Thursday, September 10, 2009
Who's that Queer?
Truman Capote is remembered for his iconic short stories and novels that have helped shape American literary culture. At least 20 films and television dramas have been produced from Capote novels, stories and screenplays.
Rising above a troubled childhood characterized by divorce, a long absence from his mother, and multiple migrations, Capote discovered his calling by the age of eleven and spent the rest of his childhood sharpening his craft. He began his professional career as a short story writer, and the critical "Miriam" (1945) attracted the attention of the publisher Bennett Cerf, which resulted in a contract with Random House to write a novel. The result was Other Voices, Other Rooms (1948). Capote attained instant celebrity as a result of the provocative portrait photo which was used in promoting this first novel: in it he gazes smolderingly into the camera while reclining. In the 1950s, his greatest success was a novella, Breakfast at Tiffany's, which was made into a very popular film starring Audrey Hepburn in the role of Holly Golightly.
Capote earned the most fame with In Cold Blood (1965) a journalistic work about the murder of four members of a Kansas farm family in their home, a book Capote spent four years writing. The acclaimed novel was marked as a milestone in popular culture, often credited with pioneering the "true crime" genre of nonfiction. From the time of its publication, its factuality and Capote's journalistic integrity have been called into question, and this has continued in the decades since his death.
Capote was openly homosexual. One of his first serious lovers was Smith College literature professor Newton Arvin, who won the National Book Award for his Herman Melville biography. The eclectic author was well known for his distinctive, high-pitched voice and odd vocal mannerisms, his offbeat manner of dress and his fabrications. He often claimed to intimately know people he had in fact never met, and professed to have had numerous liaisons with men thought to be heterosexual. He traveled in an eclectic array of social circles, hobnobbing with authors, critics, business tycoons, philanthropists, Hollywood and theatrical celebrities, royalty, and members of high society. Part of his public persona was a longstanding rivalry with writer Gore Vidal. Their rivalry prompted Tennessee Williams to complain: "You would think they were running neck-and-neck for some fabulous gold prize." Apart from his favorite authors Willa Cather, Isak Dinesen, Marcel Proust), Capote had faint praise for other writers. However, one who did get his favorable endorsement was journalist Lacey Fosburgh, author of Closing Time: The True Story of the Goodbar Murder. He also claimed an admiration for Andy Warhol's The Philosophy of Andy Warhol: From A to B & Back Again.
In the late 1970s, Capote was in and out of rehab clinics, and news of his various breakdowns frequently reached the public. In 1978, talk show host Stanley Siegal did a live on-air interview with Capote, who, in an extraordinarily intoxicated state, confessed that he might kill himself.
In an ironic twist, Warhol (who had made a point of seeking out Capote when he first arrived in New York) provided the author with the platform for his next artistic renewal. Warhol, who often partied with Capote at Studio 54, agreed to paint Capote's portrait as "a personal gift"—rather than for the six-figure sums he usually charged—in exchange for Capote contributing short pieces to Warhol's Interview magazine every month for a year. Initially the pieces were to consist of tape-recorded conversations, but soon Capote dispensed with the tape recorder and chose instead to craft meticulously composed "conversational portraits" that applied his literary skills to the magazine's dialogue-driven format. Out of this creative burst came the pieces that would form the basis for the bestselling Music for Chameleons (1980). To celebrate this unexpected renaissance, he underwent a facelift, lost weight and experimented with hair transplants. Nevertheless, Capote was unable to overcome his reliance upon drugs and liquor and had grown bored with New York by the turn of the 1980s.
Capote died in Los Angeles, California, on August 25, 1984, aged 59. According to the coroner's report the cause of death was "liver disease complicated by phlebitis and multiple drug intoxication.” Capote's will provided that a literary trust would be established, and sustained by revenues from Capote's works to fund various literary prizes and grants including the Truman Capote Award for Literary Criticism in Memory of Newton Arvin, commemorating not only Capote but also his friend Newton Arvin, the Smith College professor and critic, who lost his job after his homosexuality was exposed.
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