Hallam Bullock

Capote and the Treachery of the Decade

Answered Prayers
, Truman Capote, Modern Library, 2024, pp. 176

Capote’s Women: A True Story Of Love, Ambition And Betrayal, Laurence Leamer, Hodder & Stoughton, 2023, pp. 368
Either he was going to kill it, or it was going it to kill him. When Truman Capote said this to Dick Cavett in 1971, ‘it’ was still gathering like a cloud in Capote’s mind. For years, Capote had been working the media circuit, joking that the fallout from his magnum opus, Answered Prayers, would make him persona non grata with New York’s glitterati. When the first chapters thunked into print, Capote’s predictions came to be. As a skilled social climber, it seemed Capote had summoned a storm for the sheer thrill of surviving it.

Answered Prayers would become known as Capote’s infamous ‘unfinished novel.’ ‘Unstarted’ is how it may seem, however, with only three of the four completed chapters included in the latest edition by the Modern Library. Billed as a roman à clef, even Capote would later admit ‘there’s damn little fiction in it’. What was in it, meanwhile, were his friends’ darkest secrets, splattered across the pages for the world to see.

When Capote first embarked on Answered Prayers, he had already efficaciously charted his way through high society. He had curated a close coterie of women with the mind of an appraiser, calculating their value and measuring them by the going rate. Among this circle of friends were Barbara ‘Babe’ Paley, Gloria Guiness, Lee Radziwill, Slim Keith, Pamela Harriman, C.Z. Guest, and Marella Agnelli. Alone, these women were known across the world – they were rich, stylish and, in some cases, even royalty. Together, they were Capote’s ‘Swans,’ sharing lunches and lovers with each other, and their most-guarded confessions with Capote.

Even in the Modern Library’s recent edition, Answered Prayers possesses little by way of narrative, reading more like a scrapbook of fragments and half-formed thoughts that Capote himself would rather us forget. It does, however, inspire intrigue in the way a relic might. Like many artefacts with ties to legends larger than themselves, Answered Prayers is something to be witnessed, if not read. It doesn’t tell much of a story on its own, but there are stories told about it.

Ryan Murphy’s Feud: Capote vs.The Swans has just finished airing those stories to millions of viewers across the world. The subject is the writing of Answered Prayers: its scandalous impact and Capote’s subsequent fall from the heights of the Upper-East-Side strata. It is the story of an author who succumbed to the blandishments of high society, only to be banished from it. Certainly, curious viewers may seek out the Modern Library’s reissue, along with the show’s other source material: Laurence Leamer’s biography, Capote’s Women: A True Story of Love, Betrayal, and a Swan Song for an Era.

As the title suggests, the stories told in Leamer’s book don’t just belong to Capote. Although he may be the thread that runs throughout Capote’s Women, it is the profiles of his Swans that are strung like pearls along it. As fascinating as they may have been, Leamer struggles to effectively distinguish between these women, most of whom are defined by their position on the ‘best-dressed list’ and the lovers they take. There is a dizzying carousel of men, continuously rotating, their contours blurred and spinning out the same shade of grey. Pamela Churchill is the exception, whose romps through wartime London – even during blackouts – had no shortage of colour. The reader is introduced to each of these women as they might be at a gala, one after the other. There is barely enough time to get to know one Swan before our host is at our elbow, whirling us around to meet the next.

The same charge could be made against the book’s chronology. One moment we are at Capote’s Black and White ball, the next we have slipped decades through time and are attending Jackie Kennedy’s debutante party. It’s not always clear how we arrive at these events, but each is so glamourous that we are grateful to be in attendance. Despite this sense of disorientation, the writing is clipped and clear and, while it doesn’t quite remedy the breathless pattern of the prose, it is easy to get swept up in the excitement of the stories Leamer is telling.

Galas, balls and parties, meanwhile, were certainly Capote’s thing. Capote was diminutive in prose and in person, but certainly not in personality. Few people could boast to have his entrée and even fewer his taste for outré. When he entered a room, he poured himself into it, dazzling those around him with scandalous gossip, outrageous remarks, and witty ripostes. Capote’s Swans would furnish their parties with all the ephemera and excess that money could buy, but it was Capote who provided the conversation.

As Gore Vidal once observed: ‘Truman Capote has tried, with some success, to get into a world that I have tried, with some success, to get out of.’ It took Capote most of his life to get into that world. It would take just 11,000 words to be exiled from it. Capote had demonstrated with In Cold Blood that he was a master of the ‘non-fiction novel.’ In the absence of facts, he proved fiction can easily grout over the gaps. But Answered Prayers wasn’t this. The fiction wasn’t there in place of facts, it was there to reveal them. The book was meant to be to New York what À la recherche du temps perdu was to Paris – and then some. As Capote writes in Answered Prayers, if Proust hadn’t transposed events and altered sexes, ‘it might have been better. Less acceptable, but better.’ Capote didn’t just air the jetset’s dirty laundry, he made sure they recognised their stench.

