The Life and Times of Truman Capote: 10 Facts About the Literary Icon | History Hit

The Life and Times of Truman Capote: 10 Facts About the Literary Icon

Amy Irvine

05 Jul 2023
Truman Capote in the garden of the Munich Pension Biederstein, 1960/61
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons / Barbara Niggl Radloff / CC BY-SA 4.0

Truman Capote was a renowned American author and playwright celebrated for his distinctive writing style and captivating storytelling. His flamboyant persona, acerbic wit, and association with celebrity parties and friends added to his allure.

Capote’s keen eye for detail and deep understanding of human psychology were skilfully employed in his works, notably in Breakfast at Tiffany’s and In Cold Blood. Capote’s distinctive prose blended fiction and non-fiction, and he left a lasting legacy as a pioneer of literary journalism. Additionally, while not a prominent activist, Capote’s own openness about his homosexuality and his encouragement for openness in others helped contribute to the gay rights movement.

Here are 10 facts about this literary icon.

1. Capote was not his real surname

Truman Capote was born on 30 September 1924 in New Orleans, Louisiana, originally named Truman Streckfus Persons. He changed his name to Truman Garcia Capote in 1935 – from his stepfather, Joseph Capote, a Cuban-born New York businessman.

2. He was primarily raised by his mother’s relatives

Capote’s parents divorced when he was very young, and he was subsequently primarily raised by his mother’s relatives in Monroeville, Alabama. He formed a special bond with his distant relative, Nanny Rumbley Faulk – ‘Sook’ – who made him a baby blanket. This became one of Capote’s most cherished possessions, and Capote reportedly had the blanket with him the day he died.

As a lonely child, Capote taught himself to read and write before starting school. He later described his childhood as that of ‘a spiritual orphan’, feeling intellectually superior and more perceptive than those around him and believing that no-one could truly understand him. He found solace in writing, and aged 11, began intensively writing fiction.

3. A character in To Kill a Mockingbird was based on Capote

Truman Capote’s best friend in Monroeville was the girl-next-door, Nelle Harper Lee, who later based the precocious character of Dill Harris on Capote in her famous novel, To Kill a Mockingbird. Similarly, Capote also used Harper Lee as an inspiration for the character Idabel Tompkins in his debut novel, Other Voices, Other Rooms.

4. His breakthrough came with his debut novel

After her subsequent marriage to Joe Capote, Capote’s mother (who later committed suicide) brought him to New York City. Despite attending various prestigious schools, he disliked formal education, dropping out of high school without completing his studies. Aged 17, Capote managed to secure a job as a copyboy for The New Yorker. During his 2 year stint, he had several short stories published in smaller magazines.

In 1945, Capote’s short story, Miriam, was sold to Mademoiselle magazine, and won an award the following year. This led to a publishing contract and a $1,500 advance from Random House to write his first novel. Published in 1948 (when he was aged 23), Capote’s debut novel, Other Voices, Other Rooms was a semi-autobiographical coming-of-age story that explored themes of identity, sexuality (Capote was openly gay), and the search for belonging. The novel received widespread critical acclaim for Capote’s unique narrative voice.

The book’s cover, featuring a sensually reclining photograph of Capote, also garnered attention and added to his public persona. This distinctive image became a subject of interpretation and discussion, further shaping Capote’s literary and public personality.

Back cover of Other Voices, Other Rooms, 1948 novel by Truman Capote, featuring a photograph of the author by Harold Halma.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons / photograph by Harold Halma, book cover design by Sol Immerman / Public Domain

5. He created the iconic character Holly Golightly

Capote travelled widely and lived abroad much of the time with Jack Dunphy (his companion of more than 25 years). Alongside his novels, Capote excelled in crafting novellas and short-story collections, contributing to publications like Vogue and The New Yorker.

His collection Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1958) introduced the iconic character Holly Golightly, iconically portrayed by Audrey Hepburn in the film adaptation. Capote’s talent for capturing the essence of complex characters in concise narratives showcased his ability to create deeply emotional and memorable stories.

