HomeBooksTruman Capote: Storyteller, Writer, Voyeur, Legend

Truman Capote: Storyteller, Writer, Voyeur, Legend

As America celebrates the 50th anniversary of In Cold Blood, we examine the life, work, celebrity and legacy of author Truman Capote. 

by Katrina Thomas and Erin Z. Bass

Surrounding Truman Capote’s birthday on September 30, we are dedicating the next several weeks to the author who was born in New Orleans and spent his early childhood in Alabama. Through a series of stories and interviews about Capote’s life and death, we will strive to present a full portrait of the author  — complete with his triumphs and faults. We’ll be talking to authors who’ve written about him, studied and discovered his work to examine his place in Southern and American literature, his celebrity image and the legacy he leaves behind.

othervoicesCapote began writing when he was about eight years old. His first story as a child was written for entrance into a contest, and his first short story was published at the age of 15. His first novel, Other Voices, Other Rooms, was released in 1948 by Random House. He was just 24 years old and already being compared to William Faulkner, Eudora Welty and Carson McCullers.

Capote realized he wanted to be a writer while living with his aunts and cousins in Monroeville, Alabama. His mother had deposited him there so that she could pursue her dreams in New York, and young Truman found himself surrounded by small town characters and living next door to a little girl named Nelle “Harper” Lee. Together, the pair made up stories in their treehouse and got into petty mischief, all the while honing the skills that would make them two of the most famous writers of the 20th century.

Harper Lee was the inspiration for Capote’s character of Idabel Thompkins in Other Voices, and years later she returned the favor by modeling her character Dill Harris in To Kill A Mockingbird after Capote.

breakfast-at-tiffanysCapote followed up Other Voices with The Grass Harp and then Breakfast at Tiffany’s. While In Cold Blood is his most famous novel and made literary history, it could be argued that he’s best remembered for Breakfast at Tiffany’s and the 1961 film starring Audrey Hepburn. Anyone who’s read the book or seen the movie can conjure up an image of Holly Golightly with an air of “chic thinness” wearing a “slim cool black dress, black sandals, a pearl choker.”

Capote was well known as a writer who depicted the glamorous lives of his friends in his short stories and novels. No doubt Holly was based on some of the women he met after moving to New York to live with his mother, but Capote also had a soft spot for misfits. His early stories rediscovered in the archives of the New York Public Library last year show compassion for outsiders and a keen eye for observation. These traits would also serve him well as he headed out to Kansas in 1959 to investigate the shocking murder of the Clutter family.

Capote is credited with pioneering the genre of “the nonfiction novel” after the release of In Cold Blood in 1966. A feat of both investigative journalism and true crime storytelling, In Cold Blood took Capote six years to write and was his crowning glory, though it failed to win the Pulitzer Prize. He celebrated by hosting a masked Black and White Ball with a high society guest list that was the talk of New York for years to come.

Brenda Currin on Filming ‘In Cold Blood’ and Meeting Truman Capote

350x500_incoldbloodAfter In Cold Blood, Capote returned to writing about his friends in short stories he sold to Esquire magazine, promising everyone he was working on a new novel titled Answered Prayers. But this time the author went too far — and drugs and alcohol only fueled the situation. His celebrity friends didn’t appreciate him putting their lives on display for all to see on the page, and he lost many of his closest confidantes as a result of what would be his final stories. Only three chapters of Answered Prayers are known to have been completed and so Capote leaves us with a volume of work that is quite accessible yet incomplete.

In the preface to Music for Chameleons, Truman Capote is quoted as saying “When God hands you a gift, he also hands you a whip; and the whip is intended solely for self-flagellation.” Capote died at the age of 59 in the Los Angeles home of Joanna Carson, wife of Johnny Carson, but his legacy lives on.

As a testament to Capote’s lasting celebrity, his ashes are currently up for auction with a starting bid at $2,000, novelists like G. Neri and Melanie Benjamin continue to publish fictional stories about him, and as evidenced by his early short stories discovered in the New York Public Library archives by a German scholar last year, it seems he’s not quite done telling us stories.

Capote illustration by Paige Raley. 

Truman Capote Readin
Literary Friday, Edi
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