Glowing, Then Gossipy Talk: An Oral Fix on Truman Capote

Truman Capote , by George Plimpton. Doubleday, 498 pages, $35.

We have here the happy convergence of a great subject and a great technique, stage-managed by a master of the genre. It’s been 13 years since George Plimpton’s last foray (with Jean Stein) into “oral biography” immortalized Edie Sedgwick. Though fascinating all along the periphery, Edie lacked compelling interest at dead center: You could never argue for the greatness of an anorexic aristocrat turned Warhol protégé. About Truman Capote you could argue almost anything-and in the pages of this delightful book, people do.

Mr. Plimpton welcomes us by comparing oral biography to a cocktail party. Wander among the guests, glass in hand, catching snippets of their spiel: Would you be surprised to hear buckets of plain old gossip, some of it self-serving, misinformed, outrageous, dull, even dopey, some of it charming, deliciously spiced and utterly convincing? Oral biography is a gabfest with a higher purpose, or at least a built-in anthropological excuse: It promotes the study of dirt-dishing in all its permutations. One’s scientific detachment is in no way compromised by the proliferation of glittery names-Barbara (Babe) Paley, Marella Angelli, Gloria Guinness, C.Z. Guest, Nancy (Slim) Keith, Lee Radziwill, Capote’s flock of society swans.

Uncut, the interviews in Truman Capote would be a dismal chore to read. But Mr. Plimpton does edit. And he orchestrates unobtrusively, mixing a rich variety of voices. Order is gently imposed, mostly chronological. You drift from Capote’s impish youth through middle-age bloat to early death. The way is punctuated with “interludes,” some of them medleys of testimony organized along thematic lines, such as Capote’s habit of “fibbing,” interpreted by the likes of Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley Jr.; some are arias dedicated to isolated incidents-writer Dotson Rader, for example, telling the weird story of Capote’s encounter with jazz singer Peggy Lee, ancient and addled and convinced that in an earlier life, a couple of thousand years ago, while working as a prostitute in Jerusalem, she picked up a newspaper and saw the headline “Jesus Christ Crucified.”

You never hear the whole story, and so you’re always a little worried that you’re missing out on the true significance of what you do hear. But it doesn’t matter. A little doubt prods the attention. Tangled contradictions exercise the critical eye. Was Capote’s famous black-and-white ball (at the Plaza Hotel, November 1966) actually a good party, as per Norman Mailer, Virgil Thomson and John Kenneth Galbraith? Or was it a bust, as per Frank Sinatra, Herb Caen and Harold Prince? You’re never sure who’s grinding an ax-and whose neck is on the block.

In the beginning, it’s the pure strangeness of the story that enchants, this pretty little boy abandoned by his ambitious mother, raised in small-town Alabama, already convinced by age 10 that he’s going to be a celebrated author. Next door was his best friend, a tomboy called Nelle Harper Lee, later famous for To Kill a Mockingbird . Another neighbor, a childhood acquaintance, remembers the time Nelle put some paper in the typewriter in her father’s study: “Truman started telling a story, and while he talked, Nelle typed it. Well, they would not let me help with the story, so I just grabbed my paper dolls and went home!” (That Ms. Lee refused to grant an interview is among the book’s very few disappointments: Stalking the reclusive writer is apparently one sport the compulsively adventurous Mr. Plimpton won’t try.)

Suddenly, the scene shifts: Capote has been reclaimed by his mother and brought to New York. Tiny, with a delicate face and a piping voice no one ever forgot, he grew up but remained a child. The late Leo Lerman, catching sight of Capote for the first time, wondered, “was he some kind of elf?” No sooner had he finished high school than he was “fluttering, flitting up and down the corridors” of The New Yorker , an office boy who “looked like a little ballerina.” He was publishing stories in Harper’s Bazaar and Mademoiselle , and meeting “le tout New York,” as the late Arthur Gold put it.

