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"He must have been somewhat well-to-do because I noticed when I looked him up on the Internet that he gave some excellent paintings to museums."

"I don't know how much money he had. When I knew him — when I was talking to him, interviewing him — he lived in San Francisco. His apartment was okay; it wasn't anything special. He was a very nice man who never seemed to make it as a writer. Very easygoing, had a wonderful memory. Apparently good-looking when he was young.

"Lyndon and Newton Arvin [the Smith College English professor and biographer of Melville with whom Capote, at a young age, enjoyed a tumultuous affair] had a fling while Truman was in Europe in 1938. Truman found out about it after he came back, by sneaking in and looking at Newton's diary.

"How did you get interested in Capote?"

"I was writing a series of profiles of writers, back in the early 1970s, for Esquire. All very good writers. Nabokov, Woodhouse, Ginsberg, and Truman. Anyway, I got to know Truman. I'd met him once before, but only to shake hands. Then a publisher asked if I would write a biography of him. I asked Truman if he would cooperate, and he said he would and off we went.

"But it took a lot more than I had imagined it would, the biography. I always underestimate how long something will take."

"Why did Capote dislike Gore Vidal so much?"

"He didn't dislike Vidal so much. He didn't hate Vidal the way Vidal hated him. They rubbed each other the wrong way. They didn't ever have an affair. But at the beginning they got along pretty well, quite well. They had lunch, I think, once a week in the Oak Room of the Plaza Hotel."

"Wasn't that a gay meeting place?"

"I don't know. I've never heard that, but you may well be right. I certainly couldn't dispute it. I'm surprised if that's the case. Well, anyway, they had lunch there once a week, and then I think they became two rival writers.

"Back in those days, you probably know, writers were more important than they are now in the public imagination. But in those days they wanted to write novels, and the public was interested. The public, after World War II, was interested in who would be the next Hemingway, who would be the next Faulkner.

"As evidence of this, in 1947, Life magazine did a huge story on young writers. You can't imagine anything like that today except in a very serious magazine. But Life was, of course, a very popular magazine. Life had a cultural bent to it."

Capote, I said, was a serious writer who worked hard at his craft.

"Yes," said Mr. Clarke, "and I think the letters show that. With all the folderol and the jokes and the fun and everything else, he was a very serious writer at a very early age. And a very dedicated writer, right up to the end.

"You may not like all of Truman's writing. I think even the last books, the last stories, show high artistry. I don't think he got the credit for that in the intellectual world. 'La Cote Basque,' the piece that caused such an uproar, is very well done, if you think about it. It's set in a restaurant. A very static scene, yet you never get the feeling — at least I don't — of claustrophobia. Yes, he was a very, very serious writer."

Mr. Clarke asked if I liked the letters. I did, I said.

"They're kind of addictive, aren't they?"

I agreed. "They are addictive. They're like Fritos. I loved his letters to the Deweys [Alvin Dewey was the detective in charge of the Clutter case, on which Capote's In Cold Blood was based]. You see that whole other hometown, small-town side of Capote. And his generosity."

"Yes, yes. The generosity shines through there — the help he gave to the Dewey boy who wanted to be a writer. I was fascinated by that. I was fascinated by his advice to young Dewey that you have to know the difference between good and bad writing. He said, 'It's okay to enjoy bad writing.' He said, 'I like Agatha Christie and Ian Fleming. But you have to remember that they are bad writers.' I thought that was very interesting and very true.

"He gave the advice all writing teachers give. I thought his list of books to read was interesting, including Carson McCullers, with whom he had had a falling-out, which didn't influence his opinion of her writing skills.

"He was a very good critic. He was perceptive about other writers. I loved the bit when he said that all Southern writers were intimidated by Faulkner. When Capote was in Italy, Faulkner won the Nobel Prize. Faulkner said, about himself, that he was just a farmer. And Truman said, 'I'm not so sure he was wrong.' I thought that was poignant. And probably a very accurate critical perception."

"Was he fond of Auden?"

"Truman was up and down about Auden. Got annoyed with him, liked him — and nobody seemed to like Chester Kallman [Auden's longtime lover]."

I wondered, as I read the letters, how it was that Capote found himself attracted to high society.

"I think at the beginning it just happened. I don't think he did it deliberately. He became very friendly, for instance, with the Selznicks. Because Selznick wanted him to write scripts. And he did. And then he grew very friendly with his wife — Jennifer Jones. He became friendly with her. He loved her. She loved him. I talked to her for my biography, and she was crazy about Truman. She was the one who introduced him to the Paleys. She said she was a little jealous when they became such good friends."

For most of his adult life, the novelist Jack Dunphy was Capote's companion. "Jack died," said Mr. Clarke, "in 1992. And at a ripe age. I think he was close to 80."

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