The Consummate Artist

Gerald Clarke

Capote: A Biography

Simon & Schuster. 632 pages. S22.95


Haven’t we heard enough about the life of Truman Capote? Even before he published his first novel, Other Voices, Other Rooms, at 23, he was a minor celebrity; over the years he became one of the most public of public figures, his flamboyant personality all but overshadowing his exquisite literary talent. Thus, it seems reasonable to ask: Is there anything more to know about Mr. Capote’s life, and is there any reason for us to care?

The wonder of Gerald Clarke’s Capote: A Biography (Simon & Schuster. 632 pages. S22.95) is that, after reading it, one can’t help but answer these questions with a resounding “yes.” Mr. Clarke has taken on a subject whose life we are used to reading about in the most sensational and superficial terms and has produced a book of extraordinary substance, a study rich in intelligence and compassion.

Of particular interest is his treatment of Mr. Capote’s childhood, a nostalgia for which informs much of his work. Born Truman Streckfus Persons in 1924, Mr. Capote was raised mainly by poor relatives in Monroeville, Ala. His parents neglected him: Father Arch was usually off concocting get-rich-quick schemes, and mother Lillie Mae, deeply embarrassed by Truman’s girlish ways, devoted less attention to him than to her campaign for social prominence. The campaign was astonishingly successful: changing her name to Nina, Lillie Mae divorced Arch, wed a Cuban businessman named Capote, and ended up on New York’s Park Avenue.

Truman went with her. And before his teens were over, he was at the center of a circle of high-profile debutantes. It was the beginning of a long career as a society “pet.” Proud as he was of his impeccable prose, he was equally proud of his popularity among the jet set and of such social triumphs as his 1966 Black and White Ball.

How, one must wonder, did such a brilliant writer develop such an unwriterly system of values? Mr. Clarke’s book provides compelling evidence that Mr. Capote’s unsatisfying relationship with his social-climbing mother had a great deal to do with it. However successful an author Mr. Capote became, she always was ashamed of him; it was almost as if he felt that the only way to win her love was to climb to the pinnacle of society.

To read about Mr. Capote’s parents is to see his oeuvre in a new — and illuminating –light. One recognizes, for instance, that Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1958) is modeled in large part on Nina/Ullie Mae. {Holly’s real name, it will be remembered, is Lulamae.) And his fascination with the killers Perry Smith and Richard Hickock, whom he wrote about in In Cold Blood (1966), may well have owed much to their resemblance to his footloose, ne’er-do-well father.

In Cold Blood, the true story of the 1959 murder of the Clutter family in Holcomb, Kan., proved to be Mr. Capote’s greatest success. But it was also, according to Mr. Clarke, the most draining project  of his career and “the proximate cause of his tragic fall.” “He had mined his subject,” Mr. Clarke tells us, “but his subject had also mined him, exhausting his nerves, his reservoir of patience, and his powers of concentration.”

Yet it was not only the writing of his bestseller that did him in. “In Cold Blood may have started his slide,” Mr. Clarke writes, “but if it had not, something else almost certainly would have.” For Mr. Capote always was two individuals in one: a mature, sensible artist and an erratic, love-starved child, wounded by his mother’s neglect. Following In Cold Blood, the child increasingly had the upper hand.

“Since his childhood had not provided him with the parental love that usually brings later contentment.” Mr. Clarke explains, “he had manufactured his happiness, conjuring it out of his imagination as he had his fiction. After In Cold Blood, he was no longer able to summon the energy to perform that magic act. Nostalgia descended into sorrow, and to those who knew him well he seemed to be in perpetual mourning, overwhelmed by a sense of loss that was no les keen because he could not say precisely what it was that had been taken from him.”

If Mr. Capote was never able to complete his would-be magnum opus, the high-society novel Answered Prayers (which he had conceived as early as 1958), it was largely because of this loss of energy. But the failure also may have reflected a new recognition that the rich were not all that he had imagined them to be. Without them, however, he didn’t have much to fall back on. When Esquire published a chapter of Answered Prayers in 1975, causing most of his high-society friends to reject him forever, he was devastated, and his life spiraled downward into chaos, depression, and severe drug and alcohol abuse. The full story of his final hours, told here for the first time, makes almost unbearably painful reading.

Yet, heartbreaking though it is, one can’t put the book down. Few literary biographies in recent memory have been so vivid and absorbing, so gracefully composed and artfully structured. To read Capote is to have the sense that someone has put together all the important pieces of this consummate artist’s life, has given everything its due emphasis, and comprehended its ultimate meaning. In short, Mr. Clarke makes one feel at last as if one really understands Mr. Capote — and he helps one to recognize anew that, for all Mr. Capote’s frivolousness. absurdity and latter-day degeneration, he was a man and an artist well worth understanding.