Left: Audrey Hepburn in the trailer for Truman Capote’s ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’. Right: Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961 poster)

Image Credit: Both: Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

6. He pioneered a new literary genre

Capote’s groundbreaking book, In Cold Blood, was published in 1966 (after being serialised in The New Yorker) and was a journalistic work delving into the chilling murder of the Clutter family in Holcomb, Kansas in 1959 and the capture, trial and execution of the two killers.

Capote dedicated 6 years to meticulously researching and writing the book, aided by childhood friend Harper Lee. His extensive access to the case resulted in a riveting narrative that blurred the lines between fiction and non-fiction. Written in a novelistic style, complete with dialogue, In Cold Blood pioneered the genre of the ‘non-fiction novel’, which Capote referred to as “New Journalism”.

The book became an instant sensation and is regarded as one of the greatest works of true crime literature. It brought Capote significant publicity and wealth, but also took a heavy toll on him – he never published another book again.

7. He hosted legendary parties with his celebrity friends

Capote harboured a deep desire to be rich and famous alongside his aspirations as a writer. The success of In Cold Blood made Capote an instant celebrity, granting him numerous talk show appearances which showcased his viperish wit and appetite for scandalous gossip.

At 5ft 4, Capote’s flamboyant personality and socialite status made him a prominent figure in high society. He cultivated friendships with celebrities and renowned figures including Andy Warhol and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, hosting legendary parties that attracted a diverse mix of artists, writers, and Hollywood stars. One such event, the masked Black and White Ball at the Plaza Hotel in New York in 1966 – thrown for 500 of his ‘very closest friends’ – received significant media coverage.

The success of Capote’s In Cold Blood had enabled Capote to use his time as he wished in writing other material, yet his partying lifestyle hindered his progress, resulting in a prolonged bout of ‘writer’s block’ that delayed the completion of his highly anticipated novel, Answered Prayers, originally scheduled for publication in 1968.

To maintain public interest, Capote allowed excerpts of the unfinished novel to be published in Esquire magazine in 1975. This decision was catastrophic to his carefully cultivated social life, as one excerpt, La Côte Basque, revealed supposedly true and scandalous stories about his famous friends, naming names. This resulted in him losing their friendship, and a significant decline in his social standing.

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8. He struggled with substance abuse

Despite his literary success, Capote struggled with substance abuse and alcohol addiction, and his subsequent works failed to achieve the same level of critical acclaim as his earlier triumphs.

His overall health and well-being greatly deteriorated and Capote put on weight and developed a painful facial nerve condition (a tic doloreux). In the late 1970’s he underwent treatment for alcoholism and drug addiction, and his breakdowns frequently became public news.

9. He left behind several unfinished works

Truman Capote died aged 59 in 1984, leaving several unfinished works including Answered Prayers – a salacious parody of high Hollywood society which he’d deemed his ‘masterwork’. An unfinished version, Answered Prayers: The Unfinished Novel, was released in 1986.

Capote also had a lesser-known unfinished work, a love story set in New York that he started around the 1940’s, revolving around a romance between a parking attendant and a wealthy young woman. Capote initially claimed he’d discarded the manuscript, but it was later discovered and picked up by a house-sitter from Capote’s abandoned Brooklyn Heights apartment after the success of In Cold Blood. The manuscript, Summer Crossing, was published in 2005.

10. Many adaptations have been made of his work

Capote’s ability to blend fact and fiction, his skill in crafting intimate and captivating narratives, and his exploration of complex human emotions continue to inspire contemporary writers.

Capote’s works have been adapted into numerous films and stage productions, amplifying his cultural influence. The film adaptation of In Cold Blood (1967) received critical acclaim, as did the 2005 biographical film, Capote, in which Capote was played by the late Philip Seymour Hoffman – showcasing the enduring interest in Capote’s life and works.

Amy Irvine