Truman Capote began life under a cloud. By the time he was born, in New Orleans on September 30, 1924, his parents' marriage was over in all but name. His mother, Lillie Mae, a small-town beauty, went her way, and his father, Arch Persons, a charming but irresponsible schemer, went his. For much of his childhood, Truman was thus raised by the same middle-aged cousins who had raised his orphaned mother: three old maid cousins and their bachelor brother in the little town of Monroeville, Alabama. Though he never lacked for care, that early abandonment by his parents left an emotional wound that remained open until the day he died.
Small-"I'm about as tall as a shotgun, and just as noisy," was how he later described himself-Truman was spirited and inventive enough to make himself the center of any gathering. "A pocket Merlin" was how Harper Lee, his best friend during those early years, later described him in her semiautobiographical novel, To Kill a Mockingbird. In 1932 his mother, who had dropped her back-country name, Lillie Mae, in favor of the more sophisticated Nina, brought him north to live with her and her new husband, a Cuban named Joe Capote, in New York. An indulgent stepfather with a good job on Wall Street, Joe Capote legally adopted him in 1935, and Truman Persons became Truman Capote.
In 1939 the Capotes left Manhattan for the upscale bedroom community of Greenwich, Connecticut. There they settled into a handsome enclave of Tudor houses and tree-shaded streets. When he was still in Alabama, Capote had announced his ambition to become a writer, and at Greenwich High School, he found what every aspiring writer needs, a sympathetic and encouraging teacher-Catherine Wood was her name. In Greenwich, Truman also found a soul mate in Phoebe Pierce, a pretty, sophisticated girl whose own ambition was to be a poet. Although there is only one letter to her-"Phoebe devil" was how he affectionately addressed her-her name often comes up in his correspondence with others.
Three years after leaving, the Capotes returned to New York, to an apartment at 1060 Park Avenue. After belatedly graduating from high school, a private school on Manhattan's West Side, Capote landed a job at The New Yorker [magazine]-but only as a copyboy. That magazine thought his stories too unconventional for its staid, Scarsdale tastes. In those days the women's fashion magazines published the most innovative fiction in America, and the talent The New Yorker sneered at was quickly embraced by two remarkable fiction editors, Mary Louise Aswell at Harper's Bazaar and George Davis at Mademoiselle. They vied for his stories, and in the months after World War II, Capote, still in his early twenties, became a hot commodity in the literary marketplace.
All was not going well at home, however. Nina Capote had become an alcoholic, and when she was not raging at Joe for his infidelities, she was attacking Truman for his homosexuality. Finding it harder and harder to work on Park Avenue, in 1946 Truman sought temporary refuge at Yaddo, a writers' and artists' colony on a bucolic estate in upstate New York. One writer who was there that summer compared him to Shakespeare's Ariel; but he was also Puck, the one who set the agenda for fun and adventure. Yaddo was famous for its romances, and Capote engaged in two, the first with Howard Doughty, a handsome married historian, the second with Newton Arvin, one of Doughty's best friends and sometime lover. For Truman, Doughty, who remained a friend, was just a fling. But Arvin, a professor of literature at Smith, a women's college in Northampton, Massachusetts, was real love.
They were an unlikely couple. At twenty-two, Capote looked several years younger; at forty-six, Arvin looked several years older, in appearance a mousy man, bald and bespectacled. In temperament they were also opposites. Capote could scarcely restrain his high spirits; shy and reserved, Arvin felt uncomfortable whenever he left his Northampton sanctuary. Arvin was brave in his writing, however, and unlike many professors of literature, he was an excellent writer himself, a critic of unassailable judgment and a tower of erudition. In the two years they were a pair-Capote traveled to Northampton on weekends-Arvin provided his young partner with the college education he had never had. Arvin, Capote liked to say, was his Harvard.
