Shipping to
United States
Words by Mr Colin McDowell

It isn't easy being a physically small man, but it does perhaps make for more effort to get on than you would expect from a 6-foot hunk of relaxed walking languor. It also tends to make hats attractive. At 5'3", Mr Truman Capote was very small and he had a life-long addiction to hats, usually fedoras, but was not averse to wearing sailor's hats (which probably could tell their own story) or baseball caps. Most would also agree that he had a consuming ambition.

But small as he was, he was packed with talent and is still recognised as a major writer now, within living memory of his death - the time when many writers and artists who have made a popular cultural mark go out of fashion and even out of print. Mr Capote's most famous but by no means best work, the novella, Breakfast at Tiffany's, has never been out of print since it was first published to considerable acclaim in 1958 and followed by a perennially popular film of the same name in 1961.

Born in New Orleans in 1924, Mr Capote's career had begun early - and it is important to remember that his career goal was as much to be famous as to be a successful writer - with the publication of his first novel, Other Voices, Other Rooms, in 1948. It caused a sensation in literary circles, not least for the unsettlingly sexual publicity picture of the author, who masterminded the shoot himself. Looking like a young boy with his white blond hair, he was reclining and giving a very worldly come-hither look to the viewer. It sparked a famous tale of two women looking at it in a bookshop window for a long time in silence that was broken only when one of them said, "If he isn't young, he's dangerous". Mr Capote, who once said, "I don't care what anybody says about me as long as it isn't true", was apparently thrilled.

Mr Capote, shot by Mr Henri Cartier-Bresson, Louisiana, 1947.
Courtesy of Magnum Photos

Literary success followed and Mr Capote began his second career, gathering admirers from the highest echelons of American literature - among them Ms Willa Cather, Mr Tennessee Williams and Mr Norman Mailer, who called him, "the most perfect writer of my generation" - most of whom he managed to fall out with at one point or another. Not only was he bitchy and contumelious, he was a notorious drunk, a drug taker and a very open homosexual at a time when the American hierarchy was still nervous of such things. He was, like all radical writers, totally anti-Establishment in theory although he fawned on the rich and was a friend of Ms Lee Radziwill (with whom he travelled on the Rolling Stones 1972 American Tour) and, through her, of her sister, Ms Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.

With his high-pitched voice, and bizarre speech inflections, Mr Capote was a memorable person and he dressed for the role he had made for himself in a wide range of ways - half Ivy League, half Southern gentleman. He loved bow ties and striped matelot shirts and his favourite suits were Mark Twain white linen worn with a large, shady wide-brimmed hat. His social life meant he wore a tuxedo very much more often than most men do - which might have given him the idea for The Black and White Ball of 1966, the snobbiest, starriest affair in New York for generations of which it was said that it made Mr Capote a friend of 500 socialites but an enemy of 15,000, depending on who received the invitations.

Held at the Plaza in New York it began life as just a ball but when it was pointed out that many people might consider a ball in one's own honour rather vulgar and decline to come, Mr Capote, ever the pragmatist and opportunist, changed it to a ball in honour of Ms Katharine Graham, the revered publisher of The Washington Post. Celebs, show biz, high society: it was the culmination of a life of ruthless social climbing and perversely fulfilled in every way Mr Capote's own description of who he was: "I am not a saint yet. I'm an alcoholic. I'm a drug addict. I'm homosexual. I'm a genius."

And so to his greatest work, In Cold Blood, published in 1966 and the consummate example of a genre he invented, that he named the non-fiction novel. The tale of a brutal family murder that took place in Kansas in 1959, Mr Capote completely immersed himself in every detail of the event, closely following the protracted court case and conducting in-depth interviews with the two murderers, one of whom he developed a strange, ambivalent relationship. He took six years to write it and it caused a sensation on publication not only in America but also around the world. For many critics, friends and commentators it seemed the book for which Mr Capote had been born to write.

There was only one thing left to do and that was to write the book concerning American contemporary social life, about which nobody knew more than Mr Capote. He set out to write the American version of Mr Marcel Proust's À la recherche du temps perdu (remberance of times past) and he called it Answered Prayers. Eagerly awaited by the people who knew they would be in it, when the first four chapters were serialised in Esquire magazine they caused a sensation, but not quite in the way that Mr Capote had hoped. He told too much and his satire was bitter, especially about his friends Mr William S Paley and his wife Babe, one of the beautiful rich socialites whom along with Ms CZ Guest and Ms Mona von Bismarck, Mr Capote had christened the Swans. The book, it could be said, destroyed everything in his life he had held so dear. Immediately every smart door in New York society was slammed in his face and his social life that had meant so much to him was effectively finished.

When Mr Capote died of cancer of the liver in 1984, his contemporary, Mr Gore Vidal (with whom Mr Capote had quarrelled) hailed the death as "a good career move" but, he might have added, 20 years too late. Drink, drugs and sex had taken their toll and Mr Capote had long before stopped having anything of value to say, opting instead for appearances on TV chat shows to keep his name current and the book sales buoyant - as they have remained in the 30 years since his death.

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