" '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."
FROM THE DUST JACKET:
Truman Capote was hailed as one of the most meticulous writers in American letters — a part of the Capote mystique is that his precise writing seemed to exist apart from his chaotic life. While the measure of Capote as a writer is best taken through his work, Capote the person is best understood in his personal correspondence with friends, colleagues, lovers, and rivals. In Too Brief a Treat, biographer Gerald Clarke brings together for the first time the private letters of Truman Capote. Encompassing more than four decades, these letters reveal the inner life of one of the 20th Century's most intriguing personalities. As Clarke notes in his Introduction, Capote was an inveterate letter writer who both loved and craved love without inhibition. He wrote letters as he spoke: emphatically, spontaneously, and without reservation. He also wrote them at a breakneck pace, unconcerned with posterity. Thus, in this volume we have perhaps the closest thing possible to an elusive treasure: a Capote autobiography. Through his letters to the likes of William Styron, Gloria Vanderbilt, his publishers and editors, his longtime companion and lover Jack Dunphy, and others, we see Capote in all his life's phases — the uncannily self-possessed naïf who jumped headlong into the dynamic post-World War II New York literary scene and the more mature, established Capote of the 1950s. Then there is the Capote of the early 1960s, immersed in the research and writing of his masterpiece, In Cold Blood. Capote's correspondence with Kansas detective Alvin Dewey, and with Perry Smith, one of the killers profiled in that work, demonstrates Capote's intense devotion to his craft, while his letters to friends like Cecil Beaton show Capote giddy with his emergence as a flamboyant mass media celebrity after that book's publication. Finally, we see Capote later in his life, as things seemed to be unraveling: when he is disillusioned, isolated by his substance abuse and by personal rivalries. (Ever effusive with praise and affection, Capote could nevertheless carry a grudge like few others.)
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY
From Publishers Weekly: Considering Truman Capote's fabled social life, one would think that his private letters would be dripping with juicy gossip. Indeed, with correspondents and friends that included Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Lee Radziwill, Cecil Beaton, Christopher Isherwood, David O. Selznick, Tennessee Williams, Audrey Hepburn, and Richard Avedon, these bright, energetic missives do include an occasional tasty tidbit. But as candid as Capote can be, one ultimately gets the sense that the author always knew his letters would be read by a wider audience someday, and rarely does Capote express less than bubbling enthusiasm and childlike devotion to his correspondents. It's up to Clarke, Capote's biographer, to fill in the occasionally sordid blanks, which he does in chapter intros and extensive footnotes. Much more profound than any gossip is the humor, sensitivity, and ambition with which Capote seems to have approached every experience in his life.
From The Washington Post's Book World: Truman Capote was born 80 years ago this fall, not exactly the most momentous of anniversaries but one that his publisher has chosen to go overboard for all the same. To celebrate the occasion — which occurs, as it happens, 20 years after Capote's death — the Modern Library imprint of Random House has issued new editions of Capote's first novel, Other Voices, Other Rooms, and of his The Collected Stories of Truman Capote, and Random House itself now comes forth with Too Brief a Treat, an encyclopedic collection of Capote's letters as edited by his biographer, Gerald Clarke.
All of which is not exactly much ado about nothing, but it certainly is much ado about not very much. Capote was a precocious writer (that first novel was published when he was 24 years old) who never lived up to his promise, though he achieved considerable renown for the literary persona he cultivated as well as some measure of literary respect for his most notable book, the "nonfiction novel" In Cold Blood, which was published in 1966 and enjoys respectable sales to this day. His sentimental short story "A Christmas Memory" now occupies a small place in the holiday canon, but apart from that he appears to be a writer whose work is on the way out, and Too Brief a Treat is most unlikely to bring him back in.
Clarke tells us that Capote was "a writer of stern and unsmiling discipline," but little of this comes across in the letters. What the reader mostly gets from them is an itinerary of Capote's endless peregrinations, a long succession of dropped names few of which any longer have currency, and an insider's chronicle of life in what Capote called "the Lavender Hill mob" — the transatlantic gay crowd of writers, artists, musicians, theatrical types, and hangers-on in which Capote became a major player when he was very young and remained one for the rest of his life.
ABOUT THE EDITOR:
Gerald Clarke, born in 1937 in Los Angeles, graduated from Yale, majoring in English and American literature. He is the author of Capote: A Biography and Get Happy: The Life of Judy Garland. He has written for many publications, including Architectural Digest, Time (where he was a senior writer), and Esquire. He now lives in Bridgehampton, New York.
A CONVERSATION WITH THE EDITOR:
Mr. Clarke spoke to me one afternoon from his home in Bridgehampton. The weather was warm on his coast and mine. We chatted lazily, in a manner I suppose the younger Capote might have enjoyed.
One person to whom Capote wrote letters for many years was a fellow named Andrew Lyndon. "Who," I asked Mr. Clarke, "is or was Andrew Lyndon?"
"Well, Andrew Lyndon, he's now dead, but he was a writer who never amounted to too much as a writer. I mention him in my biography. I gave a little description of him. He came from Macon, Georgia. He was gay. He's a little older than Truman; I don't know his exact age. He was in World War II. He fought in Italy."
"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."
About the Capote-Dunphy relationship, Mr. Clarke said, "They had sex. They didn't toward the end. They certainly did during the period of most of the letters. I don't think they cheated much. Truman mentions a couple of times, I think in the letters, that he had a little fling with Montgomery Clift.
"Truman was very disciplined. He was a dedicated artist, and when he was working, he worked. They had a schedule. He usually worked in the morning. When they were in Sicily, they went swimming in the afternoon.
"Truman was not an adventurous eater, in terms of liking foreign foods. I think Jack cooked, and my impression was that in Sicily they had a cook, Graziella, who, as I recall, would make minestrone for lunch every day.
"Jack skied. Jack was athletic right up to the end. Truman was a pretty good athlete. He didn't go skiing, except maybe a few times, but he was a good ice skater. He was almost professional. He used to go ice skating on ponds during the wintertime."
"When you were working on the letters," I said, "you must have had papers stacked everywhere."
"I still do. It's hard to keep it organized. It's hard with the footnotes. Using a computer makes it easier. Every time you change something in a footnote, the three footnotes preceding it, you've got to change as well. So, afterwards, I found that very difficult. Writing footnotes, it's hard to know exactly what people do know and what they don't know. If you put too much in, it becomes boring; people think you're showing off and insulting them in a way. But if you don't put an adequate amount in, they don't know enough of the context."