Truman Capote: Everything You Need to Know

Novelist, screenwriter, playwright, creator of the “nonfiction novel,” spellbinding raconteur, witty superstar, and jet-setter, Truman Capote was one of the most singular personalities of his time.

He was born Truman Streckfus Persons in New Orleans on September 30, 1924. His father was Arch Persons, a small-time con man, and his mother was Lillie Mae Faulk Persons, a beautiful woman from Monroeville, Alabama. As Lillie Mae's disappointment in Arch grew, she courted other men, and the marriage fell apart.

In 1930, shortly before his sixth birthday, his parents sent Truman to Monroeville, to stay with his elderly Faulk cousins—three spinster sisters, Jennie, Callie, Sook, and their bachelor brother Bud. Among the Faulk cousins, Truman formed the deepest bond with Sook, who became a kind of surrogate mother.

He also found friendship with the girl next door, Harper Lee, his junior by a year. She would later portray young Truman as the character Dill in her novel “To Kill a Mockingbird”: “We came to know him as a pocket Merlin, whose head teemed with eccentric plans, strange longings, and quaint fancies.”

Capote's mother moved to New York City in 1931. Changing her first name to Nina, she divorced Arch, married Joseph Capote, a Cuban who worked for a textile firm on Wall Street. Capote attended the Trinity School, a private school on the West Side, In 1935, he was formally adopted by his stepfather and changed his name from Persons to Capote.

In 1939, the Capotes moved to Greenwich, Connecticut, and Capote attended Greenwich High School. The Capotes returned to New York in 1942, and moved into an apartment on Park Avenue. Truman, who had failed to graduate with his class at Greenwich High School, finally got his diploma from the Franklin School, a private school on the West Side, in 1943. It was the end of his formal education.

While attending Franklin, Capote took a job as the art department copyboy at the New Yorker. A “gorgeous apparition, fluttering, flitting up and down the corridors of the magazine,” was how Brendan Gill described him. During a period when homosexuality was anathema in America, Truman was nonchalantly and resplendently gay.

Capote had been writing stories from an early age and he hoped that the New Yorker would publish him. But all his efforts were rebuffed. He found a kinder reception at two women's magazines, Mademoiselle and Harper's Bazaar, which in those days published the best short fiction. His first story in Mademoiselle was “Miriam,” won him an O. Henry Award but attracted great attention in Gotham's literary circles. Other stories soon followed.

In 1945, Random House gave him a contract for his first novel—Other Voices, Other Rooms, he was to title it. Unable to write at home—his mother had turned into an abusive alcoholic—Capote received a fellowship to Yaddo, a retreat for artists and writers in Upstate New York, where he began a long relationship with Newton Arvin, a professor of literature at Smith College in Massachusetts. Twenty-four years older than Truman, Arvin was a graceful writer, a scholar of impressive erudition and a critic of impeccable judgment. His biography of Herman Melville won the first National Book Award for non-fiction.

Both lover and father figure, Arvin, Truman later said, was also his Yale and Harvard. Though it had only modest sales, Other Voices, Other Rooms, published in 1948, cemented Truman's reputation as one of the most promising writers of the post WWII generation. Never explicit, it's the story of a teenage boy's awakening knowledge of his homosexuality.

It was not until much later that Capote himself was able to recognize that it was his spiritual, if not his factual, autobiography. Gerald Clarke wrote that the lead character's eccentric cousin “became the spokesman for the themes that dominate all of Truman's writing: the loneliness that afflicts all but the stupid or insensitive; the sacredness of love in whatever form; the disappointment that invariably follows high expectation; and the perversion of innocence.”

In fall 1948, after a summer in Europe, Truman met Jack Dunphy, a fellow writer who became his lifelong companion. In 1950, they settled in Taormina, Sicily—in a house once inhabited by D.H. Lawrence—and Truman began work on his second novel, The Grass Harp. If Other Voices, Other Rooms was Capote's look at the dark side of his childhood, The Grass Harp (1951) was, in Clarke's words, “an attempt to raise the bittersweet spirits of remembrance and nostalgia.” In this story of a lonely boy who finds refuge in a tree house with four other displaced spirits, Truman conjured up the memory of his childhood in Alabama and his beloved elderly cousin, Sook Faulk.

Truman adapted The Grass Harp for Broadway the following year, but, with a run of only a month, it was not a commercial success. A movie version, starring Walter Matthau and Sissy Spacek, was filmed in 1997.

