Truman Capote's Lover Jack Dunphy Remembers 'My Poor Little Friend'

updated 10/15/1984 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 10/15/1984 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Jack Dunphy's small, gray-shingled house lies off a narrow, shrub-lined road in Sagaponack, Long Island, N.Y. This is the house to which Truman Capote always returned, after a stint on the talk show circuit, after a stay at an alcoholism clinic, after a meaningless affair. It is the house where Capote, who died last month at 59, was most loved, and it is where he has been laid to rest. His ashes are kept on a book-shelf, among his works, in a pageless volume with a gold binding that reads, "T.C., 1924-1984."

Dunphy and Capote lived together for 36 years in a relationship defined as much by freedom as by commitment. "Truman and I were never in each other's pockets," says Dunphy. "But I don't think two people were ever more concerned about one another." At 70, Dunphy's freckled face is lined with age and his once-vivid red hair has turned white. The author of five novels, and a former dancer—he was one of the cowboys in the original Broadway production of Oklahoma!—Dunphy sits ruler-straight on a high-backed bench, nibbling chocolate and recalling the man he calls "my poor little friend."

They met in 1948 at the Manhattan home of a mutual acquaintance. "Truman arrived wearing a little cap and showing off," says Dunphy. "I thought he was adorable." Jack was 34, a newly published author divorced from the Broadway dancer Joan McCracken. His first novel, John Fury, the story of a tormented Irish coal wagon driver in Philadelphia, Dunphy's hometown, had been praised by Mary McGrory in the New York Times as "remarkable...warm and strong." Capote was 23 and already famous. His first novel, Other Voices, Other Rooms, the resonant tale of a tortured adolescence, had been hailed as a masterpiece and made Capote an overnight celebrity.

Soon afterward, "to clinch our friendship," says Dunphy, Capote invited him to a party at his mother's Manhattan apartment. Dunphy, who hates fancy soirees as much as Capote loved them, stayed in the kitchen most of the evening. Despite their conflicting attitudes toward social life, they were together from then on.

"We were two bright men. We both thought we were talented, and the world confirmed it for Truman," says Dunphy, who insists that he and Capote were not competitive, "I never wanted fame." Sometimes they wrote together—Capote sitting up in bed, Dunphy in a hard-backed chair—and they always read each other's works in manuscript form. After Capote read Dunphy's fifth novel, First Wine, several years ago, he said to him, tears flowing down his cheeks, "Jack, you're a great artist."

Dunphy's publisher, the Louisiana State University Press, suggested that Dunphy ask Capote to write a foreword for First Wine, the story of a boy's painful initiation into adulthood. Dunphy declined. "I don't believe in that kind of back-scratching," he says. "People were always saying to me, 'Truman could do this for you, Truman could do that.' I never asked Truman for anything because he gave me everything."

Dunphy says that, in all their years together, he and Capote had only one serious argument—over Jack's favorite coffee, Medaglia d'Oro. "Oh, I was such a nuisance about it," remembers Dunphy. "I had to have it." At the time the two men were living in Connecticut, and Capote spent the entire day going from shop to shop in search of the elusive brand. When he came home without it, Dunphy snapped, "What! You couldn't get it?" For Capote that was too much. "Truman was so angry," Dunphy recalls, "I think he threw some books at me."

For many years the two men divided their time between an apartment in Manhattan, a chalet in the Swiss Alps and their property in Sagaponack. In Manhattan Capote would sometimes stay home chatting on the phone while Dunphy went to the opera. In Sagaponack Dunphy would often cook dinner at his cottage—Capote's favorite foods included hamburgers, pasta and potato salad—and then Truman would waddle off to sleep in his studio across the lawn. (In the morning Dunphy would inevitably be awakened by Capote's cry wafting through the trees, "JAAACK!") This setup allowed each man his independence. It also spared Dunphy the anguish of watching Capote drink and take drugs. "I decided a long time ago that I wasn't going to be Truman's policeman," Dunphy says ruefully. "He never drank or took pills in front of me."

Like the idle rich of his unfinished masterwork, Answered Prayers, Capote suffered from having too many prayers answered too soon. "Success is so bad for everybody, period," says Dunphy. "Especially a certain kind of success, when people practically give up their identity. They forget who they are, how they are. That happened to Truman. He couldn't get back to what he really wanted, to why he was created, to the [genius] he had discovered in himself."

Capote wanted desperately to complete Answered Prayers, his long-promised opus about high society. But when excerpts began appearing in Esquire in 1975, old socialite pals such as Babe Paley and Lee Radziwill snubbed him because they thought he had ridiculed them in a series of thinly veiled profiles. Capote was devastated and sank into a tailspin of alcohol and drugs from which he never fully recovered. "If Truman hadn't published Answered Prayers in parts, he'd have had the drive to finish it. The peacocks took it away from him," Dunphy says bitterly.

The tone of Answered Prayers is at once mocking and fawning, and it reflects Capote's deep ambivalence about the rich. With his own money Capote, who left $600,000 to establish an annual prize for literary criticism, was generous. "People talk so much about Truman's savage wit—you'd think he was Jonathan Swift," says Dunphy. "But Truman was sweet. He had terrific kindness."

The last time the two friends saw each other, Capote was on his way to New York City to catch a plane for Los Angeles. "I'll be in touch," Capote said. Dunphy wasn't concerned any more than usual about his friend's health. Capote had been swimming every day for a week before he left, and the liver disease and phlebitis from which he had been suffering for years seemed under control. Still, Dunphy says, "Truman was unhappy, but he wasn't suicidal. He always said he wouldn't kill himself, because of me."

In the end, when Capote died of natural causes at the Bel Air home of talk show hostess Joanne Carson, Dunphy flew to L.A. to bring home his ashes. Back on Long Island he recalls the morning when Capote walked into his living room and gave him a symbolic gift box topped by a paper butterfly that still rests on the mantel. "Here," said Capote, "the houses belong to you." Dunphy was stunned and the next day he wrote out a will leaving the houses to Capote. "I wanted to give them back to him," he explains. Walking now through the silent rooms, savoring the memories gathered there like dried rose petals in an old sachet, he says sadly, "I never dreamed that Truman would die first."

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