George Plimpton, that quintessential American man of letters, here invites you to "a cocktail party, glass in hand (probably a vodka)," where you will overhear ruminations on every corner of Truman Capote's life. What you're in for is gossip of the most salacious and informed variety, with Plimpton acting as genial segue artist: "As soon as he landed in a town -- Paris, say -- it didn't seem to take him more than a minute to be at the center of things."
And that is the initial thrill of this book, the center stage vantage it offers on the determined self-formation of an artist. It charts Capote's early childhood in Monroeville, Ala. -- then, in New York, his brief moments as an office boy at the New Yorker (he was fired) and his acceptance at the Yaddo Writers Colony. Then comes the glitter -- "Other Voices, Other Rooms," "Breakfast at Tiffany's" and "In Cold Blood" -- followed by the climax, Capote's rather over-pondered Black and White Ball, which receives more space here than any one of his books. This is quickly followed by ruin in the guise of alcoholism and his roman à clef "Answered Prayers." People are, of course, unkind about him. Norman Mailer weighs in on the ball, saying, "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." (Contextually, the statement doesn't seem particularly nasty, especially with the likes of Gore Vidal attempting to be both withering and nonchalant.)
The portrait that emerges is of an increasingly vicious, jealous, competitive, deceptive little bastard, the nasty little girl of American letters -- a version of Dorothy Parker. One hundred seventy-four impressive names (a number of them now dead) have been diligently interviewed here, and one can be forgiven for wondering whether anyone with a brain has a kind word for the man. The omissions too are curious -- neither Harper Lee nor C.Z. Guest are included, perhaps explaining the unfortunate inclusion of a 12-page remembrance by one of Capote's boyfriends' daughters.
But by the end of this oral biography, there's a more autumnal feeling in the air. Dominick Dunne recalls his own period of drying out, during which he received a letter of admiration, out of the blue, from Capote. "We were not that good friends that I deserved that kind of letter. So what I had done is obviously what he knew that he should have done. After he died it became very fashionable to kick him. Not me. I've never forgotten that letter he wrote me." Later comes the charming revelation that Capote made a series of decorative boxes, and "Truman Capote" ends on a disarmingly gentle note with poet James Dickey's eulogy. Somehow, in the midst of the cacophonous din of this cocktail party, Plimpton has ferreted out the sweetness of the man, using the same method that Dickey described as Capote's: "the craft of the artist by means of which the intently human thing is caught."