As he approached my table, I’d look up and my eyes would say, “Well, there you are!” and his face would say, “Can you believe we’ve never met?!” Laughing loud and hugging hard, we’d sit, tucked away at the edge of the Ritz’s Palm Court, digging into everyone’s business as well as our own. We’d both be small and blonde. My voice too big, his-too high. We’d finish each other’s sentences and start new ones at the exact same instant. He’d love my writing, I’d love his and we’d languish all afternoon over a lunch of Screwdrivers and dish.
I have been a Truman fan even before I knew what he wrote. “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” was one of my favorite movies. Who didn’t love Audrey Hepburn, her cool cigarette holder, LBD (little black dress) and cat? When I was young, I always knew there was a part of the movie just outside my reach and distinctly remember the year I actually “got it”. How sad and fabulous Holly’s life seemed. Growing up in the 1970s, it still seemed possible to live a hand to mouth existence in New York City. I was pretty sure I’d have my Holly moment eventually.
I saw pictures of Truman at Studio 54 with Liza and Halston. As one of those pitiful, chubby, suburban girls, I devoured Vogue and Glamour every month. At that time, he seemed a strange little man, wearing colored glasses and a fedora hat. Still, I didn’t know of his genius, just his renown. I recall seeing him on talk shows, where he didn’t make much sense at all. Worse yet, I remember going to see “Murder By Death” and thinking that the tiny man in the hat and trench coat was very odd. Still, I had no idea how great he once was.
In the 1990s, I read an article by Dominick Dunne about Truman Capote’s “Black and White Ball”. This event goes down in history as the most important party ever. The article was featured in Vanity Fair and was filled with amazing black and white photographs of the revelers and their gorgeous outfits. Everyone wore a mask. The evening was scandalous because of the pain and suffering caused by the guest list. If you were on it, wonderful, if not, you were mortified and incensed. Truman wielded this much power over the rich and famous of NYC. At the time of the article, I didn’t realize he had died years before as a lonely outcast.
I loved the movie, “Capote”, which rightfully garnered Phillip Seymour Hoffman an Oscar award. As the story unfolds about Truman and his friend, Nell, venturing across Kansas in search of a story about a murder in a farmhouse, I remembered seeing the movie, “In Cold Blood” when I was younger. How funny it was that Robert Blake from “Baretta” had actually been a movie star before his television show. It was then I learned that “Nell” was Harper Lee, writer of “To Kill a Mockingbird” and that Truman was the inspiration for the character of Dill. Of course, I had seen that movie too, my mother being a huge fan of Gregory Peck. The scene with Scout trick or treating in a ham costume had always terrified me. When I finally read the book in high school, it was hard to get the movie out of my head.
Years later, in a favorite bookshop in Door County, I came across a biography about Truman, written by George Plimpton. I knew of Plimpton, but doubt I had read anything he had written. The book was marked down to $9.00. Between the price and the fetching photo of a young Truman on the cover, I was game. He really did look a lot like Phillip Seymour Hoffman. When I started to read it, I couldn’t put it down. The Truman I didn’t know was much more interesting than all the Truman I knew up to that point.
He was an only child, like me. I could relate to many of the problems he suffered at the hands of his parents. Lucky for Truman, he was left to be raised by a loving and colorful household of aunts and uncles in Monroeville, Alabama during the 1920s and 30s. Somehow, Harper Lee was his next door neighbor and they grew up as close friends. The memories of living with a gloriously eccentric family, where he was the center of the universe, produced in Truman a belief that he was a bit untouchable. Those memories were also the fodder for some of his finest writings about his Thanksgiving and Christmas recollections of his Alabama childhood. I read all of these with relish each holiday season along with Dickens and Washington Irving. Truman’s work definitely belongs in the ranks of such greats.
When his mother comes to claim him and heads off to New York, his destiny is changed. Armed with a new husband of some means, his mother has him adopted as a Capote, sends him to a good school where he begins writing for the literary magazine. Upon graduation, he gets a job as a messenger boy at the New Yorker. Very shortly thereafter, he actually gets himself printed in the magazine, and the Truman Capote of fame and fortune begins. Tiny, with golden blonde hair, a thin, lispy voice and a grand, long scarf that hung down the front of his camel coat, no one knew what to make of him. Armed with all the confidence in the world, Truman starts to become a sensation while barely out of his teens.
When Truman is twenty-three, “Other Voices, Other Rooms” is published. It hits the New York Times best seller list and stays there for nine weeks. The first time I read it, I was impressed by the amount of detail given in a very tight novel. At 231 pages, there is no languishing around page after page of wasted time. I find I can’t write any other way myself, so I have enjoyed all of his writing for this reason.
Sadly, Truman’s fame surpasses his writing. I have read all the major biographies written about him and own a copy of “The Party of the Century”, which tells the tale of the black and white ball. Intentionally, I put that entire experience aside and began reading his writing exclusively. While you cannot completely remove the work from his life, it is important to try. The stories he created are raw, while beautiful; strange urban realities veiled in some fantastic vision. The characters are bold, sometimes mysterious, but always colorful. Among his essays, one finds wonderful travel writing and sketches of famous people written with the glee of a fan. Again, it is hard not to frame it all with the high wire act he lived in New York and the rest of the world, but you must marvel at how inspired he was.
I know if we met, in the Palm Court at the Ritz in the 1950s, I’d be sure to be added as a “swan”. This is what he called his dear female friends, hand-picked for their style, influence or wealth. In the end, they ruined him when he forgot they were human and publicly shamed them in excerpts from “Answered Prayers”, published in Esquire. I suppose I’d need to be rid of him also. I doubt my husband would tolerate his shenanigans for too long. But for a time, I imagine we’d shop, dine, attend theatre, gossip, travel and write together, heads close, whispering and trading nasty comments. We’d be divine, until we had to return to earth as all creatures of humanity must eventually do.