Longer listens: Truman Capote

Published September 26, 2005 8:20PM (EDT)

For those of us too young to remember Truman Capote's days as the favorite literary pet of the talk show circuit, the flamboyant persona and reedy, simpering voice of Philip Seymour Hoffman in the new biopic "Capote" might seem a caricature. But Hoffman's portrayal of the one-of-a-kind dandy who penned "Breakfast at Tiffany's" and "In Cold Blood" is no exaggeration. Hoffman, at least in his outward aspect, has nailed Capote with uncanny precision. And you don't have to take my word for it. Compare the movie's trailer with the audio from this 1970 appearance on the "Dick Cavett Show" (MP3, 21:01) and this 1976 reading of the short story "A Christmas Memory" (Real Audio, 54:00) from Minnesota Public Radio.

The Cavett clip comes from UbuWeb -- an avant-garde and outsider arts site that operates an expansive "free economy" of audio archives. Capote was a guest on the show with '60s media guru Marshall McLuhan and Hall-of-Fame Bears running back Gale Sayers. While the clip mainly features McLuhan, both Capote and Sayers get in on the conversation -- Capote comes in after about two minutes. (Try imagining a show this casual and brainy making it onto the air today. At one point Cavett questions the goodness and utility of his own profession and later McLuhan asks Sayers, without condescension, about "the effect of the instant TV playback on the football game.") The show was taped five years after the publication of "In Cold Blood," the "nonfiction novel" that gave birth to the genre of true crime and secured Capote's reputation both for literary brilliance and moral depravity. The book chronicles the shotgun killings of four members of the Clutter family in their farmhouse in Holcomb, Kan., in 1959. The Hoffman movie, which features Chris Cooper as the local detective and Catherine Keener as Capote's longtime friend and fellow author Harper Lee, tells the story of how Capote gained and then betrayed the trust of one the two gunmen, Perry Smith, in order to get the lurid details of the murders. Around the time of this appearance on Dick Cavett, Capote began the headlong fall into alcohol abuse and prescription drug addiction that would reach its nadir in a 1978 appearance on "The Stanley Siegel Show" during which Capote slurred that he would eventually kill himself if he couldn't lick his drug problems. Capote would die six years later at the age of 59.

The well-known story of Capote's decline provides a dark backdrop to the 1976 reading of "A Christmas Memory." The story is a tribute to the elderly cousin in rural Alabama who taught Truman to read at the age of 4. The woman's many small gifts gave Capote a sense, as he says, of "what faith can mean to a person and [how it can] change their lives and sustain it under the most difficult circumstances."

-- Ira Boudway

By Salon Staff

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