Harper Lee gets most of the claims to fame when it comes to Alabama’s hometown authors, but Truman Capote was just as inspired by the small town of Monroeville.
We wrap up our fall celebration of Truman Capote’s life and work with a guide to his time spent living with his aunts in Monroeville, Alabama. In her book South Toward Home: Travels in Southern Literature (now available in paperback), Margaret Eby writes about Capote’s Alabama childhood and how the town courthouse has memorialized him with an exhibit, complete with his crocheted baby blanket on display.
What follows is an excerpt from South Toward Home, along with some of the locations where fans can find remnants of Capote in Monroeville—from his own historical marker to a Storyteller’s Fountain.
The dearth of information on Harper Lee’s personal life is particularly striking when compared to the rooms dedicated to Monroeville’s other literary sensation: Truman Capote, born Truman Streckfus Persons. Capote grew up spending his summers with his cousins, the Faulks, who lived next door to Lee. The Faulk family had donated a slew of artifacts from Capote’s youth to the museum after the writer’s death in 1984. There are handwritten letters between Capote and his aunt Mary Ida Faulk, as well as pages from a family photo album and a colorful, worn crocheted baby blanket he rarely traveled without, even as an adult. The notes from Capote are lively and tinged with family gossip. In one, he derides his estranged father’s attempt to trade on Capote’s fame as part of his business selling pennyscales. In another, he explains having to delay a visit back to the South with fellow Alabamian, actress Tallulah Bankhead. “I honestly think it would be a mistake for us to stay right in your house,” Capote writes. “Tallulah stays up all night every night and never gets up till five in the afternoon.”
Capote and Lee’s childhood friendship worked its way into both writers’ fiction. A version of Lee appears in Capote’s first novel, Other Voices, Other Rooms, as the sassy, tomboyish Idabel Thompkins. In Mockingbird, Capote is the model for Charles Baker “Dill” Harris, the slightly effeminate out-of-towner who eggs on Scout and Finch’s investigation of the Radley house. “Dill was a curiosity,” Lee wrote. “He wore blue linen shorts that buttoned to his shirt, his hair was snow white and stuck to his head like duck-fluff; he was a year my senior but I towered over him.”
Lee could have been describing—and indeed might have been—the oddly formal childhood photo of young Capote, blown up and hung on one of the walls in the museum. In it, Capote looks like a shrunken serious scholar, his hand deep in the pockets of his formal shorts, and a smile semisuppressed. Like Dill, Capote blew in as the summer began, got into mischief, and left again in the fall. Like Dill, Capote’s worldliness was partially earned and partially faked, a tumultuous family situation eased by an abundance of chattering Alabama cousins. Capote clearly identified with Lee’s fictionalized version of himself, even going so far as to boast about it. “Nelle’s book is high on the bestseller list,” Capote wrote to his friends Alvin and Marie Dewey after Mockingbird came out. “And yes, my dear, I am Dill.”
The relationship between attention-loving Capote and publicity-shy Lee has long passed into mythology. It’s not unusual for a large city to birth several writers who enter the literary canon, but for a small rural town in the Deep South to do so is remarkable. They seemed like an Algonquin roundtable of South Alabama embodied in one friendship. Even standing in the sunlight-soaked rooms full of Capote’s personal items, it’s easy to envision them at parties, Capote at the center of the table and Lee making quick, dry jokes at the edge of the room.”
Excerpted from South Toward Home by Margaret Eby. Copyright © 2015 by Margaret Eby. Used with the permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.
Truman Capote Monroeville Location Guide
A historical marker dedicated to Truman Capote can be found next to Mel’s Dairy Dream at the site of Lee’s and Capote’s former homes. All that remains is a stone wall that separated the two houses and allowed the writers to become fast friends in such close proximity. In the summertime, Capote would come to town to stay with his Faulk relatives. According to the marker, he lived at the Faulk home between 1927 and 1933.
Next stop is the Old Courthouse Museum on the square with exhibits on both Capote and Lee and also where Lee’s father practiced law. Inside is one of the most recognized courtrooms in America, as it was the model for scenes in the film version of “To Kill a Mockingbird.” One whole side of the museum is dedicated to Capote with family photos, letters, quilts and displays on topics like whether or not Capote wrote To Kill a Mockingbird.
Alabama Southern Community College further memorializes Capote with a mixed media portrait and collection of books in its library and an outdoor fountain etched with his name and those of nine other writers from the area. Each spring, the college holds the Alabama Writers Symposium. Capote was the featured author during the 2016 event when he was also inducted into the Alabama Writers Hall of Fame.
“We have all been keen to reintroduce Truman Capote to his fellow Alabamians,” says Alabama Southern’s Alisha Linam. “His work remains vivid, fresh, and remarkably Southern, and we all think it is time for Monroeville and Alabama to claim him with pride.”
This story is part of our celebration of Truman Capote’s life and work in conjunction with his birthday September 30 and the 50th anniversary of the publication of In Cold Blood this year. Click here for more Capote stories and interviews.