Truman Capote

UPDATED 09/10/1984 at 01:00 AM EDT Originally published 09/10/1984 at 01:00 AM EDT

The critics and the gossips, the people on the pavement, always said that he was squandering his life. Did he shock and move a generation with Other Voices, Other Rooms, that shimmering chronicle of a tortured adolescence? Well, they caviled, he let success go to his head. Did he entertain a nation with the lunatic insouciance of Breakfast at Tiffany's? A trivial waste of talent, they sniffed. Did he move and amaze his readers with the power and brutality of In Cold Blood? Not really fiction, not really fact, not really serious, some said. He could have done more, he could have done better, he could have been greater, if only he had spent his life toiling in his garret instead of gossiping with dowagers at La Côte Basque.

In his lifetime Truman Capote heard all of those criticisms, over and over and over again, and defiantly refused to obey the pious litanies of his detractors. "I'm an alcoholic. I'm a drug addict. I'm a homosexual. I'm a genius," he said, in what became his most quoted self-definition. That the statement was accurate only served to annoy the people on the pavement who couldn't abide his startling candor. That he lived the only life he knew, with time wasted equaling the time richly spent, was an unforgivable affront to those who failed to understand that genius is not a commodity to be comprehended like brussels sprouts or bus schedules.

Just a few years ago, on a languid spring afternoon in the Hamptons, Capote sat in a small café talking about writing instead of doing it. He was working on Answered Prayers, that long-promised masterpiece about the haut monde. "I'm constructing it in four parts, and actually, it's like constructing a gun," he told a PEOPLE reporter. "There's the handle, the trigger, the barrel and, finally, the bullet. And when that bullet is fired from the gun, it's going to come out with a speed and power like you've never seen—WHAM!"

No one will ever know what the power, the impact, of that bullet might have been. Although parts of Answered Prayers appeared in Esquire, the work remained frustratingly unfinished. What did appear—gossipy, bitchy and as perfect a fix on the mores of high society as anything Proust or Flaubert produced—provoked what passed for tragedy in the life of its author. He had spent his life comfortably among people of society—"those who glitter with the glory of the hummingbird...those who sit in the sty of contentment," as T.S. Eliot called them—and, when he faithfully re-created their pointless lives in print, they could never forgive him. One of his few steadfast friends, the very few who still loved him after he had kissed and told, was Joanne Carson. The others, hostesses from Bridgehampton to Beverly Hills, dropped him from their A lists. And this catastrophe led him even deeper into the quagmire of drink and drugs that was, he said, the bane of "every writer of my generation. Arthur Miller and Saul Bellow are two exceptions."

The boy, Truman Streckfus Persons, was bustled around among a group of elderly female relatives who saw to his upbringing while his mother, freed of the inconvenience of child rearing, led the high life of New Orleans and New York. He adopted the surname of her second husband, in part to please her, but he never found in her the love he craved. Perhaps in this endless series of dowager playmates he was seeking that love. Perhaps in Joanne Carson he found it.

"He came out here because he knew I would take care of him," she recounted painfully just two days after he died in her home. "He knew that I would put vitamins into his cottage cheese and sneak an egg yolk into his milk." She dedicated a guest room in her house to Capote, stocked with his books and clothes.

It was at 8 in the morning on Saturday, Aug. 25—his last day—that Joanne Carson found Truman Capote in that guest room struggling to pull on his swimming trunks. "I tried to help him," she said, "but he thought he should rest awhile. He said, 'I'm a little tired and very weak.' " She told him to sleep, and every half hour she came back to check on him. Just before noon she made the discovery. "I leaned over him and didn't like his color. I stroked his forehead, and it was cold. He had been sleeping on his back, and his hands were on his chest. I tried to revive him, but I knew he was gone."

He was not an easy man; he was, in fact, a notorious bitch—and sometimes a common scold. He dismissed Jack Kerouac's On the Road, saying, "It's not writing. It's only typing," and, to the embarrassment of his admirers, earned his reputation as a talk-show shrew by unleashing glib criticisms of his literary and social rivals. Cocteau is said to have warned Colette: "Don't be fooled. He looks like a 10-year-old angel, but he's ageless and has a very wicked mind."

And so he is dead, and, for a while at least, the critics, heedless of the fact that he did the best he could, will gnaw at the bones of his reputation, demanding more, bemoaning the absence of a masterpiece when, in fact, the masterpieces are there to be read. Another generation will come, one too young to know of the time wasted, one that will see the fruits of the time well spent, and his reputation will prosper.

"It's awful hard for me to endure reality," he once said. "I just can't stand it. It's the boredom." For his readers, he bettered reality and dispelled the boredom—and for that, he will be forgiven the peccadilloes of alcohol, drugs, homosexuality, and even of genius.

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