Giveth and Taketh Away
Truman Capote obviously loved celebrity and gossip. He was also a writer who liked to hang out with people. He was equal opportunities in the company he kept, and whether it happened to be killers on death row or a cleaning woman in Manhattan, Marilyn Monroe or Marlon Brando, he keenly observed the human comedy. He was open to meeting new people and good at seeing through the ones he met: as Pati Hill proposes in the Paris Review "his approach to anyone new is one of open curiosity and friendliness. He might be taken in by anything and, in fact, seems only too ready to be. There is something about him, though, that makes you feel that for all his willingness it would be hard to pull any wool over his eyes and maybe it is better not to try."
Capote, born in 1924, is best known for two utterly antithetical works: Breakfast at Tiffany's and In Cold Blood, written in 1958 and 1966, and both filmed in the sixties. The first is an account of a good time girl living the high-life In New York; the second an investigation into murderous deeds in downbeat Kansas. Reading Capote's final work, Music for Chameleons, we notice a fascination with wealth and celebrity, as well as quiet resignation in isolated communities. It was as though in this late work Capote was trying to comprehend his fascination with life high and low, the human traffic of city living and the dustcart lives of those in the middle of various nowheres. If contemporaries like Norman Mailer and Saul Bellow were also interested in wealth and comfort, the murderous and the macabre, one could more easily see how one would segue into the other. Mailer's An American Dream had a war hero and former congressman murdering his wife, so it wasn't surprising that one of Mailer's most brilliant and ambitious works would be the true-life account of murderer Gary Gilmore, The Executioner's Song. Mailer's work, and sometimes life, simmered with violence, occasionally coming to the boil in bust-ups and marital misbehaviour. Bellow based Humboltd's Gift, which more than touches upon Gangsterdom in Chicago, partly on his own biography: on a friendship with the late poet Delmore Schwartz, and also on the desire to reflect in social form a prose style that was happy to mingle highfalutin' phrasing with slangy speech rhythms. Capote's shift from one to the other seemed more inexplicable (no matter a childhood acquaintance with a future serial killer we will talk about later), but perhaps can be explained by his interest in catastrophe in its various manifestations, virtual or actual.
In his piece on Marilyn Monroe he quotes actress Constance Collier saying: "somehow I don't think she'll make old bones. Absurd of me to say, but somehow I feel she'll go young." In a self-interview also in Music for Chameleons, he notes Japanese writer Yukio Mishima once said: "I think of suicide a great deal. And I know a number of people I'm certain will kill themselves. Truman Capote, for instance." Marilyn didn't make old bones, Mishima committed suicide, and Capote died in 1984, with much work unfinished and a body much abused: he died of liver cancer caused partly by multiple drug intoxication. "I would never have the courage to do what he [Mishima] did", Capote says in the self-interview, yet many would see the abuse he administered to his body as suicide in slow motion. Perhaps Capote's life was a combination of a life drive meeting a death drive, with the two forces evident in his pleasure for the energetic vigour of celebrity, and his fascination with murder. In Paris Review he talks of his early teens drinking whisky, noticing that it relaxed him and allowed him to sleep. Older friends bought the liquor and Capote hid the bottles in a suitcase, before eventually getting found out. Elsewhere in the interview he says he had three stories accepted on the same day when he was seventeen. "I had my first. second, and third, all in the same morning's mail. Oh. I'm here to tell you, dizzy with excitement is no mere phrase!" In one anecdote there is the escape into darker instincts; in the other the elevation towards great success. But because Capote was a writer well capable of seeing through people (including himself), whether interviewing a celebrity like Marlon Brando (in a famous profile for the New Yorker in 1957) and Monroe, or the murderers in In Cold Blood, and long-term death-row prisoner Robert Beausoleil, any breathless enthusiasm is countered by frailty, weakness and decay. In the Brando profile he talks of first seeing the actor in 1947 with a "squat gymnasium physique", "Charles Atlas chest" and a face that possessed "an almost angelic refinement and gentleness upon hard-jawed good looks: taut skin, a broad, high forehead, wide apart eyes, an aquiline nose, full lips..." Ten years later he sees "his body was thicker, his forehead higher, for his hair was thinner..." and, of course, his nose had been broken and badly reset. For all the good life that Capote managed to become part of, it wasn't something he quite managed to buy into. In the self-interview he discusses his role in the Agatha Christie spoof Murder by Death, and comments not on the on-set glamour but the work ethic: "up at six and never out of the studio before seven or eight."
