September 30, 1924– Truman Capote:
“Failure is the condiment that gives success its flavor.”
My mother is a very accomplished, intelligent and serious woman, but she always has had a sly interest in show biz and celebrity gossip. She told me the details and the intricate ins and outs of the Elizabeth Taylor + Eddie Fisher + Debbie Reynolds = divorces and marriages when I was just 5 years old. I appreciated that she explained that one to me. I remember being 12 years old and my mother giving me the low down on the infamous “Party Of The Century”, Truman Capote’s Black And White Ball.
That now legendary Black And White Masked Ball was the bash that Capote threw at Manhattan’s Plaza Hotel on November 28, 1966. The guest of honor was Katharine Graham, president of the Washington Post, but no one had any illusions; the purpose of the event was to celebrate the host, a serious writer, and also a serious celebrity. There had never been much doubt about the celebrity part of his persona. A decade earlier, he had provocatively styled himself as a male nymphet for his first novel’s jacket photo. Capote had shown a special talent for self-promotion.
What people doubted was Capote’s literary accomplishments. In his early his 40s, after showing much promise, Capote had produced only a few slim volumes of exquisitely written fiction and journalism. But with In Cold Blood, his masterpiece in the new genre “the non-fiction novel” and a milestone in pop culture, Capote had stomped his skeptics.
He decided it was time to celebrate. Capote’s plan was to mix and match people: titled aristocrats with intellectuals with show biz celebrities with his new friends, the ordinary folk from the rural Kansas county where the In Cold Blood murders had occurred. But in this respect, the Black And White Ball fizzled. Jack Dunphy, Capote’s boyfriend stated:
“I’ve never seen such ghettoizing in all my life. No group mixed with another group.”
On the cover of the next issue of Esquire Magazine, under the title: “We Wouldn’t Have Come Even If You Had Invited Us, Truman Capote“, there was a photograph of a surly and sad looking group who had not been invited: Kim Novak, Tony Curtis, California Governor Pat Brown, Ed Sullivan, White House advisor Pierre Salinger, Lynn Redgrave & baseball’s Casey Stengel.
From the moment my mother told me of the Black And White Ball, I became fascinated by Capote, who at 5’3’’ was dubbed “The Tiny Terror”. I went on to read everything by and about him. I was fascinated by his distinctive high-pitched voice and odd vocal mannerisms, his crazy clothing and his fabulous stories recited with his special humor when he would appear on television talk shows. I still own everything written by Capote, plus biographies, diaries and books of letters. He is a member of a handful of authors that make up the special club: Stephen’s Favorite Writers.
Capote had a long standing rivalry with another of my favorites, Gore Vidal. Their rivalry prompted another member of my club, Tennessee Williams, to complain:
“You would think they were running neck and neck for some fabulous gold prize.”
I own a first edition paperback of Breakfast At Tiffany’s (1958) I love all his work, but my very favorite is probably A Christmas Memory (1956). During the holidays I always re-read it and I set a copy, as part of a Christmas tableau, on the dining table as a holiday ritual.
He was born Truman Streckfus Persons in New Orleans in 1924 and he left this world in Bel Air, California, in 1984. He was only 59 years old when he was taken by liver cancer and complications from “multiple drug intoxication”. He died at the home of his best friend Joanne Carson, ex-wife of Johnny Carson, on whose program, The Tonight Show, Capote had been a frequent guest. After he was cremated, his ashes spent two decades in the care of Joanne Carson, a proudly strange woman. She told interviewers that Capote’s remains “were my sanity for years”, only reluctantly placing them in Westwood Village Memorial Park Cemetery after someone lifted them at a Halloween party where Carson said that Alan Thicke was dressed as a scarecrow, Jim Backus had come as Mr. Magoo, and Phyllis Diller was there as an albino. Then the ashes were returned a week later by someone tossing them from a passing car into Carson’s coiled-up garden hose.
Carson left this world in spring of last year. Capote’s remains were auctioned at Julien’s Auctions in LA last week. They went for $61,000 and came in an antique Japanese hand-carved wooden box, so it was totally worth the price. I am certain that they now make a smart accessory for some lucky fan.
Dunphy and Capote lived at Crooked Pond, on Long Island, but Capote also had a home in Palm Springs, a condo in Switzerland that was mostly occupied by Dunphy, and a famous and infamous primary residence at the UN Plaza in NYC.
Capote’s estate went to Dunphy who formed a literary trust sustained by revenues from Capote’s works, to fund various literary prizes and grants including the Truman Capote Award For Literary Criticism In Memory Of Newton Arvin, commemorating not only Capote but also his good friend Arvin, a Smith College professor and critic, who lost his job after his gayness had been exposed in the early 1960s
You need to be familiar with Capote’s life and friends. Begin with Capote: A Biography (1988) by Gerald Clarke, or maybe Bennett Miller‘s long planned, brilliant film, Capote (2005), which covers the period when he was working on In Cold Blood. The film was nominated for five Academy Awards. Philip Seymore Hoffman‘s performance (God rest his soul) as Capote earned him many awards, including: a BAFTA, a Golden Globe, a Screen Actors Guild Award, an Independent Spirit Award and the Oscar for Best Actor.
Last year, The Husband and I caught another film that covers much of the same story, but we had initially skipped because Capote was so good and this one seemed less dynamic. But I was mistaken, which rarely happens. Infamous (2006), has Toby Jones, very convincing as Capote, and Sandra Bullock as his childhood pal, Harper Lee. This movie is an adaptation of Capote: In Which Various Friends, Enemies, Acquaintances And Detractors Recall His Turbulent Career (1997) by George Plimpton. I liked this film even more than Capote. You could think that two Capote biopics at the same time was unnecessary, but Infamous is funny and fizzy, and Capote is smart, grave and important. The two films make nice bookends (block that metaphor).
So, we have those two excellent films about Truman Capote, but I think a good film about that infamous Black And White Ball might make for a rather extraordinary project. Social snubs and rough rivalries swirled through the ballroom at NYC’s Plaza Hotel on that November night in 1966. Tallulah Bankhead insulted Norman Mailer, Lauren Bacall declined all eager dance partners, and the host himself tried to physically block the exit when Frank Sinatra and his wife Mia Farrow departed at midnight.
Famed photographer Harry Benson:
“To this day, that was the biggest party I ever shot. Capote’s ball was unique. Everyone wanted to be there. People who weren’t invited went out of town. I was at the top of the stairs at 9 o’clock and caught Sinatra as he was walking in. He couldn’t get past me. He felt really stupid in that mask. Someone had just yelled to him, ‘Hey, there’s Frankie Batman.’ You can see the anger in his eyes behind the mask. He was this tough guy, thinking, ‘What the hell am I doing here?’ Mia Farrow had that precious, elfin look, but she was as tough as nails too. You had to wear a mask, but they all came off in the first hour. Everyone was afraid of Capote, even Norman Mailer. Capote had a name for everyone. He called Jackie Kennedy and Lee Radziwill ‘the geishas’.”
Capote is figured in what is probably one of my top films of all time, Woody Allen‘s Annie Hall (1977). There is a scene in which Allen and Diane Keaton’s characters are observing people passing by in the park. Alllen’s character comments: “Oh, there’s the winner of the Truman Capote Look-Alike Contest”. The passerby is actually Truman Capote.
“I’m not a saint yet. I’m an alcoholic. I’m a drug addict. I’m homosexual. I’m a genius.”