The episode was scandalous enough to have been extracted from one of Truman Capote's own heavily embroidered tales: Enshrined for four years in the Bel Air home of his high-strung friend Joanne Carson, a small urn containing a few handfuls of the author's ashes had been stolen at a Halloween costume party. The thief—who may or may not have been among the invited guests—also made away with Capote mementos and $200,000 worth of jewelry, including a pearl necklace given to Joanne by her ex-husband, the much-married Johnny.

The plot twist came when the ashes reappeared as if by legerdemain. Under cover of darkness, a mysterious car had screeched in and out of Carson's driveway six nights after the theft, and when the trembling Joanne looked outside, she found Truman's mortal remains resting inside a coil of garden hose on her back steps.

No sooner had the newspapers broken this news than the distraught Joanne was involved in a public contretemps years in thek Dunphy, Truman's lover of 36 years. Dunphy, who lives in Sagaponack, N.Y., and has the bulk of Truman's remains, said he doesn't believe Joanne's claim that she kept some of the ashes in L.A. because Capote "wanted to be bicoastal," even beyond the great divide.

"Nothing Joanne says is true," Dunphy declared, which riled not only Carson but also Truman's Aunt Marie "Tiny" Rudisill of Branchville, S.C., who has written her own controversial biography of Capote. "Of course Jack Dunphy would call Joanne crazy and a liar. He was just jealous," she says. "Tell him that Truman's Aunt Tiny thinks he's a jackass."

Rattled by the bizarre ash-napping, Joanne decided to put her small part of Truman in a safe resting place—a vault at Westwood Memorial Park in Los Angeles. "I had to give him up to protect him," she explained. At high noon on Nov. 11, two mausoleum officials removed the pink-marble face plate from a coffin-size crypt so that Joanne could place the urn and a few mementos inside. She included a letter to Truman that read, in part, "Tru love,... Wait for me. I'll be joining you in time and we'll sail kites against the clear blue sky.... As you once said, 'Living on this planet will kill you.'...Just don't take your eyes off me for a second." It cheered Joanne that the ashes of Natalie Wood and Marilyn Monroe—two of Truman's favorite screen goddesses—were enshrined nearby. "Oh, how Truman will like being near Marilyn and Natalie. They can dish like there's no tomorrow."

While Capote's remains may be at rest, the Halloween caper has not been forgotten. The jewelry and memorabilia—which include amulets, stones, letters from Truman—are still missing, and Joanne refuses to call in the police because she doesn't want to embarrass her guests that night. Alan Thicke was there, dressed as a scarecrow. Jim Backus had come as Mr. Magoo, and Phyllis Diller as an albino. "I know in my gut that no one who was at the party would have done it," Joanne says.

It was 11:40 P.M., Joanne says, when she discovered that she had been burglarized. She had gone into the room where Capote died in 1984—the room that she has kept untouched since—to "share with Truman" a bunch of balloons from the party. She was celebrating her 57th birthday as well as Halloween. Immediately, she noticed that certain artifacts were out of place. "I looked where his ashes were kept, and I felt cold water running through my heart," she says. "They were gone."

Joanne's friendship with Capote had lasted for 22 years, and, she says, was full of whimsy and little games. "He used to say to me, 'My precious, I have a treat for you. Tomorrow we go to Paris. Is your passport handy?' In the morning I would wake up and we would have croissants on a tray with little jelly jars from the Crillon hotel in Paris. This house was our playpen."

It was also the scene of Capote's death on Aug. 25,1984. When she entered his room that morning, Joanne says, "He didn't look very good. He said he was cold." She started to fetch a cup of tea, but "he grabbed me with this bulldog grip and said, 'Sit. Stay with me,' " she recalls. "I held him, and I was crying so hard. He said, 'Mama, mama.' I don't know at what point he was gone.

"His ashes were my sanity for the last four years," says Joanne, who has earned a reputation in Hollywood for being somewhat eccentric. "I'm not woo-woo-woo, but I am spiritual.... Truman often referred to me as his very own Holly Golightly come to life. He always told me you could be anything you wanted but, whatever happens, never be boring, boring, boring."

Boring she is not. Unmarried since her divorce from Johnny Carson in 1972, she has been seen with a succession of handsome young men, including Scott Newman, who died at 28 in 1978 of a drug overdose, and, most recently, La Bamba star Esai Morales, 26. Joanne has pursued intellectual passions as well, completing a doctorate in nutritional biochemistry. "It was Truman's encouragement and strength that pushed me to become Joanne Copeland-Carson, Ph.D.," says Joanne, who is offering a "no-questions-asked reward" for return of the still-missing items. "I owe him so much." Surely, if Truman is watching, her recent travails have provided some pleasure. "Truman loved creating chaos and confusion," observes Aunt Tiny, "then he would sit back and die laughing at what he'd done."

—Michelle Green, and Karen G. Jackovich in Los Angeles.