It’s great fun to trace the accelerating arc of his ascent, stunning to recognize the breadth of his social ambition and success. Other Voices, Other Rooms , his first novel, secured his literary reputation. His entry into Hollywood circles was the screenplay he wrote for Beat the Devil , directed by John Huston and starring Humphrey Bogart (“The unlikeliest couple in the world were Bogart and Truman Capote,” Lauren Bacall tells Mr. Plimpton.) Breakfast at Tiffany’s , both the novel and the movie, broadened his popular appeal, which was then hugely expanded by In Cold Blood . And because of his charm and his brains, he made friends; rich, talented, powerful friends. “He was a joy,” said the biographer John Richardson. “Whether he was being mean or funny or sweet, he put on a marvelous variety show.”

He capped his success with the black-and-white ball. Here are three takes, all seductively plausible. Norman Mailer: “It certainly was his greatest coup. For some, and I might be one of them, that party was even greater than any particular one of his books.” Norman Podhoretz: “[T]his party represented some turning point in the cultural history, in the social history of New York, even the United States in the sense that the confluence of the fashionable social world, and the literary world and the world of political power was embodied in that guest list. Those are worlds that in this country … have always been separate.” Joan Axelrod (wife of George Axelrod, who wrote the film script for Breakfast at Tiffany’s ): “I would feel very superstitious about giving myself a party like that. It’s like putting a period on the sentence.”

After In Cold Blood , Capote’s only writing of note is a fragment, odd chapters of Answered Prayers, a so-called “Proustian” novel Capote never finished-“Shit served up on a gold dish,” in Mr. Richardson’s phrase. Today, Answered Prayers is remembered only for the “Côte Basque” episode, Capote’s ill-considered betrayal of Babe Paley and Slim Keith; it’s a signpost clearly marked “Writer in Decline.”

The long and painful slide is just as depressing and predictable as the ascent was thrilling and improbable. You might consider putting the book down once vodka drowns Capote’s wit, and he loses all semblance of charm-but by now you’re hooked. Also, there’s a reward if you stick with it till the end, all the way through the gruesome funeral services arranged by the ditzy Joanne Carson. (We get an excruciatingly candid report, in stereo, from John Gregory Dunne and Joan Didion.)

The last word goes to James Dickey, who delivered a lovely, generous and perceptive eulogy at the Academy of Arts and Letters. Capote, said Dickey, “possessed to an unusual degree [the] ability to encapsulate himself with his subject … so that nothing else existed except him and the other; and then he himself would begin to fade away and words would appear in his place: words concerning the subject, as though it were dictating itself. In the best of his work, this self-canceling solipsism … amounted to Truman’s vision of things.” This is the discipline of great writing described as if in a time and motion study.

Did Capote produce great writing? In Cold Blood is a remarkable performance, terrifying and true. Breakfast at Tiffany’s is light, thin, beautifully made. I’m inclined to accept Mr. Mailer’s estimate: “If I were to mount them all up on a wall, I’d put Truman somewhat below Fitzgerald, but of that ilk.”

Two quibbles: Capote’s mother killed herself in January 1954, when her son was 29 years old. Mr. Plimpton presents the reader with strong claims about the significance of this event. Gotham Book Mart proprietor Andreas Brown argues that it was “so devastating to Truman that it became an obsession, a focal point in his life.” Capote’s high school friend Phoebe Pierce Vreeland calls it “the major unhealed wound in his life.” But the suicide itself remains a mystery to the reader. The commentary barely stretches to four and a half pages. In this case, not knowing enough cripples one’s ability to judge.

On a more trivial note: The publisher, Doubleday, has let slip an abundance of typos, beginning with the long list of Mr. Plimpton’s previously published works, two of which appear as The Paris Renew Anthology and that salty title, The Morton Book of Sports .

A chorus of voices about a singular solo voice, a compendium of gossip about a “pre-eminent purveyor of gossip,” Truman Capot e feeds off contradictions and redundancies. But the lesson, as I see it, is simple and straightforward: Discipline and dedication are the true artist’s only friends.