After doing some rewriting on the screenplay of Vittorio de Sica's Indiscretion of an American Wife (1952), Truman collaborated with director John Huston on the offbeat mystery-comedy Beat the Devil (1953). Filmed in Ravello, Italy, and starring Jennifer Jones, Humphrey Bogart, and Gina Lollobrigida, it is as quirky and light-hearted to watch as it was to make.

Capote considered his best screenplay, however, to be that of The Innocents, an adaptation of Henry James' The Turn of the Screw that was released in 1961 and starred Deborah Kerr. After Beat the Devil, Jack and Truman went to Portofino, Italy, where Truman adapted his short story, “House of Flowers,” into a Broadway musical. Though the score is one of Harold Arlen's best, the show had only modest success.

Truman returned to Europe, but in January 1954, he was forced to fly back to New York after his mother swallowed a bottle of sleeping pills. She died before he arrived.

Capote's interest in the possibilities of journalism led to the writing of The Muses Are Heard, the story of a Porgy and Bess troupe's visit to the Soviet Union, and “The Duke in His Domain,” a long and revealing profile of Marlon Brando. After reading it, Brando professed a desire to murder him.

Capote's next book, Breakfast at Tiffany's (1958), created a luminescent, unforgettable heroine in Holly Golightly, a free-spirited sprite in wartime Manhattan. Holly's only anxiety is what she calls the “mean reds.” Her solution: “What Ive found does the most good is to just get into a taxi and go to Tiffany's,” she says. “It calms me down right away, the quietness and the proud look of it: nothing very bad could happen to you there.”

The film was made into a film Blake Edwards, featuring Audrey Hepburn, Henry Mancini's song “Moon River, and a grafted-on love story. Truman, while a fan of Hepburn's, thought she had been miscast and was disappointed; he felt Marilyn Monroe would have been a better choice. None of the film's legions of fans agreed with him.

In November, 1959, Capote read about the Clutter murders in the NewYork Times. Thus began In Cold Blood (1966) a project that took six years of his life. Those are the years that are explored by writer Dan Futterman and director Bennett Miller in their film, Capote.

After the long, intense years writing In Cold Blood, Capote gave himself a party, and on November 28th, 1966, he threw one of the most spectacular bashes in the history of New York –the Black and White Ball at the Plaza Hotel. Given in honor of Washington Post publisher Katherine Graham, who was then the country's most powerful woman, the celebration began at ten and went until breakfast the following morning. Five hundred glitterati were invited, with a precise dress code: men in black tie with black mask; women in black or white dress, white mask, plus a fan. The beau monde blowout created front-page news all over the country. Truman said later, “but as far as I was concerned it was just a private party and nobody's business.”

During the writing of “In Cold Blood,” Capote started to drink heavily and take pills. He began to lose focus and direct his energies more towards the high life. He announced the title of his next novel—Answered Prayers—and said that it would have a scope equal to Proust's.

But when the first chapter was published in Esquire in 1975, it unleashed an angry backlash from some of his rich friends who were furious to see themselves as thinly disguised characters. They felt betrayed and many, including the wife of CBS chairman Bill Paley—Babe Paley, the woman he loved the mostl—refused to forgive or see him. Given the nickname “The Tiny Terror,” he was a social pariah, and this public shunning added to his downward spiral with drugs and alcohol.

His relationship with Jack Dunphy suffered, and Capote sought out affection from men in relationships that ended badly. Yet, despite the alcohol, the drugs and the depression, he could still write, and his last book, a collection titled Music for Chameleons (1980), was well received. Truman Capote died in Los Angeles on August 25th, 1984 a month shy of his sixtieth birthday.

People Portrayed in the Film Capote

Nelle Harper Lee

A descendent of Civil War General Robert E. Lee, Nelle Harper Lee won the Pulitzer Prize for her 1960 novel “To Kill a Mockingbird,” her first and only novel. The acclaimed book featured a portrait of her Alabama childhood friend Truman Capote in the character of Dill. “To Kill a Mockingbird” was made into a successful movie in 1962, starring Gregory Peck. It was nominated for eight Academy Awards and won three, including Best Actor for Peck. Lee went to college in Alabama and at Oxford, and then moved to New York City, where she worked as an airline clerk before devoting herself to writing.

In 1959, Lee moved to Holcombe, Kansas to work as a research assistant for Capote on “In Cold Blood.” Shortly after the publication of the book, Lee and Capote had a falling out and she did not see him for the last fifteen years of his life. After Mockingbird,” Lee returned to her hometown of Monroeville and had only published a few short essays.

