Truman Capote and the Legacy of

Truman Capote and the Legacy of "In Cold Blood"

by Ralph F. Voss

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780817358310
Publisher: University of Alabama Press
Publication date: 03/15/2015
Edition description: 1st Edition
Pages: 260
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.20(h) x 0.50(d)

About the Author

Ralph F. Voss is a retired professor of English from the University of Alabama. He is the author of A Life of William Inge: The Strains of Triumph, editor of Magical Muse: Millennial Essays on Tennessee Williams, and coeditor of Against the Grain: A Volume in Honor of Maxine Hairston.

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Truman Capote and the Legacy of In Cold Blood

By Ralph F. Voss

The University of Alabama Press

Copyright © 2011 The University of Alabama Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8173-5831-0


The Legacy of Capote's Celebrity

Truman Capote was the Elvis Presley of American Letters.

— David Gates, "Literature's Lost Boy: Capote: A Biography by Gerald Clarke," Newsweek, May 30, 1988

Some American writers have been more talented, but few have been more conspicuous than Truman Capote. Born September 30, 1924, in New Orleans to a mostly absent father and a mother who didn't want him, he seems to have spent his life seeking attention and affection. His father, the ebulliently charming Arch Persons, was often broke, often in trouble with the law, and seldom near. His mother, Lillie Mae Faulk Persons, was beautiful and spoiled. She would probably have divorced Arch as soon as he ran out of money and shortened their New Orleans honeymoon by sending her home, but she discovered soon after that she was pregnant. She had been so eager to find a way out of tiny Monroeville, Alabama, that she had believed the big-talking Arch, and now she found herself back in Monroeville feeling desperate and trapped. She considered abortion but relented even though she still didn't want to reconcile with Arch. When Arch found what proved to be only temporary employment in New Orleans and sent for her, she reluctantly returned to him. Thus little Truman Streckfus Persons (the middle name being that of Arch's employers at the time) came into a mostly unwelcoming world. He spent most of the rest of his life trying to get that world to appreciate and love him.

The marriage of Lillie Mae and Arch was doomed. Arch was unable or unwilling to keep a good-paying job, and Lillie Mae was mostly contemptuous of him, often having affairs, sometimes in Truman's presence. Frequently shunted off to be cared for by Faulk relatives in Monroeville, young Truman was small and precocious, always hoping his eventually divorced and often promiscuous mother would return for him so that he could go to live with her, or imagining his somehow miraculously changed father would arrive to whisk him away to a place — anyplace — where he would be welcomed, loved, wanted. He felt the sting of parental absence, which he took as rejection for reasons he couldn't fathom. Most of his Faulk relatives were pretty serious grownups who had little time to really soothe him; Aunt Jennie, Aunt Callie, and Uncle Bud accepted Truman as one of their own in a rather businesslike manner. But he found more comfort in Sook, a simple-minded, childlike cousin who, as biographer Gerald Clarke writes, "did her best to be both mother and friend, and to a large extent succeeded" (21). Capote would later base characters in The Grass Harp and "A Christmas Memory" on Sook, but at the time she helped ease the ache he felt from not having loving parents in his daily life, an ache that was not evident in photographs from that time showing little Truman as a beautiful young man, eager to please the photographer, oozing charm, as though he never had a sense of loneliness or abandonment.

Next door to the Faulk house on Alabama Avenue in Monroeville was the Lee home, and the Lees' youngest daughter, Nelle Harper, who was a bit younger than Truman, became his only other friend besides Sook. No one knew it at the time, of course, but when Truman spent so much of his boyhood time playing with Nelle Harper, literary stars were falling on Alabama because both were to become famous writers and both were to use each other as models in their fiction: the tomboy Idabel Thompkins in Capote's first novel, Other Voices, Other Rooms (1948) is based on Nelle; Dill Harris in Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird (1960) is based on Truman. Though both books are works of fiction, both are tinged with autobiography; Truman was often targeted as a bookish "sissy," and Nelle was a rough-and-tumble girl who often defended Truman when he was picked on by other boys. Their friendship was rich in imagination. Both avid readers, they would pretend to be writers, and they discerned in the relatively quiet world of Monroeville people and incidents that would later inspire more serious writing efforts. Truman later said he knew he wanted to be a writer when he was only nine or ten years old (Clarke, 48–49). The Truman and Nelle friendship endured well into their adult years, and Lee was to play a major role in Capote's research for In Cold Blood. But in the Depression-era 1930s, their literary marks were yet to be made.

