Truman Capote Biography (1924-1984)

Truman Capote. Born Truman Streckfus Persons on September 30, 1924, in New Orleans, Louisiana. One of the twentieth century’s most well-known writers, was as fascinating a character as those who appeared in his stories. His parents were an odd pair — a small-town girl named Lillie Mae and a charming schemer called Arch — and they largely neglected their son, often leaving him in the care of others. Capote spent much of his young life in the care of his mother’s relatives in Monroeville, Alabama.

In Monroeville, Capote befriended Harper Lee (then known as Nelle Harper Lee). The two were opposites — Capote was a sensitive boy who was picked on by other kids for being a wimp while Lee was a rough and tumble tomboy. Despite their differences, Lee found Capote to be a delight, calling him “a pocket Merlin” for his creative and inventive ways. Little did these playful pals know that they would both become famous writers one day.

While he had fun with his friends, Capote also had to struggle with his nightmarish family life. Seeing little of his mother and his father over the years, he often wrestled with feeling abandoned by them. One of the few times he caught their interest was during their divorce with each of them fighting for custody as a way to hurt the other. Capote finally did get to live with his mother full time in 1932, but this reunion did not turn out as he had hoped. He moved to New York City to live her and his new stepfather Joe Capote.

His once doting visiting mother was quite different once he started to encounter her on a daily basis. Lillie Mae — now calling herself Nina — could easily be cruel or kind to Capote, and he never knew what to expect from her. She often picked on him for his effeminate ways and for not being like other boys. His stepfather seemed to be a more stable personality in the home, but Capote was not interested in his help or support at the time. Still he was officially adopted by his stepfather and his name was changed to Truman Garcia Capote in 1935.

A mediocre student, Capote did well in the courses that interested him and paid little attention in those that did not. He attended a private boys’ school in Manhattan from 1933 to 1936 where he charmed some of his classmates. An unusual boy, Capote had a gift for telling stories and entertaining people. His mother wanted to make him more masculine and thought that sending him to a military academy would be the answer. The 1936-1937 school year proved to be a disaster for Capote. The smallest in his class, he was often picked on by the other cadets.

Returning to Manhattan, Capote started to attract attention for his work at school. Some of his teachers noted his promise as a writer. In 1939, the Capotes moved to Greenwich, Connecticut, where Truman enrolled at Greenwich High School. He stood out among his classmates with his ebullient personality. Over time, Capote developed a group of friends who would often go over to his house to smoke, drink, and dance in his room. He and his group would also go out to nearby clubs. Seeking adventure as well as an escape, Capote and his good friend Phoebe Pierce would also go into New York City and scheme their way into some of the most popular nightspots, including the Stork Club and Café Society.

While living in Greenwich, his mother’s drinking began to escalate, which made Capote’s home life even more unstable. Capote did not do well in school and had repeat the twelfth grade at the Franklin School after he and his family returned to Manhattan in 1942. Instead of studying, Capote spent his nights at the clubs, making friends with Oona O’Neill, the daughter of playwright Eugene O’Neill, and heiress Gloria Vanderbilt. Around this time, he got his first job working as a copyboy for The New Yorker magazine.

During his time with the publication, Capote tried to get his stories published there with no success. He left The New Yorker to write full time and started a novel called Summer Crossing, which he shelved to work on a novella entitled Other Voices, Other Rooms. Capote’s first successes were not his novels, but several short stories. In 1945, editor George Davis selected Capote’s story “Miriam” about a strange little girl for publication in Mademoiselle. In addition to befriending Davis, Capote became close to his assistant Rita Smith, the sister of famous southern author Carson McCullers. She later introduced the two, and Capote and McCullers were friends for a time.

Capote’s story in Mademoiselle attracted the attention of Harper’s Bazaar fiction editor Mary Louise Aswell. The publication ran another dark and eerie story by Capote, “A Tree of Light” in its October 1945. These stories as well as “My Side of the Matter” and “Jug of Silver” helped launch Capote&’s career and gave him entrée into the New York literary world.

While struggling to work on his first novel, Capote received some assistance from Carson McCullers. She helped him get accepted at Yaddo, a famous artists’ colony in New York State. Capote spent part of the summer of 1946 there where he did some work on the novel and completed the short story, “The Headless Hawk,” which was published by Mademoiselle that fall. Capote also fell in love with Newton Arvin, a college professor and literary scholar. The bookish academic and the effervescent charmer made quite an interesting pair. Arvin, as with most of the others at Yaddo, was completely taken by Capote’s wit, manner, and appearance. That same year, Capote won the prestigious O. Henry Award for his short story “Miriam.”

His first novel, Other Voices, Other Rooms, was published in 1948 to mixed reviews. In the work, a young boy is sent to live with his father after the death of his mother. His father’s home is a decrepit old plantation. For a time the boy does not get to see his father and instead must deal with his stepmother, her cousin, and some other unusual characters that inhabit this desolate place. While some criticized elements of the story, such as its homosexual theme, many reviewers noted Capote’s talents as a writer. The book sold well, especially for a first-time author.

In addition to receiving accolades and publicity, Capote found love in 1948. He met author Jack Dunphy at a party in 1948, and the two began what was to be a 35-year relationship. During the early years of their relationship, Capote and Dunphy traveled extensively. They spent time in Europe and other places where they both worked on their own projects.

Capote followed the success of Other Voices, Other Rooms with a collection of short stories, A Tree of Light, published in 1949. Not one to stay out of the public eye for long, his travel essays were put out in book form in 1950 as Local Color. His much-anticipated second novel, The Grass Harp, was released to in the fall of 1951. The fanciful tale explored an unlikely group of characters who take refuge from their troubles in a large tree. At the request of Broadway producer Saint Subber, Capote adapted his novel for the stage. The sets and costumes were designed by Capote’s close friend Cecil Beaton. The comedy opened in March 1952 and closed after 31 performances.

In 1953, Capote landed some film work. He wrote some of Stazione Termini (later released as Indiscretion of an American Wife in the United States), which starred Jennifer Jones and Montgomery Clift. During the filming in Italy, Capote and Clift developed a friendship. After that project wrapped, Capote was soon working on the script for the John Huston-directed Beat the Devil, starring Humphrey Bogart, Jennifer Jones, and Gina Lollobrigida, during its production. His best screenplay, however, was done years later when he adapted the Henry James novel The Turn of the Screw into The Innocents (1961).

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