During the week Capote enjoyed New York, where the circles of his friends widened with every month. One set centered on Leo Lerman, a good-natured literary gadfly whose Sunday-night parties were a Manhattan institution, attracting just about everybody of note-writers and editors, movie stars and playwrights. Other sets revolved around his magazine editors, Harper's Bazaar's much-loved Mary Louise Aswell and Mademoiselle's slightly sinister George Davis, whose epigrams rivaled Oscar Wilde's. After publication of his first novel, Other Voices, Other Rooms, Capote asked Davis his opinion. "Well," said Davis, "I suppose someone had to write the fairy Huckleberry Finn."
Capote discovered the world of a more established society when he walked into the East Side town house of Bennett Cerf, his new publisher at Random House, and Cerf's wife, Phyllis. There, too, he became the center of the room, telling tales and retailing gossip. Others among the dramatis personae of those postwar years-and Capote's frequent correspondents-were Donald Windham and Andrew Lyndon, two aspiring writers from Georgia, and John Malcolm Brinnin, a poet, college teacher, and, later, the head of the Poetry Center at the 92nd Street YMHA in Manhattan.
The publication of Other Voices, Other Rooms in the winter of 1948 brought Capote national fame-Americans of that day took literature more seriously than they do now-and a few months later he traveled to Europe, where, to no one's surprise, he met some of the leading English and French writers. When he returned, he realized that he had outgrown Arvin and his almost hermit-like isolation. For his part, Arvin, who had engaged in a clandestine romance with Andrew Lyndon while Capote was away, was only too willing to release his rambunctious and often tiring lover. Though they remained devoted friends until Arvin's death in 1963, Capote began looking around for a new companion.
In October 1948, he found him. Ten years Capote's senior, Jack Dunphy was athletic-he had been a dancer in the original production of Oklahoma!-and good-looking, in a surly kind of way. He said what he thought, to Capote and everybody else. Dunphy, too, was a writer-and a good one-with one novel to his credit, another on the way, and several plays in his future. This time love lasted, and Dunphy remained Capote's constant star for the rest of his life.
TO ARCH PERSONS [St. John's Military Academy] [Ossining, N.Y.] [Probably Autumn 1936]
As you know my name was changed from Person's [sic] to Capote, and I would appreciate it if in the future you would address me as Truman Capote, as everyone knows me by that name.
[Collection Gerald Clarke]
TO THOMAS FLANAGAN
[Greenwich, Connecticut] [1939-41]
I do hereby solemnly affirm that any statements I may have made about Thomas Flanagan, or said that he had made, were calumnies and lies on my part.
[Collection Edmond Miller]
TO CATHERINE WOOD [Monroeville, Ala.] [26 July 1941]
Dear Miss Wood, I have been in New Orleans three weeks and I just got back to Monroeville last night. I was very pleasantly surprised to find your sweet note. I was so sorry to hear about your father and I do hope he is improving.
I have been gathering material here and there and some of it is rather good, I have written little but I have taken many notes and tried to give accurate accounts of things that will later stand me in good stead, (that was meant to be a period, but my typewriter slipped.)
Are you going up to visit Miss Pierce, I hope you do because her place in Maine sounded so quiet and restful-charmingly woodsy.
I have been traveling all over the south since I came. I went to Natchez, Miss. last week and I went on a picnic at a very scenic spot over looking [sic] the Mississippi River.
Teddy's mother wrote me a long letter telling me all about his doings, you know Teddy-he would'nt [sic] write anyone if his very life depended upon it. She told me that you had written him and asked me to tell you all the news about the dear raven haired child.
1.He has a job with the Greenich [sic] Cab company and he makes fifteen dollars week.
2.He won $130.00 dollars [sic] at the Maidstone club dinner dance. He is taking flying lessons with it.
3.His mother is desperate!
4.They have moved into their new house-the address is 179 Park Ave. Greenwich.
5.They are pleased and delighted with Teddy and he seems to be improving. BUNK!