A county seat of around 1,300 people in southwest Alabama, Monroeville in the 1930s was typically Southern and drowsy, much as Lee describes it as the fictional town of Maycomb in the opening pages of To Kill a Mockingbird. Like Maycomb, Monroeville was rigidly segregated, and the sort of racial violence so familiar in Southern settings in American literature and films always bubbled beneath the town's surface. Monroeville also had its complement of colorful local characters and stories, some of them grotesque, even frightening, and the bright young Truman wicked them into his creative lamp, later to burn brightly on the pages of many of his short stories, such as "My Side of the Matter," "A Tree of Night" (both first published in 1945), and "Children on their Birthdays" (1949). Later, better-known stories such as "A Christmas Memory" (1956) and "The Thanksgiving Visitor" (1967) are also set in Monroeville, which was the closest thing Truman had to a home until he was ten, and it resonated in his mind and his fiction long after he stopped spending significant amounts of time there. Its environs furnished the setting not only for many short stories but also for the novels Other Voices, Other Rooms (1948) and The Grass Harp (1951).

But early in 1935, when Truman was ten, Lillie Mae finally won what had been a bitter battle with Arch for custody of their son. She was now living in New York City and remarried; her new husband, Joseph Capote, seemed to embody what she most wanted: money, social position, and marital security. She sent to Monroeville for Truman, who envisioned real family life at last. But once in New York, he soon realized that he was still largely unwelcome. His mother and Joe Capote seemed very much in love and in motion — off to local diversions such as races, theaters, and clubs or off to Europe or Atlantic tropical islands. Truman, meanwhile, was off to boarding school. Lillie Mae apparently wanted to win the custody battle more than she really wanted Truman. And as if to break permanently with her past, Lillie Mae changed her name to Nina, a name Gerald Clarke describes as "more cosmopolitan, more in keeping with her new life" (40). That "new life" may have involved custody of Truman, but it did not involve Nina's giving of herself to Truman. When she had visited him in Monroeville, she had smothered him with attention and affection, but that was an act, easily sustained until she abandoned him again. In New York she either neglected him or criticized him for not being like other boys his age. Joe Capote's adoption of Truman and giving him his last name did not remedy this deep-seated problem, nor did Nina's later willful abortion of pregnancies that would have given Joe children and Truman siblings. Nina was convinced any additional children would be like Truman.

Certainly, Truman was not like other boys. He was small and effeminate, and he had a distinctive, strange voice that did not deepen as he grew to adolescence; in fact, it was never to deepen. Well aware of his difference, he had sometimes wished when he was young that he had been female, but he could do nothing to calm Nina's fears that her son was homosexual. Indeed, Clarke reports the adult Truman's recollection of his first sexual experience, which was with a male teacher at his school (44). Chagrined that her son bore all the stereotypical homosexual characteristics, Nina sent him to psychiatrists, hoping they could help reverse Truman in some way; then, when that didn't work, she sent him to military school where, according to Clarke, as "the smallest and prettiest boy in his class, Truman was looked upon as sexual prey by several cadets" (45). As he moved further into adolescence, he came gradually to the rather brave personal realization that he had to accept himself as he was — unwanted by his mother, estranged from his father, endowed with creative gifts, and gay.

