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"Dearest Cecil," wrote Truman Capote from Brooklyn on April 19, 1965, addressing his friend, the English photographer and bon vivant Cecil Beaton. The letter is among those collected in "Too Brief a Treat: The Letters of Truman Capote" (Vintage: 512 pp., $16 paper). "This is just an exhausted scrawl (you owe me a letter anyway), but I wanted you and Kin to know the case is over and my book is coming out next January. Perry and Dick were executed last Tuesday. I was there because they wanted me to be. It was a terrible experience. Something I will never really get over."
The book in question, "In Cold Blood" (Vintage: 368 pp., $14.95 paper), documented the slaughter of a family in Kansas in 1959 and became one of the greatest successes in publishing history. Capote, already a name writer and already acquainted with everybody who was somebody in New York's social and intellectual worlds, achieved one of his heart's desires: the kind of fame that attends movie stars. His face was on the cover of Newsweek and a host of other magazines, and Life gave the book an 18-page spread.
But, as Capote was himself already beginning to suspect, answered prayers are sometimes those we should be most afraid of. The experience of writing and researching "In Cold Blood," then waiting years for murderers Perry Smith and Dick Hickock to die before he could publish it, burned something out of him. He died of liver disease in Los Angeles in 1984 (at the home of Joanna Carson, Johnny Carson's ex-wife), having struggled to write at all in the years since "In Cold Blood." What he did publish seems arch and strained, or, like the prison interview with Manson associate Bobby Beausoleil or the supposedly nonfiction material in "Handcarved Coffins," so contrived as to appear made up. Capote descended into alcoholism and drug addiction while giving full rein to his cattiness and snobbery. The beguiling charm of "Breakfast at Tiffany's" (Vintage, numerous editions) was no longer his to command; the craft behind "In Cold Blood" disappeared too, and the rest was a tawdry downhill slope.
"Portraits and Observations -- The Essays of Truman Capote" (Modern Library: 528 pp., $17 paper) is easily the most important Capote book since "In Cold Blood," a posthumous collection that limns the story of a sad yet still glorious career. "Chaplin has had access to genius," Capote writes in an essay that accompanied a Richard Avedon portrait of the silent clown, and the formulation tells us much: Capote believed that he had "access" to genius himself but knew too that for him "genius" was not an all-encompassing, God-given blanket, but a state of talent and mind that could be earned, or worked toward -- and lost. Such a story arc is, in a way, the subtext of this entire collection.
In the early years of his career, Capote never stopped working. At stories, at scripts, at the journalism that fed his imagination. He was not only prolific but a consummate crafter of sentences and phrases so gorgeous they taste like wine. "This lanky, drawling dandy, who might be a cowboy as imagined by Aubrey Beardsley," he writes of the movie director John Huston. And of Isak Dinesen, author of "Out of Africa" and "Seven Gothic Tales": "Her lips, just touched with paint, twist in a sideways smile of rather paralytic contour, and speak an English brushed with British inflections."
Elsewhere, in "The Muses Are Heard," his account of how an American production company took Gershwin's "Porgy and Bess" to the Soviet Union, and, most notably, in "The Duke in His Domain" -- the legendary 1956 New Yorker profile of Marlon Brando -- we see Capote making nonfiction dry runs for "In Cold Blood."
"Just a young man sitting on a pile of candy," Capote notes, describing Brando in Kyoto, Japan, shooting the movie version of James Michener's "Sayonara." He describes the contents of Brando's room, the socks, the shoes and jackets, the shirts waiting to go to the laundry. "And books, a deep-thought cascade, among which one saw Colin Wilson's 'The Outsider' and various works on Buddhist prayer, Yogi breathing and Hindu mysticism. But no fiction, for Brando reads none. He has never, he professes, opened a novel since April 3, 1924, the day he was born, in Omaha, Nebraska. But while he may not care to read fiction, he does desire to write it, and the long lacquer table was loaded with overfilled ashtrays and piled pages of his most recent creative effort, which happens to be a film script entitled 'A Burst of Vermilion.' "
Capote watches as Brando throws himself on the floor, stuffing a pillow under his head. Then Brando talks about acting: " 'I'll tell you,' he said. ' Spencer Tracy is the kind of actor I like to watch. The way he holds back, holds back -- then darts in to make his point, darts back. Tracy, Muni, Cary Grant. They know what they're doing. You can learn something from them.' "
Brando remembers a trip to Paris and a pilgrimage to the actress Arletty, whose droll and wary yet entirely sexual allure lights up Marcel Carne's "Les Enfants du Paradis": " 'I went to see her as though I was going to a shrine. My ideal woman. Wow!' He slapped the table. 'Was that a mistake, was that a disillusionment! She was a tough article.' "
The techniques here -- minute observation of physical surroundings, precise recording of every nuance of dialogue, patiently awaiting the tiny telltale gesture (Brando slapping the table, gleefully, or perhaps indignantly) that reveals character -- have inspired generations of celebrity profilers, few of whom have ever operated with Capote's intelligence, panache or care. The piece is revealing, too, for its sublimated eroticism. Capote (like most of the world then and since) was drawn to the young Brando, and he would later form a strong and painful bond with Perry Smith, one of the killers whose death by hanging he would observe. Unlike the Brando profile, however, "In Cold Blood" is written without irony and without authorial intrusion, with a purged Flaubertian detachment that allowed Capote to claim that he'd invented a new form, "the nonfiction novel," though other New Yorker writers, notably Joseph Mitchell and Lillian Ross, had already paved the way.
It's customary to posit that Capote was a victim of the celebrity he craved, but there was something heroic about him too, for he polished his craft and sacrificed his peace of mind and moral equilibrium for the production of one supreme book, a grim and enthralling exploration of death and evil. Philip Seymour Hoffman's performance in the movie "Capote" nods toward this possibility, and "Portraits and Observations" shows the process at close hand. Here was a magician who broke his own wand, though happily for us the earlier brilliance is still there, wholly undarkened by time.
Richard Rayner's Paperback Writers column appears monthly at www.latimes.com/books.