Monday, November 19, 2012

Truman the Great

In America and NYC, no one united the worlds of literature and celebrity better than Truman Capote. In the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, he was a true American icon, a character of his media age, famous for his flamboyant personality as much as for his writings.

A poor boy from Alabama, he came to NYC as a young man and made good. He impressed literary agents and authors with his writings and quickly established a career. But he was beloved for himself as much as for his work. He appeared on talk shows, was seen at all the movie and art gallery openings and fancy parties in town; he knew everyone worth knowing, he was king of toute le monde. In 1966, he threw what has become one of the most legendary parties in town, the Black and White Ball at the Plaza Hotel that is still talked about to this day.

Truman Capote was also gay, an blatant out of the closet homosexual at a time when that was illegal in most of the country. Plus he was a quote machine, saying hilarious things like "Life is a moderately good play with a badly written third act."

Imagine if Capote were alive today and had a Twitter account!

Capote was as entertaining as his work.

And what work he did! He published famous novels and novellas like The Grass Harp and Breakfast at Tiffany's (giving Audrey Hepburn her most famous role in the movie version). He also wrote In Cold Blood, a brilliant non-fiction work about murders in Kansas, that is viewed as his greatest book.  He wrote lots of short stories at a time when they were regularly published in magazines. He worked hard and partied hard, an inexhaustible human being.

Then, in 1975, it all fell apart.

Selections of a novel he was working on called Answered Prayers were published, satirizing some of the most famous people in New York society. Suddenly Capote, the very heart and soul of NYC society, was shunned, ridiculed, ostracized. He was no longer invited to the dinner parties of the rich and powerful, banished by his friends -- instead, he started doing lots of cocaine and hanging out at Studio 54. He wrote less. His health suffered and, in 1984, he died at the age of 60.


He didn't even get a third act. The story of how this happened is chronicled in this month's Vanity Fair and is a must read.

However, in many ways, Truman Capote has had the last laugh. His work and his legacy is secure. In Cold Blood has been voted one of the greatest works of non-fiction in the 20th century. His books have been turned into movies in the last several years. And he himself has been portrayed in movies like Capote (winning Phillip Seymour Hoffman an Oscar) and Infamous. There was also a stage play about twenty years ago called Tru, about the last years of his life.

It's sad that he didn't live longer and produce more work. But for all his wildness, Truman Capote gave this city and this country's literature gifts that will forever endure.

P.S. Capote allegedly got the title for Breakfast at Tiffany's when, after having picked up a young gay sailor from out of town, Capote asked him the next morning where he'd like to go to breakfast. The sailor, who knew little about NYC, allegedly said "Let's get breakfast at Tiffany's." And that was that.

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