It would still be years before that self-acceptance and self-recognition would be the central theme of Other Voices, Other Rooms, in which Joel Harrison Knox, the Capote-based protagonist, comes to a momentous realization:

The morning was like a slate clean for any future, and it was as though an end had come, as if all that had been before had turned into a bird, and flown there to the island tree: a crazy elation caught hold of Joel, he ran, he zigzagged, he sang, he was in love, he caught a little tree-toad because he loved it and because he loved it he set it free, watched it bounce, bound like the immense leaping of his heart; he hugged himself, alive and glad, and socked the air, butted like a goat, hid behind a bush, jumped out: Boo! "Look, Randolph," he said, folding a turban of moss about his head, "look, who am I?" ...

"I am me," Joel whooped. "I am Joel, we are the same people." And he looked about for a tree to climb: he would go right to the very top, and there, midway to heaven, he would spread his arms and claim the world.

In postwar American literature, Joel's declaration of self is a moment of moral clarity reminiscent of Huck Finn's famous decision not to betray his black friend Jim despite Huck's belief that he's committing a crime and a sin by helping Jim escape slavery. "All right then, I'll go to hell," Huck concludes, vowing not to harm Jim, and literary history is made. Surely in gay American literature, which was just emerging from the closet in the late 1940s, Joel's conclusion is similarly significant. George Davis, the editor of Mademoiselle magazine who published some of Capote's earliest stories, was not entirely joking when he said of Other Voices, Other Rooms: "I suppose someone had to write the fairy Huckleberry Finn" (Quoted in Clarke, 158).

But after his year in military school, Truman was still only thirteen, and the publication of Other Voices, Other Rooms was still a decade distant. What was important after his year in military school was his growing realization of self, and its concomitant realization that he was likely going to have a lifelong love-hate relationship with Nina. By fifteen or so, he felt increasingly free to "spread his arms and claim the world," and for him that meant using his gifts not only to write but also to embrace his natural self, as though he had finally said to himself, "All right, I'm queer." He was sure he had something to contribute, and he already knew he could win people over unless, like Nina, they were stridently homophobic. Most people were susceptible to Capote's remarkable ability to ingratiate himself, and he learned that he often held special charm for beautiful, wealthy young women that he met in the world of private schools in Manhattan and suburban Connecticut where Nina and Joe lived at different times. These young women found him always interested in their experiences while not being interested in them sexually. He was eager to hear their confidences, and they found his ideas and opinions entertaining. Early female friends included Phoebe Pierce and Oona O'Neill, daughter of Eugene, America's Nobel Prize– winning dramatist. Eventually he would cultivate the friendship of many more such "swans" (as he later called them) as his career grew: "Slim" Hay-ward (later Slim Keith), Barbara ("Babe") Paley, Jennifer Jones, Marilyn Monroe, Elizabeth Taylor, Jacqueline Kennedy, Marella Agnelli, Lee Radziwill, C. Z. Guest, and others. It was as though these women were, at some level, stand-ins for Nina, that most elusive beautiful woman who, unlike his "swans," would not accept him as he was.

His charm, however, escaped most of his schoolteachers — not because he wasn't interested in learning, but because he insisted on learning only what interested him. His grades in English were good; all other grades were not. He didn't graduate from high school on schedule, nor did he ever go to college. Instead, while still in high school he took a lowly copyboy's job at the New Yorker, a prestigious magazine that rewarded him by not publishing any of his submissions. Fully intending to be famous, which he considered the ultimate acceptance, he was undeterred. In his naivete, he thought that celebrity would bring him the love he never seemed to get from Nina and Arch. By now he was eighteen, but he looked much younger, and he was something of a curiosity in the New Yorker's hallways. He was living on Park Avenue with Nina and Joe but doing pretty much what he wanted socially — including drinking a good deal. However, after high school, many of his female friends had left the city for college, careers, or matrimony; Carol Marcus had married writer William Saroyan; Oona O'Neill had married actor and director Charlie Chaplin. His own transition to adult life was going to be a bit bumpy.