P.S. He was 17 last Sat.
I have gone Russian with a vengeance! I finally finished WAR and Peace. Also I have read Huxley's "Point Counter Point." It is very badly written, not so badly written as confusing. But it is educating as to the point of ultra-modern sophistication.
I went all the way through the heart of Pearl River swamp in La. It took three days and it was like being in a jungle only more dangerous. These swamps are inhabited by Cajons (I believe that I spelled that correctly) and it is so wild in there that some of the younger children have never seen white people! It was really quite an experience and I collected all kinds of material and wild flowers-also a baby alligator which I will ship to you C.O.D any time that you will have him. He's a regular little monster.
I am so sorry for my procrastination in answering your letter but it was truly unavoidable. Please write me and tell me all the news as I am at present sorta this side of civilization, where the people think if you don't say "ain't" you just ain't right in the head and the double negative is accepted grammar.
Write me, all my very best Love, Truman
[Collection New York Public Library]
TO CATHERINE WOOD1
Hotel Frances Monroe, La. [August 1942]
I hope all this isn't too much for your + Miss Pierce's stomach.
They have the most wonderful river life here (Ouichita river, it flows into the Miss.). It is the most beautiful river! I went down it on a house boat for 157 miles + back, it took a week and a half. I am going to write a story about the people that live (I mean really live) on houseboats along the banks + eat what they get from the water!
I suppose you know that I will not be at G.H.S. [Greenwich High School] this fall as we have taken an apartment in the city. But of course I will be in Greenwich often to see you. Phoebe [Pierce] will be in the city this winter also. If you have a guest room in your new house you can invite me out for a weekend, (forward, aren't I?)
I do hope you can read my handwriting, because I cannot.
TO ARCH PERSONS
[Monroeville, Alabama] Dec 2, '43
Dear Daddy Nid,1
Please excuse pad & pencil, but just a hasty note to let you know I got your telegram. Mother sent it to me airmail.
I came here, thinking that, after all, you certainly couldn't be bothered with me at the present time. I'm really terribly sorry about Myrtle, because I liked her very much, as you know.
Then, too, I have no money of my own and I'm afraid you didn't understand that when I talked with you. I used what I did have to finance myself down here, but, needless to say, this is certainly not the place. I was far better off in New York.
Naturally your telegram sounded exciting and nothing could thrill me more than to see you and finish my work in New Orleans. But I assuredly do not feel as though I should impose upon you-and what with the war etc. I'm afraid you're in no position to be imposed upon.
I have a cold and feel rotten, it's so damned uncomfortable here. I think I will be going back to New York soon as Alabama is definitely not a writer's haven. Please write me, c/o V.H. Faulk, Box 346, M, Ala.
Much love to you and a kiss for Myrtle,
P.S. I hope you can read this "nigger" scrawl.
[Collection Gerald Clarke]
TO ELIZABETH AMES
Truman Capote 1060 Park Ave. New York, N.Y. Jan. 23, '46
Mrs. Elizabeth Ames Director: Yaddo Saratoga Springs, N.Y.
Dear Mrs. Ames,
I am interested to know the possibilities of spending some time at YADDO this summer, as I am working on a book, a first novel, which I hope to finish in the Fall; the book is to be published by Random House: Robert N. Linscott is my editor. My stories have appeared in Harper's Bazaar, Mademoiselle, Story, Prarie [sic] Schooner, and other small reviews. I am twenty-one, from the South, now living in New York. For a short period I worked at The New Yorker, then read manuscripts for a motion-picture office, finally put together a monthly collection of rather tired anecdotes for a digest magazine. Now, at last, with the assistance of a publisher, I am able to go ahead with my writing.
Several friends who have been there tell me I would like YADDO very much. Thank you, Mrs. Ames, for the consideration you may give this letter.
Most sincerely, Truman Capote
[Collection New York Public Library]
Copyright © 2004 by Truman Capote. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.