Michael Bourne: The Tragedy of Truman Capote

Bourne considers the failed genius of Capote @ The Millions.

In all of American letters there is no tale sadder than the biography of Truman Capote. A true prodigy, Capote was publishing stories in national magazines by his early twenties, and published his first novel at age 24. After dabbling in writing for the theater and the movies, he returned to prose, first with the classic 1958 novella Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and then eight years later, his masterpiece, the “nonfiction novel” In Cold Blood, about the senseless killing of a Kansas farming family.

And then…nothing, or very near to it. Capote lived 18 years after the publication of In Cold Blood, much of which he spent working on a novel with the painfully ironic title Answered Prayers. When he published a few chapters of the book in Esquire, the real-life counterparts of his characters, many of them wives of business titans who had brought Capote into their glamorous circle, were so offended they shunned him. If there was ever any more of that novel than those controversial opening chapters, he never showed them to anyone. Instead, he got fat, grew estranged from his long-suffering lover Jack Dunphy, and bounced from lover to lover, living as a sad, lonely has-been until his death in 1984 from liver disease.

But before his wilderness years, before his cringeworthy turn in the Neil Simon movie Murder by Death, before the six years it took him to write the true-crime thriller that made his name and destroyed his health, there was the charming, coquettish boy-man whose bedroom eyes stared back at readers in the famous jacket photo for his first novel, Other Voices, Other Rooms. “A Beautiful Child,” is the title of a gossipy memory piece Capote wrote about Marilyn Monroe, but his descriptions of his female subjects always contained more than a few brushstrokes of self-portraiture, and for more than a decade, from the publication of his first stories in the mid-1940s until he set out for Holcomb, Kansas, to investigate the quadruple-murder of the Clutter family in 1959, that’s who Capote was: American literature’s beautiful child.

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