Truman Capote may have only stood a measly 5' 3", but his writings stand many stories taller. Famous for his chilling account of the Clutter family murder in Kansas, Capote's "In Cold Blood" is considered the keystone of true crime and narrative nonfiction. Little known, however, are his writings outside of that seminal work, writings that are equally disciplined and passionate. "Too Brief a Treat" gives the reader an inside look at the hilariously flamboyant Capote through his personal correspondence. His missives range from a biting letter to a military academy notifying them that is name is not "Person's", to a little stenographic self-reflection: "I do hope you can read my handwriting, because I cannot."
Truman Capote began life under a cloud. By the time he was born, in New Orleans on September 30, 1924, his parents' marriage was over in all but name. His mother, Lillie Mae, a small-town beauty, went her way, and his father, Arch Persons, a charming but irresponsible schemer, went his. For much of his childhood, Truman was thus raised by the same middle-aged cousins who had raised his orphaned mother: three old maid cousins and their bachelor brother in the little town of Monroeville, Alabama. Though he never lacked for care, that early abandonment by his parents left an emotional wound that remained open until the day he died.
Small-"I'm about as tall as a shotgun, and just as noisy," was how he later described himself-Truman was spirited and inventive enough to make himself the center of any gathering. "A pocket Merlin" was how Harper Lee, his best friend during those early years, later described him in her semiautobiographical novel, To Kill a Mockingbird. In 1932 his mother, who had dropped her back-country name, Lillie Mae, in favor of the more sophisticated Nina, brought him north to live with her and her new husband, a Cuban named Joe Capote, in New York. An indulgent stepfather with a good job on Wall Street, Joe Capote legally adopted him in 1935, and Truman Persons became Truman Capote.
In 1939 the Capotes left Manhattan for the upscale bedroom community of Greenwich, Connecticut. There they settled into a handsome enclave of Tudor houses and tree-shaded streets. When he was still in Alabama, Capote had announced his ambition to become a writer, and at Greenwich High School, he found what every aspiring writer needs, a sympathetic and encouraging teacher-Catherine Wood was her name. In Greenwich, Truman also found a soul mate in Phoebe Pierce, a pretty, sophisticated girl whose own ambition was to be a poet. Although there is only one letter to her-"Phoebe devil" was how he affectionately addressed her-her name often comes up in his correspondence with others.
Three years after leaving, the Capotes returned to New York, to an apartment at 1060 Park Avenue. After belatedly graduating from high school, a private school on Manhattan's West Side, Capote landed a job at The New Yorker [magazine]-but only as a copyboy. That magazine thought his stories too unconventional for its staid, Scarsdale tastes. In those days the women's fashion magazines published the most innovative fiction in America, and the talent The New Yorker sneered at was quickly embraced by two remarkable fiction editors, Mary Louise Aswell at Harper's Bazaar and George Davis at Mademoiselle. They vied for his stories, and in the months after World War II, Capote, still in his early twenties, became a hot commodity in the literary marketplace.
All was not going well at home, however. Nina Capote had become an alcoholic, and when she was not raging at Joe for his infidelities, she was attacking Truman for his homosexuality. Finding it harder and harder to work on Park Avenue, in 1946 Truman sought temporary refuge at Yaddo, a writers' and artists' colony on a bucolic estate in upstate New York. One writer who was there that summer compared him to Shakespeare's Ariel; but he was also Puck, the one who set the agenda for fun and adventure. Yaddo was famous for its romances, and Capote engaged in two, the first with Howard Doughty, a handsome married historian, the second with Newton Arvin, one of Doughty's best friends and sometime lover. For Truman, Doughty, who remained a friend, was just a fling. But Arvin, a professor of literature at Smith, a women's college in Northampton, Massachusetts, was real love.
They were an unlikely couple. At twenty-two, Capote looked several years younger; at forty-six, Arvin looked several years older, in appearance a mousy man, bald and bespectacled. In temperament they were also opposites. Capote could scarcely restrain his high spirits; shy and reserved, Arvin felt uncomfortable whenever he left his Northampton sanctuary. Arvin was brave in his writing, however, and unlike many professors of literature, he was an excellent writer himself, a critic of unassailable judgment and a tower of erudition. In the two years they were a pair-Capote traveled to Northampton on weekends-Arvin provided his young partner with the college education he had never had. Arvin, Capote liked to say, was his Harvard.
During the week Capote enjoyed New York, where the circles of his friends widened with every month. One set centered on Leo Lerman, a good-natured literary gadfly whose Sunday-night parties were a Manhattan institution, attracting just about everybody of note-writers and editors, movie stars and playwrights. Other sets revolved around his magazine editors, Harper's Bazaar's much-loved Mary Louise Aswell and Mademoiselle's slightly sinister George Davis, whose epigrams rivaled Oscar Wilde's. After publication of his first novel, Other Voices, Other Rooms, Capote asked Davis his opinion. "Well," said Davis, "I suppose someone had to write the fairy Huckleberry Finn."
Capote discovered the world of a more established society when he walked into the East Side town house of Bennett Cerf, his new publisher at Random House, and Cerf's wife, Phyllis. There, too, he became the center of the room, telling tales and retailing gossip. Others among the dramatis personae of those postwar years-and Capote's frequent correspondents-were Donald Windham and Andrew Lyndon, two aspiring writers from Georgia, and John Malcolm Brinnin, a poet, college teacher, and, later, the head of the Poetry Center at the 92nd Street YMHA in Manhattan.
The publication of Other Voices, Other Rooms in the winter of 1948 brought Capote national fame-Americans of that day took literature more seriously than they do now-and a few months later he traveled to Europe, where, to no one's surprise, he met some of the leading English and French writers. When he returned, he realized that he had outgrown Arvin and his almost hermit-like isolation. For his part, Arvin, who had engaged in a clandestine romance with Andrew Lyndon while Capote was away, was only too willing to release his rambunctious and often tiring lover. Though they remained devoted friends until Arvin's death in 1963, Capote began looking around for a new companion.
In October 1948, he found him. Ten years Capote's senior, Jack Dunphy was athletic-he had been a dancer in the original production of Oklahoma!-and good-looking, in a surly kind of way. He said what he thought, to Capote and everybody else. Dunphy, too, was a writer-and a good one-with one novel to his credit, another on the way, and several plays in his future. This time love lasted, and Dunphy remained Capote's constant star for the rest of his life.
TO ARCH PERSONS [St. John's Military Academy] [Ossining, N.Y.] [Probably Autumn 1936]
As you know my name was changed from Person's [sic] to Capote, and I would appreciate it if in the future you would address me as Truman Capote, as everyone knows me by that name.
[Collection Gerald Clarke]
TO THOMAS FLANAGAN
[Greenwich, Connecticut] [1939-41]
I do hereby solemnly affirm that any statements I may have made about Thomas Flanagan, or said that he had made, were calumnies and lies on my part.
[Collection Edmond Miller]