Ian Garrick Mason

Articles and Essays

National Post -- October 23, 2004

"Every word takes blood"

by Ian Garrick Mason

In January 1966, Truman Capote reached the pinnacle of his career with the publication of In Cold Blood, his “nonfiction novel” about the brutal murder of a Kansas farming family. Later that year, Capote held a celebration at Manhattan’s Plaza Hotel called the Black and White Ball, to which, as they say in the society columns, everyone came. “A happening of history-making proportions”, wrote the Washington Post at the time. The writer had arrived.

Capote was born in New Orleans almost exactly eighty years ago, on September 30, 1924, and he died almost exactly twenty years ago, on August 25, 1984. Though many of his works are already long famous -- In Cold Blood, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, the short story A Christmas Memory, to name the best known -- and Gerald Clarke’s definitive biography of him was published back in 1988, Capote’s home publisher, Random House, has released three new books to mark the anniversaries: first, a Modern Library edition of his debut novel Other Voices, Other Rooms; second, The Complete Stories of Truman Capote, a collection of his short stories; and third, Too Brief a Treat, Gerald Clarke’s compilation of his letters.

Though the only child of a broken home -- he was sent by his divorcing parents to live with middle-aged cousins in Alabama -- Capote was precociously successful, winning an O. Henry Memorial Award for his story Miriam at the age of twenty-two, and publishing Other Voices, Other Rooms to critical acclaim the following year. He was justly confident, too: “Wait until they read The Headless Hawk,” he wrote to his editor at Harper’s Bazaar soon after winning the O. Henry award, “they ain’t seen nothin yet.”

Such youthful confidence, however, didn’t keep him from reworking a story when he thought it necessary, as two pieces in The Complete Stories of Truman Capote demonstrate. In 1944 he published A Mink of One’s Own, in which an aspiring middle-class housewife in wartime buys a mink coat from a pre-war acquaintance who, it emerges, is now hardly more than a refugee and desperate for money. The second story, The Bargain, lay unpublished among his papers until its discovery earlier this year. Written in 1950, it concerns an aspiring middle-class housewife in post-war New York who buys a mink coat from an acquaintance who, it emerges, is recently divorced and desperate for money. Despite the story’s remarkable similarity to A Mink of One’s One, Capote’s letters indicate that he sent it off to his agent. Had he forgotten his original tale?

“I'm certain he did remember the first when he wrote the second,” Gerald Clarke writes in an email when I pose the question to him. “[Capote] probably thought he could do better the second time around, and in many ways he did.” As for why the story was ultimately never published, writes Clarke, “I don't get the impression that he tried very hard to push it, [...] and he may have had second thoughts about it. He was a good critic of his own work, and he didn't hold all of his stories in the same regard.”

As Capote’s letters show, whether and how his work was published would be the cause of much anxiety and pessimism. Having finished his novella Breakfast At Tiffany’s, he wrote to Cecil Beaton that the Harper’s Bazaar editors “are very skittish about some of the language, and I daresay will pull a fast one on me by altering it without my knowledge.” They did worse than that: after a change of editor, they sold the story to Esquire, infuriating Capote. Even the New Yorker -- where he had once worked as a copy boy and which would later publish pieces like The Duke in his Domain, Capote’s famously insightful profile of Marlon Brando -- incurred his ire after editing his first article: “it has been pared down to read like every other lifeless thing in that magazine,” he wrote to a friend.

Perhaps he resented the editorial knives because so much effort had gone into his prose. “Every word takes blood,” he wrote to the editor of his first novel. And to New Yorker editor William Shawn, he explained in detail why he was still not satisfied with an article he’d been crafting for months. “I realized that, solid as it seemed, it did not accelerate with the right rhythm, and had to admit that I’d shirked the job by not casting it in its proper form.” Nearly a year later, and after yet more months of effort, he withdrew the piece entirely and conscientiously returned the money for plane-fare the magazine had given him.

Nothing, however, would test him like In Cold Blood. “It is going to be a masterpiece: I mean that,” he wrote confidently to editor Bennett Cerf after the first six months of work. But the labour was immense, and months dragged into years. “Every morning of my life I throw up because of the tensions created by the writing of this book,” reads one letter, eighteen months further in. A year beyond that, he writes to Cerf: “I finished Part Three -- and wept uncontrollably for two days afterwards: I’d been under such an appalling nervous strain.” In his final months, after more than five years of effort, he waited on edge for the results of the killers’ final appeals. “I must be rid of [my book]. I hardly give a fuck anymore what happens. My sanity is at stake -- and that is no mere idle phrase.”

In Cold Blood repaid its investment. The book was an immense hit, propelling Capote into international fame. High society swept him up; he was in demand for every party and for every TV talk show. He also began to drink heavily and to use drugs. His published output declined, though he continued working hard on various projects, including the book he was convinced would be his true masterpiece, Answered Prayers. With it, Capote would expose American high society, portraying its denizens unglossed and in full.

But after his first extract, “La Côte Basque, 1965”, appeared in Esquire in the mid-seventies, his high society friends froze him out. Capote was surprised by their reactions, which, he wrote to William Styron, “ranged from the insane to the homicidal.” Gossip columnist Liz Smith put it well: “He wrote what he knew, which is what people always tell writers to do, but he just didn't wait till they were dead to do it.”

Capote never finished Answered Prayers. Though he ended his life disillusioned, his work -- created with such seriousness and at such cost -- will remain. “The most perfect writer of my generation,” Norman Mailer once said of Capote. Hearing that must have pleased him, for perfect was his goal.