Great Read: Joanne Carson’s Capote-edited memoir chapter still in limbo
Joanne Carson is perfectly content to give Truman Capote credit for writing the most beautiful moment of her never-finished memoir, a passage about falling in love with the man who would become king of late-night television.
Here’s what she wrote: “I wanted to hold on to that moment. To hold on to that feeling, the rush that only being in love can give you, for the rest of my life.”
And here’s what Capote wrote: “If only I could have held that moment, crystallized it, preserved forever that shining feeling, the rush that early love, first love, provides. Thank God it happened. Because I was never again to experience that feeling, that intense satisfaction; never, not quite.”
“I’ll tell you something about Truman,” Carson said, sitting on a stool in Capote’s writing room in her house, virtually unchanged since he died there Aug. 25, 1984, at the age of 59. “He said, ‘Well, my dear, if that’s not the way it happened, then that’s the way it should have happened.’ He was convinced that he understood truth better than anybody else.”
Why did one of the most famous American authors of his time lend an editing hand to someone who had never published a sentence? In a word, friendship. Capote, who could be as generous with friends as he was spiteful to enemies, wanted to help Carson write a book. (He had a bit of a Pygmalion complex, too.)
The book was never completed. All that exists is a single chapter, typed by Carson, edited in longhand by Capote.
Now, looking at the possibility of a reverse mortgage on her sprawling, rustic home on Sunset Boulevard, Johnny Carson’s ex-wife is hoping to find a buyer for this unusual 40-year-old document.
Of course, there are a million unpublished manuscripts tucked away in drawers everywhere. But how many are about one of television’s most celebrated television figures, edited by one of the most celebrated writers of his generation?
“It’s a minor piece,” Carson said of the 38-page chapter. “But it’s one of a kind.”
Capote met Johnny and Joanne Carson in the mid-1960s in New York. Capote was already a celebrated writer — of the novella “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” and the spectacular nonfiction crime book “In Cold Blood.” With a genius for self-promotion, he was a frequent guest on television talk shows, including “The Tonight Show.”
Even when he had no book to promote, he offered his bitchy take on the world, to audiences’ delight. (At 5-foot-4, he was dubbed the “Tiny Terror” by Women’s Wear Daily.)
Joanne had grown up unhappily in a Southern California convent school, and Capote had been abandoned by his mother to Alabama relatives. They bonded over their difficult childhoods and became fast friends. Unlike many of Joanne’s pals, including the late Joan Rivers, he didn’t ditch her when she split from Johnny Carson in 1970.
Though her life was glamorous — she had been a Pan-Am stewardess and model and had aspired to be on television — she knew nothing about the refined things that were second nature to the society ladies Capote hung around with. She was ignorant of Porthault linens and had no idea why Baccarat crystal was superior to Steuben. Capote took her under his wing, she said. “He raised me.”
“The book was Truman’s brilliant idea,” said Carson, 82, who has a lung ailment and has barely left her home since 2011. He brought her to his publisher, Random House, where she pitched “Carson, Capote & Co.”
“Truman had the start of all these chapters laid out for me: ‘Cary Grant came over to sit at my table.’ Or ‘Marlon Brando was on his way to the Polo Lounge to have lunch with Johnny and me.’”
With Capote as midwife, the project might have been a lot of fun. “She’s like a Zelig,” said her friend Ed Rada, managing director of L.A.'s Center Theatre Group and trustee of her estate. “She was friends with everyone — James Dean, Jim Morrison.”
But she didn’t have Capote’s killer instinct. “I was going to write a lovely story about my friendship with these people,” she said. But the editor assigned to work with her — whose name she can’t recall — wanted something less anodyne. She never picked up her pen again.
“When I saw the ‘dishy’ kind of autobiographies selling in the ‘80s,” Carson said, “I knew my simple book of my friendships would not be interesting.”
