From the Archives: Truman Capote Dies; Wrote ‘In Cold Blood’

Times Staff Writers

Author Truman Capote, the impish intellectual who became almost as famous for his acerbic wit on television as for the journalistic-style novels that were his hallmark, died Saturday in Bel-Air. He would have been 60 years old Sept. 30.

Capote, who wrote “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” and “In Cold Blood,” died about noon at the home of his close friend, Joanne Carson, who was divorced from talk show host Johnny Carson in 1972. A tough, high-strung little man who had battled lifelong addictions to drugs and alcohol, he had grown frail in recent years and had been in and out of hospitals.

He is considered one of the most lyrical, and undoubtedly most flamboyant, American writers of the 20th Century.


Role of a Pioneer

In an open attempt to secure his place in the literary world, Capote claimed that “In Cold Blood,” a 1964 novel about a multiple murder in Kansas, pioneered a new literary form—the nonfiction novel. Although the book was universally acclaimed, critics have continued to argue the value of the nonfiction novel.

He had no doubt of its value, though. “There are three or four writers left in my generation in this race and I have this feeling that I am going to win it,” he told an interviewer in 1980.

“He was in terrific spirits Friday night,” Carson said in a telephone interview. “We went swimming and we were making plans for his 60th birthday party. Then this morning, he said he was tired and wanted to take a nap.”

She found him unconscious when she tried to wake him shortly after noon, she said, and she called paramedics. She said he had been recently diagnosed as having phlebitis. Police said an autopsy will determine the cause.

He had spent Friday night planning a large black-tie dinner for his 60th birthday and working on a novel called “Answered Prayers” that he has been writing since the 1950s, Carson said. Parts of it were published in Esquire magazine in the 1970s. He had long told friends that this book was to be his last before he died.


“He brought what he had written last night in to me in a spiral notebook and asked me to read it,” Carson said. “He always said this would be the last book he would ever write. It was by far his most difficult. He was letting his barriers down in this book and writing from his heart and soul.

“He was my protector and my best friend,” Carson said, crying. “What am I going to do without him?”

Just how much of the curious, jet-setting homosexual novelist will be revealed in the book is unknown. Capote’s friend and literary representative, Alan U. Schwartz, said his last writings will be reviewed to determine if they are sufficiently complete to publish what was expected to be the most controversial of his often-controversial writings.

“His last book was not entirely autobiographical, but it did deal with a male character that was a kind of male Holly-Go-Lightly,” he said, referring to the call girl character in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.”

“Truman was kind of whimsical and mischievous and he had a curious kind of asexuality. I think he saw himself as a modern-day Peter Pan,” Schwartz said.

Born Truman Streckfus Persons in New Orleans on Sept. 30, 1924, to a former Miss Alabama, Capote was raised by a series of aunts and grandmothers in the rural South. He made up stories to help deal with his loneliness and his separation from his parents.

Determined since the age of 10 to be a writer, he attended Trinity School and St. John’s Academy in New York and public schools in Greenwich, Conn. His mother later married a well-to-do businessman named Capote and the adopted boy chose to take the name. His mother ultimately died of an apparent drug overdose.

By the age of 17, when he took a job at New Yorker magazine, Capote was known for his mannerisms and eccentric style of dress.

Capote’s literary career began in 1944 with the publication of a short story, “Miriam.” His first novel, “Other Voices, Other Rooms,” was published in 1948. But the literary value of the novel was lost in the sensation created by a jacket photo of the 23-year-old Capote, showing him reclining on a sofa and looking, one critic said, “as if he were dreamily contemplating some outrage against conventional morality.”

Capote later claimed that the photo was selected by accident, but readers at the time suspected that Capote may have identified with the book’s protagonist and that “Other Voices, Other Rooms” was a confession of sexual deviation, critics said.

The resulting publicity helped to make the book a best-seller and Capote well known.

Fondness for Unusual

Lest the public forget that Capote enjoyed the unusual, he posed again in the same manner -- this time as a middle-aged legend -- for his “Music for Chameleons,” published in 1980. That was his last book.

In the years that followed “Other Voices, Other Rooms,” he wrote the best-selling “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” and “In Cold Blood,” his most famous work.

In that book, published in 1965, Capote was hailed by some literary critics for his masterful investigative reporting on the lives of two killers condemned to death for slaying four members of the Herbert Clutter family near Garden City, Kan.

Capote himself hailed the book as the first “nonfiction novel.”

But others criticized Capote, questioning the propriety of earning millions on a book based on the deaths of four family members. They also criticized Capote’s continual promotion of the book, to which Capote retorted: “A boy has to hustle his book.”

The work originally appeared in The New Yorker, boosting the magazine’s sales.

Toast of High Society

After the book was published Capote became the toast of New York and threw an elaborate masked ball at the Plaza hotel.

