would take a prospective customer to drink a cup of coffee, he could cast a spell that would turn the cream pitcher into Aladdin's Lamp, the sugar bowl into a chest full of treasure.

Arch was not an ordinary charmer, however, and his ability to persuade did not rest on flattery, backslapping, or the telling of funny stories — though he could do all of those things with practiced ease. His charm had a firmer foundation: after a few minutes of conversation, he could divine a person's secret dreams, much as a fortune-teller can reconstruct one's past from a few clues unwittingly volunteered, and he could make those hidden dreams seem as close and attainable as tomorrow's newspaper. He was mesmerizing; he was tantalizing; he was, in his own way, a magician, Svengali in a white linen suit. His magnetic appeal became so celebrated that The Circle, the company magazine, officially declared him "the Streckfus Line's Prince Charming."

His was a dazzling talent, too large to be confined to his job with the Streckfuses. During March and August, his two free months, and in whatever other spare time he had, he continued to hunt for that gold mine, as he called it, that was waiting just over the hill. During the years when Truman was a baby, he tried any number of schemes, each one of which he expected to be the mother lode. One year he managed a prizefighter who went by the name of Joe Littleton. Arch wanted to stage a match in Monroeville, right on the courthouse square, and, to get publicity, he sent the main attraction jogging around town in his boxing shorts. "All the ladies were scandalized," remembered Lillie Mae's sister Mary Ida Carter. "They had never seen a man's legs before." But the city council, alarmed by the uproar, passed an ordinance banning boxing within the town limits, and Joe Littleton put his trousers back on and returned home to New Orleans.

Another time, Arch spied that elusive gold mine in the Great Pasha, otherwise known as Sam Goldberg from the Bronx. Goldberg, who wore a turban and a robe, made his living putting on a kind of grotesque variety act. His best trick, the gimmick that excited Arch so much, was his ability to survive burial. With the help of what was advertised as a secret Egyptian drug, he could retard his heartbeat to such an abnormally slow rate that he hardly needed to breathe; he could remain alive in an airtight coffin for up to five hours. Calling him the "World's Foremost Man of Mystery," Arch staged his Pasha show — "Burial Alive, Blindfold Drive, Nailed to Cross, Torture Act and 100 others" — in half a dozen places. In Monroeville, people came to see it from a hundred miles around; even the banks closed for the day. Despite their success, Arch and the Pasha eventually quarreled and parted. For Arch it may have been just as well. Not long after their breakup, Goldberg's Egyptian drug failed him, and one day when his coffin was dug up, the Great Pasha was as still as the Pharaohs.

Arch had other projects: a plan to syndicate shorthand lessons in newspapers, a magazine for sororities and fraternities, a series of popularity contests for high school girls. There was, in fact, no end to his schemes. His mind shot off ideas like a Fourth of July sparkler, and he thought of little else but new ways to make his fortune. "Money is the sixth sense, without which the other five are of no avail," he liked to say, and he believed that it was his destiny to be rich. If he had had some extra quality — perhaps nothing more extraordinary than patience — he might have fulfilled that destiny and become as famous a promoter as Billy Rose, Mike Todd, or the man he resembled most of all, P. T. Barnum. But whatever that quality was, he did not possess it. His emotional barometer was subject to too many fluctuations — ebullience one day, depression the next — and he did not have the temperament to stick to any single thing for very long. He was, moreover, not always scrupulous about how he acquired his money. As he rushed toward fortune, he sometimes stooped very low to pick up a dollar and looked less and less like a visionary promoter and more and more like an ordinary con man. The image that remains from those years is that of the local sheriff automatically fingering the keys to the lockup every time Arch came to town. Even his mother, who was convinced that God meant for him to do something grand and important, complained that he did not know the difference between right and wrong.


Looking back years later, Lillie Mae often said that she had married Arch only to get away from home. Sometimes, however, when she was in a mellow mood, she admitted that she had once loved him — and that is doubtless the truth of the matter. "Arch was so romantic," said Mary Ida. "He would always bring her a bouquet of flowers — even if he had to go to the side of the yard to pick them." But their romance scarcely outlasted their courtship: Arch was an easy man to like, but he was not an easy man to love; the very thing that made him so charming — all those promises he passed out so freely — invariably led to disenchantment. Instead of forgiving him his feckless ways, as she might have done if he had not raised her hopes so high, Lillie Mae held them against him, convinced that he had deceived her. "She thought that she had been hooked into marrying him," said Seabon. "She had thought she was marrying a man who would give her some security and a home life." Arch could give her neither, and if she had not become pregnant, it is doubtful that they would have stayed together more than a year.