In the first chapter, ‘Unspoiled Monsters,’ we are introduced to P. B. Jones, a narrator who represents Capote in all but name. It begins, as all convincing arguments do, with an exculpation: ‘I consider myself a reporter in this matter, not a participant, at least not an important one.’ Jones works as a male prostitute to finance his debut novel, a lifestyle that sees him slipping about in New York’s highlife and its seedy underbelly – and in a number of bodily fluids, too. The second chapter, ‘Kate McCloud’, introduces Jones’ fiery love interest, which Leamer believes is a portrait of Pamela Churchill: ‘Christ, if Kate had as many pricks sticking out of her as she’s had stuck inside her, she’d look like a porcupine.’ The third, ‘La Côte Basque’, is a hand grenade. Infidelity abounds. As do the number of pills and champagne bottles popped. In one of the most shocking anecdotes, Capote describes the shooting of Ann Woodward’s husband in 1955. After a particularly boozy party thrown by the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Woodward alleged she had woken in the night, mistaken her husband for an intruder and shot him dead. In Capote’s version, the killing was no accident. Woodward, thinly veiled as ‘Ann Cutler’, shot her husband because he was going to divorce her: ‘Surely it was then she decided to kill him: a decision made by her genes, the inescapable white-trash slut inside her.’ Two decades had elapsed since the shooting and Woodward remained exonerated, but days before Capote revisited her cause célèbre, Woodward committed suicide. ‘Well, that’s that,’ Woodward’s mother-in-law said in the wake of her death, ‘she shot my son, and Truman murdered her, and so now I suppose we don’t have to worry about that anymore.’ Names aren’t just dropped; they are hurled like shrapnel at the readers’ heads. Paley’s husband is depicted trying to cover up his infidelities, one of which involves scrubbing menstrual blood from the bed sheets. Gloria Vanderbilt is depicted as having so many husbands that she can’t recognise her first one. JFK’s father is accused of rape. Johnny Carson goes missing while binge drinking in Miami. Get the picture?

Capote’s Swans did. To them, image was everything. After ‘La Côte Basque’ published, Babe Paley never spoke to Capote again. Many of the other Swans also scattered. Pill fugues and booze-induced blackouts would follow. According to reports at the time, Capote locked himself in his New York apartment, becoming an anchorite to his own ingratitude. ‘I didn’t mean to,’ he is said to have sobbed, ‘I thought they’d come back.’ Paley died three years later and Capote wasn’t invited to the funeral.

One of the few things unrecognisable in the work is Capote’s voice; at least as the world had come to know it. His debut, Other Voices, Other Rooms, was a masterpiece of authenticity, a reality retold in sibilant whispers and raw emotion. By comparison, Answered Prayers is lurid and effete. The pages are porous and leave the fingers sticky with what-ever-it-was that Capote poured in. There is a ‘slit-slavering bitch’, a ‘pockmarked muffdiver’ and a ‘cock-peddling stockbroker’. Capote’s nomenclature speaks volumes about his thrust of mind at the time.

At the end of his life, Capote was a man of many epithets. He was a monster, a manipulator, and a menace. He was an addict, too, and frequently appeared intoxicated in television interviews. If he wasn’t hungover from the late nights at Studio 54, then he was still hung out on all the drugs he had taken there. At the beginning of his life, however, he was none of those things. As with all tortured artists, we are often more comfortable recoiling at their wounds than considering them.

Capote’s childhood was wrought by abandonment. His parents regularly left him locked in hotel rooms overnight while they pursued their own pleasures, instructing staff not to let him out, even if he screamed. He did scream. He screamed, and screamed, and screamed…

As Capote grew older, his parents grew further apart. His mother remarried and had two abortions, reasoning: ‘I will not have another child
like Truman.’ But what is a child like Truman? A boy who is the subject of gossip, whose voice and gait were much lighter than other boys’. It was a problem that was forever in his mother’s thoughts. In turn, she made sure it would forever be in his. When the psychiatrists couldn’t ‘fix’ him, Capote was sent to a military academy. While there, he was seen by the other boys as more prey than peer. When the lights went out, he would feel himself being forced into a stronger boy’s bed.

It is when Leamer writes about these moments that his reputation as a best-selling biographer is borne out. He is visceral and unsparing: ‘It was like feeding him to wolves, but wolves would have made only one meal of him, rather than feasting upon him night after night.’ There are many stories like this one, most of which are pulled from the rich but well-laboured fisheries of Gerald Clarke’s work, Capote: A biography. Leamer does, however, serve them up in new and interesting ways, encouraging the reader to meditate on similarities between Capote and his Swans. But at times, the connections are tenuous and the comparisons forced. When Leamer explores Capote’s early trauma, for example, he does so with the introduction that he and Babe Paley ‘often mused about their childhoods and the mothers who dominated their lives’. Both may have suffered parental neglect, but to varying degrees that are beyond compare.

Disappointment. Dismay. Disgust. Upon first reading Answered Prayers, these are all appropriate responses. Capote’s Women, however, goes some way to recontextualise the unfinished work. It is no surprise that the young Capote cultivated dreams of a different life. He spent most of his childhood as a guest in other people’s worlds, always at risk of being shown the door. In many ways, that never changed. When I imagine Capote’s isolation at the end of his life, I struggle not to see a young boy locked in a hotel room. Screaming. Banging on the door. Hoping that, if it eventually opens, everyone is where he hoped they’d be.
Hallam Bullock is a writer hailing from Warwickshire. He holds a Masters in Literature and the Arts from the University of Oxford and works as an editor at Business Insider. He has also written for The Times, The Telegraph and Vice among other publications.

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