Yet making Carson more interesting was Capote’s goal, too. He blithely rewrote his friend, imposing his poetic style on her more prosaic effort, inventing dialogue and taking little liberties to heighten the drama. (Carson: “Eileen Ford was seated behind a large desk talking on the phone.” Capote: “Eileen Ford, who looked like a small-town librarian, was seated behind a disorganized desk, barking into the phone.” )
“What I think is most interesting about it is that he didn’t just edit her, he bludgeoned her,” said Ralph Voss, a retired University of Alabama English professor and author of 2011’s “Truman Capote and the Legacy of ‘In Cold Blood.’”
Over the years, as Carson’s investments have dwindled, she has parceled off many of the items Capote bequeathed her after dying of what the coroner said was a combination of liver disease, phlebitis and multiple drug intoxication.
In 2006, she auctioned off hundreds of his personal effects to raise money for an animal blood bank. Bonhams auction house put a suggested price of $10,000 to $15,000 on the manuscript, but it failed to sell. Then, last summer, to help a friend with cancer, she sold Capote’s typewriter to local collector Steve Soboroff, who had been inquiring about it for years.
No one seems to know what the manuscript is worth — not Santa Monica attorney Alan U. Schwartz, who is the literary executor of Capote’s estate, nor Capote biographer Gerald Clarke, who had never heard of it.
“It’s an interesting piece,” said Catherine Williamson, Bonhams director of fine books and manuscripts. “It’s an unusual way to look at Capote because we really don’t think of him as an editor, although rumor has it he did some amazing editing work in his day.” (She is referring to never-proven claims that Capote had a hand in “To Kill a Mockingbird,” the Pulitzer Prize-winning 1960 novel by his childhood friend Harper Lee.)
For the last 44 years, Carson, who never had children, has lived across from UCLA in a one-story home that is more Topanga Canyon than Bel-Air. Her kitchen is still painted its original 1970s orange.
After her nine-year marriage to Carson, she worked as a television talk-show host in Los Angeles, earned a doctorate and worked as a metabolic therapist. She devotes time and money to helping animals, particularly dogs with epilepsy.
Last October, a flurry of headlines ensued after Carson’s longtime attorney, Henry Bushkin, asserted in his own memoir that Johnny Carson and he broke into a New York City apartment in 1970, where they discovered evidence that Joanne was conducting an affair with football great Frank Gifford.
“No truth to it,” she sniffed about the Gifford story. “Frank and I were good friends. I could have the most incredible libel suit. But to get into the dirt with Henry Bushkin? No.”
As Carson chatted, Soboroff lounged on the bed that Capote died in, petting Carson’s 15-year-old Doberman pinscher, Zoe.
Soboroff and Carson got to know each other last summer, when he got her to part with Capote’s Smith Corona. He collects typewriters owned by historical figures — Ernest Hemingway, John Lennon, Joe DiMaggio — and lends them out to raise money for journalism scholarships. (Yes, people pay to type on the Unabomber’s typewriter.)
Soboroff, president of the L.A. Police Commission, is the one who urged her to talk about her unfinished manuscript.
Carson is taken with Soboroff because, she says, he reminds her of Capote.
“I have a hard time explaining that to my wife,” said Soboroff, who is neither tiny nor lispy.
“Well, you both are sensitive. You both are very gentle men,” Carson said. “You are both highly intelligent, and you both like me.”
By the time he died, Capote had been in a decade-long skid, in and out of rehab, beset by tumultuous love affairs and devastated by the response to the publication of a chapter of his never-finished novel “Answered Prayers” in Esquire in 1976.
“La Cote Basque 1965” was a poisonous account of adultery and even murder, based on the gossip he’d heard among the socialites he called his “swans” — Babe Paley, wife of CBS chief Bill Paley; fashion icon Slim Keith; heiress Gloria Vanderbilt; and Jackie Kennedy’s sister Lee Radziwill (whom he’d tried to turn into an actress in one of his other ill-fated makeovers). Betrayed, most never spoke to him again.
Carson remained loyal, though, just as Capote had remained loyal to her. Anyway, she said, “I was a duckling. I wasn’t elegant enough to be a swan.”
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