As it was, their marriage did not so much end as it dissolved, slowly at first and then faster and faster, like a cube of sugar dropped into an iced drink. Lillie Mae appears to have made an effort to preserve it for a few months after Truman was born, but she soon gave up and other men entered her life. "She'd take a notion to a fellow and she just couldn't wait to get into bed with him," said Arch. "She wanted a thrill and she would get it. Then in three or four weeks she'd be through with it and ready to go on to something else." In the seven years they were man and wife, Arch claimed to have counted twenty-nine such affairs. His brother John, who also had been tricked and lied to by Arch, was willing to forgive Lillie Mae her adulteries; what he could not forgive her was her poor choice in men. "Invariably," he complained in one letter, "they are either Greeks, Spaniards, college sheiks, foolish young city upstarts, or just as immature small-town habitants."


Excerpted from "Capote"
by .
Copyright © 1988 Gerald Clarke.
Excerpted by permission of RosettaBooks.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Capote 3.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 14 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
As a fan of his writing, you may gain a deeper insight as to why Capote kept you turning the pages. As an observer of his life, you may get a hint of why it was so troubled. The writer and the person both demanded attention and left indelible marks, some appreciated and some saddened, on life as it was lived and recorded in his time.
michaelbartley on LibraryThing 5 months ago
a first rate biography of truman capote. a very talented but flawed and tragic man. he was a greek tragic person excellent story
Nahotep on LibraryThing 5 months ago
Gives great insight into its subject, skips around chronologically a bit too much, but is quite well written overall.
rainpebble on LibraryThing 5 months ago
I found "Capote" to be quite a good read. It was interesting and very different for me. I found it rather fascinating to find that Clarke had not written a novel before. He was a journalist which I am certain aided him greatly in his research of this book.Capote was a very colorful and unique individual with gifts and talents way beyond his use of them. I think he very much let "the plastic life" get in the way of his work. He definitely knew how to get what he wanted from people and he worked very hard to that end. He also had a wonderful work ethic when he was working on a project. I think he was a huge talent and that he just wasted so much of what he had to offer the literary world.I also think Capote was a scalawag. He allowed no slight to pass by. He had to do "payback" even if it attributed to his self-destruction.I found the first 3/4 of the book wonderful reading. The last quarter of the book I guess I could have done without because I am old enough to remember his downfall and to remember watching it and reading about it.Truman Capote was, however, a truly one of a kind personality and I am glad that I read the book.
jmatson on LibraryThing 5 months ago
Well written and documented biography of Truman Capote.Incandescent rise and dark and depressing fall.Good read.
BinnieBee on LibraryThing 8 months ago
I enjoyed the book very much. It was quite lengthy so at times I tended to scan rather than really "read", but I would recommend it.
jennyo on LibraryThing 8 months ago
This was, without a doubt, the best biography I've ever read. Clarke couldn't have had a more interesting subject to write about. Capote's life seemed somehow larger than most, and Clarke makes you feel as if you were right there watching the action. He seems to have adopted Capote's In Cold Blood technique; he removes himself as a narrator and lets the events of Truman's life unfold as if he were writing a novel, a novel with some of the richest characters ever created. Yet it's entirely based on fact. It's absolutely fascinating and well worth a read whether you're a Capote fan or not.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
His thanksgiving story no longer on pbs or the murders that he made famous in a book or the actors in that movie. We might say rest in peace to them all if you must try and find his books on e book
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Guest More than 1 year ago
I can't believe how fascinating of a life this man lived. What a true american. This work of literature is definitly one of the best in literary history!
Guest More than 1 year ago
A good biography, but definitely not the movie. This book covers his entire life. By comparison, it glosses over the In Cold Blood years whereas the movie is focused on the In Cold Blood years in much more detail. The endless name dropping is tedious and distracting from the genius of the man, but I guess Capote was a bit of a name dropper and social climber.