Perhaps a figure like Beausoleil is the ideal Capote character because he combined the world of glamour with the world of ugliness. Beausoleil was seen as a gorgeous young man, an aspiring actor, poet and musician who was going to star in Kenneth Anger's Lucifer Rising before falling out with the director. Capote describes him as a man with whom many were infatuated: "you seem to have had that effect on a lot of people, men and women." But one evening Beausoleil went over to music teacher Gary Hinman's home trying to get some money, killed him and was found guilty of first degree murder and sentenced to death, a sentence commuted to life in 1972. At one moment in the Music for Chameleons article on Beausoleil, Capote says, "I was thinking, I know Sirhan [who was jailed for the murder of Bobby Kennedy], and I knew Robert Kennedy. I knew Lee Harvey Oswald and I knew Jack Kennedy. The odds against that - one person knowing all four of those men - must be astounding." And yet as he interviews yet another figure who shuttled between the worlds of potential celebrity and unequivocal incarceration, don't we wonder if those odds are going to be greatly decreased by Capote's fascination with violent worlds? After all, as we have noticed he wasn't even alone: Mailer became, albeit indirectly, acquainted with Gary Gilmore and also with the murderer Jack Abbot, a regular recidivist who had previously been in correspondence with Jerzy Kosinski. Yet perhaps Capote's fascination was both more grounded and more superstitious. In Paris Review he discusses once running away with a friend across the street: "a girl much older than myself who in later life achieved a certain fame. Because she murdered half a dozen people and was electrocuted at Sing Sing." She became known as The Lonely Hearts Killer, and thirteen or so years after the Capote interview her story would be turned into a film, The Honeymoon Killers. The superstitious side he also talks about in Paris Review: "I have to add up all numbers: there are some people I never telephone because their number adds up to an unlucky figure. Or I won't accept a hotel room for the same reason...I can't allow three cigarette butts in the same ashtray. Won't travel on a plane with two nuns. Won't begin or end anything on Friday." Everything is interconnected in Capote's world, and how could one think otherwise when one runs away with a future killer when a child, and then becomes hugely successful for writing a book based on two people who will themselves go to the electric chair?
When Capote talks of knowing both the Kennedy brothers and their assassins, it carries a frisson of metaphysical no exit. If a figure like Beausoleil could so easily have been a subject for a Capote volume, it rests perhaps in that Beausoleil, with connections and charisma, might have been in the visitor's chair and Capote behind glass. Beausoleil more or less sees life in these terms, and Capote dignifies his perspective by making it central to the discussion. To Capote's mention of the mayhem and murder around him, Beausoleil replies "everything in life is good, it all flows. It's all good. It's all music. "Capote asks about "War. Starving children. Pain. Cruelty. Blindness. Prisons. Desperation. Indifference. All good?" Capote's question slightly incapacitates his interlocutor, but by the end of the interview Beausoleil is still insisting it was all good, as Capote ends the piece on the line. It is as if Capote doesn't quite agree but can't quite countenance the perspective either. Are we all caught in a flux much greater than our individuality, with our actions good and bad, our choices carefully made, and our friendships carefully cultivated, irrelevant next to greater forces placed upon us?
Two stories that come to mind in this context are the very different 'Shut a Final Door' (from A Tree of Night and other Stories) and 'Handcarved Coffins' (from Music for Chameleons). The former is a short tale of one man's metaphysical comeuppance; the other a long story (perhaps a novella) about a series of crimes committed in a small western state that also alludes to metaphysical possibilities. In 'Shut a Final Door' Walter is the handsome young man in New York who is happy to stab others in the back if it means getting a foot in the door. He would be happier still slamming other people's feet in the door if it allowed for even more of their pain for his gain. He has a healthy side but it is rarely offered, so when his good, reliable friend Anna tells him "Walter, listen to me: if everyone dislikes you, works against you, don't believe they do so arbitrarily; you create these situations for yourself." It is the comment that opens the story, as we find out more about Walter's past, including a relationship with Margaret, whom he more or less stole from Irving - "...a sweet little Jewish boy with a remarkable talent for chess and not much else." Surely it is only right and just that Margaret would leave Irving for the much better looking Walter, and equally fair that one night when they are to go to a Long Island party with the boss, Mr Kunhardt, that he chooses not to pick her up from Grand Central where she is waiting. She might have bought a new dress, hat and shoes for the evening, but that is not especially Walter's concern. After all, though Margaret helped get him the job, he is also in an inferior position to her at work, and getting close to Kunhardt and his circle will surely soon make him her superior.