Alvin Dewey Jr.

Born in 1912, Alvin Dewey Jr. was the Kansas Bureau of Investigations agent who led the investigation of the murders, and a personal friend of the Clutter family. Although many other law enforcement officials from various agencies were part of the team that cracked the case, Capote made Dewey the hero of “In Cold Blood.” While Dewey said that he “came off bigger and better than life,” the crime took place in his town and he coordinated the investigation.

Dewey provided Capote with access to a tremendous amount of information, including entries from Nancy Clutter's diary. The Dewey family remained in contact with Truman for many years and was present at his funeral. Dewey also worked for the Kansas Highway Patrol, the FBI and was Finney County Sheriff before joining the KBI in 1955. The stress of the Clutter case took its toll, leading to a heart attack in February 1963. Dewey retired in 1975 and died in 1987.

Perry Smith

Born October 27, 1928, in Huntington, Elko County, Nevada, Perry Edward Smith's Irish father and Cherokee mother worked the rodeo circuit as “Tex & Flo.” When the riding act ended so did the marriage, as Flo began drinking and chasing other men. She took the four children and moved to San Francisco. After she died, the children were sent to orphanages.

When he was sixteen, Smith joined the Merchant Marines and later the Army, serving in Japan and Korea. Afterwards he prospected and hunted with his father in Alaska. Sensitive about his education—which stopped at third grade—Smith became obsessed with improving himself, learning to draw, play guitar, and broaden his vocabulary. A serious motorcycle accident in 1952 left him crippled and shortly after that he received his first jail sentence, for a burglary in Philipsburg, Kansas. After his release, he
joined up with Dick Hickock, a fellow “grad” of the Kansas State Penitentiary. With the exception of his sister Barbara, every member of his family died an early death, including his mother Flo (alcoholism), brother James (suicide), and sister Joy (fell—or jumped—out a window).

Richard “Dick” Hickock

Born on June 6, 1931, Richard Eugene Hickock grew up in Kansas City with his parents and younger brother, Walter. He was a popular student and athlete before head injuries from a serious car wreck in 1950 left him disfigured, with his eyes at slightly different levels. As Capote wrote, his head looked like it had been “halved like an apple and then put together a fraction off center.”

Although he had wanted to go to college, the family couldn't afford it, so he became a mechanic. He married and divorced twice, had several children and soon began living beyond his means. He turned to check-bouncing and other petty crimes to help make ends meet, and eventually landed in prison, where he met Perry Smith.

Jack Dunphy

Born in a working class neighborhood in Philadelphia, Jack Dunphy began his career as a dancer, and was one of the cowboys in the original Broadway production of “Oklahoma!” When he met Capote in 1948 he had written a well-received novel, “John Fury,” and was just getting over a painful divorce from musical comedy star Joan McCracken.

Ten years older than Capote, Dunphy was in many ways Capote's opposite, as solitary as Truman was exuberantly social. Though they drifted more and more apart in the later years, the couple stayed together until the end. Other books include “Friends and Vague Loves,” “Nightmovers,” and the plays “Light a Penny Candle,” “Caf Moon” and “Too Close for Comfort.” Although his work consistently received good notices from critics, he never had a bestseller. In 1987, he published “Dear Genius: A Memoir of My Life with Truman Capote.”

William Shawn

Born in 1907, William Shawn (ne William Chon) became the most celebrated magazine editor of the twentieth century during his 35 years (1952-1987) as editor of The New Yorker. Known for his taste, rigorous attention to detail, style and truth, he was also famous for his quiet, self-effacing manner. During his tenure at the magazine, Shawn edited work by Capote, J.D. Salinger, Philip Roth, S.J. Perelman, Hannah Arendt, Edmund Wilson, Milan Kundera, and many others. Shawn and Cecille, his wife of 63 years, had two sons, actor Wallace Shawn and composer Allen Shawn. He also adopted a son with his mistress, writer Lillian Ross. Shawn died in 1992.

Marie Dewey

A native of New Orleans, Marie Dewey was thrilled to find out that Capote had been born there. Her desire to have a guest she could share gumbo with became Truman and Nelle's entry into the Dewey home. “Truman thinks we are genuine, sincere people,” Marie said to the Kansas City Times. “He likes us for what we are. He became well acquainted and fond of us over the years.” Capote said he felt that the Dewey's two boys were like his own nephews, and he encouraged the younger Alvin's to write.