He used his New Yorker vacation to attend the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference in Vermont, where his name-dropping of his employers got him into trouble because he walked out of a room while Robert Frost was reading poetry, causing the eminent poet to think Capote's exit was equivalent to a bad review in the New Yorker. Word got back to the magazine, and Capote was fired in 1944. Out of a job at twenty, he asked Joe Capote to support him while he finished the novel he was working on. Joe agreed, and Truman returned to Monroeville (Clarke, 76–77).

That return proved pivotal, for in the familiar haunts of his youth, Capote turned to material with which he had the greatest affinity — himself, his experiences, his impressions. He had been working on a novel he was calling Summer Crossing, about a rebellious New York City debutante determined to infuriate her wealthy parents while they were away to Europe for the summer. He abandoned that to work on what would be his earliest successful short stories, along with what would eventually be Other Voices, Other Rooms. He had a natural flair for the gothic, not so much the gothic of Nathaniel Hawthorne or Edgar Allan Poe of the American Renaissance era as the more recent Southern-flavored stories of William Faulkner or Katherine Anne Porter. He didn't know it at the time, but he was catching a Southern wave that included the work of Carson McCullers, Eudora Welty, Flannery O'Connor, and Thomas Lanier "Tennessee" Williams.

When he returned to New York City to resume living with Nina and Joe, he no longer tried to sell his stories to the New Yorker. Rather, he turned to Mademoiselle, Harper's Bazaar, Story, and Vogue. Mademoiselle published "Miriam," a haunting psychological story about a strange young girl who commandeers — or seems to commandeer — an aging widow's life. "Miriam" won him his first O. Henry Award for best short story (he would eventually win two more) and began a chain of fortuitous social connections for Capote. Capote's circle of acquaintance widened through George Davis, editor of Mademoiselle; Mary Louise Aswell, story editor of Harper's Bazaar; and Leo Lerman, a Manhattan character who, like Davis, operated a more or less continuous salon where various writers, artists, and entertainers congregated. Not only were his stories in demand at magazines, but he was also meeting other people who would prove important in his career.

Rita Smith, George Davis's assistant at Mademoisselle, was Carson McCullers' younger sister, and Smith introduced Capote to McCullers, who in turn introduced Capote to publisher Bennett Cerf at Random House. After the success of "Miriam," Cerf offered Capote a contract and an advance for Other Voices, Other Rooms and assigned Robert Linscott as Capote's editor on the book. Linscott had worked with McCullers, who assured Capote of Linscott's virtues as an editor, an assurance that proved merited, for Linscott's longtime guidance and counsel were invaluable to Truman. McCullers also helped Capote get a summer's residency at Yaddo, the artists' and writers' colony near Saratoga Springs, New York. It was at Yaddo where, while working on Other Voices, Other Rooms, Capote met Newton Arvin, the severely closeted Smith College literature professor who would be Capote's first serious long-term lover. At Yaddo, Capote was magnetic, dancing, confiding, and gossiping, charming everyone, especially the older women, including Elizabeth Ames, who managed Yaddo, as well as Katherine Anne Porter, Yaddo's creative grande dame. Even though Arvin would never greatly alter his inhibited, reclusive lifestyle in Northampton, Massachusetts, to accommodate living with Capote, he often mentored Truman, broadening Capote's learning while encouraging and loving him. "Newton was my Harvard," Capote once recalled (Clarke, 119). Perhaps most important, Capote was finding ways to fill the longtime emptiness created by Arch and especially Nina's emotional abandonment.


Excerpted from Truman Capote and the Legacy of In Cold Blood by Ralph F. Voss. Copyright © 2011 The University of Alabama Press. Excerpted by permission of The University of Alabama Press.
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Table of Contents


List of Illustrations,
1. The Legacy of Capote's Celebrity,
2. The Gothic Muse Triumphant,
3. A Legacy of Style,
4. The Myth of the Nonfiction Novel,
5. The Gay Subtext of In Cold Blood,
6. Capote's Argument against Capital Punishment,
7. The Legacy of Creative Influence,
8. The Legacy in Kansas,

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