“When I wrote ‘In Cold Blood,’ many were critical,” Capote said later. “I spent six years on that book wandering the plains of Kansas and nearly went mad, but I saw it through. (Fellow author Norman) Mailer called it ‘a failure of the imagination,’ and now I see that the only prizes Norman wins are for some small service to him.”

Capote never concealed his dislike for Mailer, once saying that Mailer was not a very good novelist. He added: “Norman is a very, very good literary critic, even though he has some foolish ideas. . . .”

But he cultivated famous enemies, just as he cultivated famous friends.

Speaking in his patented high-pitched whine, Capote delighted in skewering his arch foes in his frequent television appearances and in his writing.

Target of Lawsuit

Novelist Gore Vidal, once a close friend, sued him for libel in 1976 after he was quoted as saying that Robert F. Kennedy had had Vidal thrown out of the White House in a drunken stupor. That lawsuit was just recently settled — “amicably,” Schwartz said.

“Quite a lot of people disliked him,” said Saint Subber, a Broadway producer who did theatrical versions of Capote’s “The Grass Harp” and “House of Flowers.” “I knew him over 40 years. To me, he was a Roman candle. He was always celebrating life.”

Capote often grabbed more headlines than his books did. He frequented New York’s Studio 54 in its heyday and was ofter seen in the company of such social luminaries as Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Lee Radziwill, C.Z. and Winston Guest and Klaus and Martha (Sonny) von Bulow.

Controversy was not the only thing that dogged Capote’s later years.

He had bouts with alcohol and once went into great detail about it before a college audience in Maryland.

Incoherent in Interview

He said he often mixed alcohol with medication. “I put them together like some sort of cocktail,” he said in a July, 1978, television interview with Stanley Siegel in New York. The host stopped the interview when Capote began rambling incoherently about his drinking and drug problems.

In August, 1983, Capote pleaded guilty to a charge of drunk driving on New York’s Long Island. Capote was scolded by the judge for appearing in court in blue shorts that came to the middle of his thighs, a white shirt and a sports jacket.

Capote was hospitalized in April, 1983, in Montgomery, Ala., after test showed a “toxic level” of dilantin and phenobarbital in his system. Doctors said he had a “bad reaction” to the drugs, which are used to control epileptic-type seizures.

In August, 1981, he collapsed from a convulsive seizure in the lobby of his Manhattan apartment.

Through it all, Capote gamely held on. He told an interviewer in 1980:

“I’ve always seen myself as a winner, even as a kid. If I hadn’t I just might have gone down the drain a couple of times. I’ve got something inside of me -- peasant-like and stubborn — and I’m in it ‘til the end of the race.”

Manhattan Was Home

The 5-foot, 3-inch author had homes on New York’s Long Island and Switzerland and recently sold a home in Palm Springs, but he preferred his Manhattan apartment as his home base. Said Capote of Southern California:

“It’s like living in Forest Lawn. There is no intellectual life, only going to the studio and coming from the studio. San Francisco has a cozy drama to it, but it is one the most provincial cities in the world. It’s like a carousel; one sees the same people over and over in about 10 days.”

Capote thought Paris and Moscow were boring; Tokyo was “hell on earth” and Italy’s Venice was a “gradually dying museum.”

But New York was the apple of Capote’s eye. “It’s the only city I know that is a city city. It is going 24 hours a day. If you want to buy a book at 4 in the morning, you can buy a book . . . .”

Although he claimed to dislike Los Angeles, he frequently visited Carson in Bel-Air and had his own room in her house.

Honored for His Work

Capote won numerous literary awards, including the O. Henry Award in 1946, 1948 and 1951; the Mystery Writers of America Edgar Allan Poe Award in 1966 and an Emmy Award for television adaptation in 1967.

He also wrote screenplays, collaborating with John Huston in the 1953 film, “Beat the Devil.” In 1976, he made his acting debut as an eccentric millionaire detective in Neil Simon’s “Murder by Death.”

“Music for Chameleons,” a collection of his short stories, has been adapted to a screenplay for a movie and is scheduled to begin shooting shortly.

Carson said Capote also was scheduled to appear on a television show with her next month that was to have been a pilot for a possible TV series. Carson has a program on cable television.

“He was really rather secretive about it,” Clarke said. “He wanted to live long enough to finish the book, and then he wanted to die. He told me that.”

Working to the End

He was working on the last chapter of the book hours before he died, Carson said. “He borrowed two pens and was writing late last night,” she said.

She read the last two lines. They are typical of the detailed, lyrical description that marked his writings:

“There were flowers everywhere, masses of winter lilac, primrose, and lavender-edged roses. Beautiful bound books lined all the walls in the living room.”

Friends said funeral arrangements are pending.

Times staff writers Mark Balthazar and Dean Murphy also contributed to this story.


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