It was 23 years ago this week that I drove out to East Hampton to have lunch at Bobby Van’s with Truman Capote. I was the editor of the Ladies’ Home Journal, and Capote had called a couple of months earlier to tell me he was writing a new Christmas story for me.
On the day he phoned my new boss was sitting in my office. It was one of our first meetings. He had just purchased the Journal
–which was down, and (everyone thought) soon to be out. He bought it for the bargain-basement price of about ten million dollars. (He sold it, by the way, just four years later for 84 million.)
He had bought the magazine from a man named Raymond Mason who was in the oil business and had, himself, bought the Journal and Redbook only a few years earlier. He did it, it was said, to meet the actresses and models who graced the covers. I worked for Mason for just a few months, but in that time I did go to a company-wide meeting in Florida with the many oil executives he employed. I remember one of them told me during dinner that he thought that the Bedouin tribes in Saudi Arabia had the most perfect of all the world’s cultures. “An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth,” he intoned. “That’s justice.”
On the day Capote called, my secretary came into my office and said “someone who says he is Truman Capote–and it sounds like him,” wanted to speak to me. My new boss was very impressed. Capote said the Christmas story he was working on would be perfect for the Journal. Did I want it? I did. He said it would be ready in a few weeks and that I should come out to Long Island to collect it.
The story was “One Christmas,” about a small boy’s Christmas in New Orleans with his father. It would be the last short story that Capote wrote. It was far from his best, but I was thrilled to have it anyway, in the magazine’s December issue. When I met Capote at Bobby Van’s and in a few subsequent very long lunches (to which he would sometimes arrive more than an hour late), it was obvious he was far from his best as well. It was more than 15 years since he had published In Cold Blood. Then he had published a couple of chapters of the novel he claimed he was working on entitled Answered Prayers. That had enraged his society friends and virtually ended both his writing and social careers.
Seeing a preview of the movie Capote, which will open this week, made me remember my few encounters with The Tiny Terror. The movie is based on the excellent biography of Capote written by Gerald Clarke, also an old friend. Gary, when he was a feature writer for Time, wrote the cover story on Star Wars and arranged for my young sons to see a preview of the film. It remains one of the great movie-going memories of their lives.
The movie Capote focuses only on the four years when he was writing In Cold Blood, his “non-fiction novel” about the murder of a Kansas farm family, the Clutters. Philip Seymour Hoffman is terrific in the leading role, managing to look and sound like Capote but doing far more than a classy imitation in a subtle, clever, obviously Oscar-attracting performance.
And the script is strong, too, revealing Capote by turns as brilliant and manipulative, relentlessly ambitious, and exhaustingly narcissistic. The movie focuses on Capote’s relationship with the strange, intelligent Perry Smith, one of the killers. But it also provides a revealing close-up of his relationship with Harper Lee, his childhood friend, who helps him in the early stages of his Kansas research.
While Capote was working on In Cold Blood, Lee published To Kill a Mockingbird. Capote could not bear her success while his own book remained unfinished. He had to wait until the legal appeals which he helped organize were exhausted and the killers executed in order for In Cold Blood to have its necessary “eye for an eye” ending. In one of the movie’s most telling scenes, at the party on the night of the premiere of the film based on To Kill a Mockingbird, all he can do is drunkenly mutter, as Lee leaves his side, “I simply don’t know what all the fuss is about.”
The movie primarily examines the relationship of the writer to his story, and though Capote says, with tears flowing, that he identifies deeply with Smith, it is also clear that he is using him in order to write the book that he expects will be a great critical and financial success. Today there is no writer as famous as Capote became after In Cold Blood. We currently give that degree of fame only to TV anchors who convince their viewers that their own concern is in reporting the story–and not what degree of fame they will achieve from reporting it. That’s why, as we’ve seen lately, they can display such righteous indignation and the audience buys it. Capote, in his way, was a lot more honest.
I think the movie will make people reread In Cold Blood, at least for a while. I hope they read Gary Clarke’s bio as well. And yes, I still have the handwritten copy of the story that Capote gave me at Bobby Van’s and insisted that I keep. “It isn’t worth very much,” Gary told me at the screening. “Give it to the New York Public Library.” Maybe I will. One Christmas.
–Myrna Blyth, former long-time editor of Ladies Home Journal and founding editor of More, is author of Spin Sisters: How the Women of the Media Sell Unhappiness–and Liberalism–to the Women of America. Blyth is also an NRO contributor.