Yet Capote's story isn't only about a young man on the make (Walter is twenty three when he arrives in New York), it is also about someone whose fragile, frangible hold on reality is weak. At one moment the narrator tells us Walter doesn't mind being disliked because at least it is a strong reaction. "...the thing he could not tolerate was vague relations, possibly because his own feelings were so indecisive, ambiguous." The narrator suggests it is not that Walter is ambitious; more that he sees that the possibility of material and social success, and the animosity he garners from many people, at least allows him to exist. He is a recognized being. Once at school Walter plagiarized a poem with its final line: all our acts are acts of fear. This is homo metus, and Walter cannot escape from generating this anxiety of self partly because he generates such a sense of distrust in others that he can hardly trust himself. Yet he feels that by revealing his weaknesses he dispenses with them. "He'd always been willing to confess his faults, for, by admitting to them it was as if he made them no longer exist." But perhaps by evacuating them from his psyche he brings them in again through the back door, the door the story could be invoking in the idea that it might never really be possible to shut ourselves off. If we try, does this lead not to personal success but isolated madness? By the end of the story Walter seems to be hearing voices. Chased by his conscience into insanity, he has escaped town and the phone calls that have been harassing him. A nameless caller says, "Oh you know me, Walter. You've known me a long time" Yet this is "a voice, dry and sexless and altogether unlike any he'd ever heard before". When he hears the voice again he is in Saratoga, in a woman's room, and it goes "straight to the pit of his stomach." Is this simply madness or is it a man haunted by his conscience? Capote is happy to leave the story ambiguous, feeling under no obligation to settle for a rational explanation.
'Handcarved Coffins' also has moments that go to the pit of the stomach. Here the narrator TC, who shares Capote's initials, writes about what he claims was an actual case (since disputed), with a series of characters receiving a miniature handcarved coffin and not long thereafter meeting their demise. The presumed killer is Robert Hawley Quinn, a big figure in the western state where the piece is set, but by the end of the story his guilt remains moot because Quinn was never brought to trial. T.C.'s friend, detective Pepper, couldn't quite got enough evidence on him. The story's veracity is contained in its form as it dribbles towards a conclusion, so it is especially odd to find that Capote's work is purely fictional, to discover that he could have given it a much more formally shaped conclusion than it possesses. It is as though there is some ethical inversion at work here. Where he was attacked by Kenneth Tynan for having the perfect ending to In Cold Blood, with the two killers executed, here he makes the story up and arrives at no conclusive ending at all. As Tynan says, "We are talking, in the long run, about responsibility; the debt that a writer arguably owes to those who provide himdown to the last autobiographical parentheseswith his subject matter and his livelihood... For the first time an influential writer of the front rank has been placed in a position of privileged intimacy with criminals about to die, andin my viewdone less than he might have to save them. The focus narrows sharply down on priorities: does the work come first, or does life? An attempt to help (by supplying new psychiatric testimony) might easily have failed: what one misses is any sign that it was ever contemplated." (Observer)
'Handcarved Coffins' is a fascinatingly shapeless work that seems to be looking for the means and methods by which to arrive at a thematic throughline, one that needn't demand a categorical denouement: exactly what In Cold Blood possessed, and that Tynan and others accused him of wishing for. 'Handcarved Coffins' instead utilises the ethical and absorbs it into the metaphysical. Quite late in the story the piece shifts from an investigation into the killings, and towards a broader sense of evil, culpability and complex ties that bind. While initially it is about a friend of a friend, Jake Pepper's determination to find out who was behind the series of killings, in the latter part of the story the focus increasingly becomes Capote's narrator. TC realizes that Quinn resembles a man from his childhood, the Reverend Snot, who baptized him. Is it the same man? He tries to explain this to Pepper. "I described the summer day, my baptism - it was so clear to me, the similarities between Quinn and the reverend Snow, the linking fibres; but I spoke too emotionally, metaphysically, to communicate what I felt..."
Here Capote perhaps fails in the story as TC fails in the company of Pepper. By claiming his work was based on a true life crime he wanted to attempt something more ragged than he might have felt entitled to deliver if the work was accepted as fiction: that he was asking the reader to indulge him his loose ends because life does not always arrive at the neatness we might wish for, and demands instead the speculation that fumbles towards a less graspable sense. Pepper never does solve the crime, even as he loses a loved one, Addie Mason, in the process of trying to crack the case. One of those receiving a coffin through the post is this local woman the widower Pepper will marry. But instead of getting her to flee the town, Pepper can't help but use Addie to get closer to the killer. When TC suggests it is time for Addie to take a trip round the world, Pepper wants her to remain in the area, with Addie concurring. "She said: 'The shark needs bait. If we're going to hook the shark, then the bait needs to be available.'" But of course bait gets eaten and the shark isn't always caught. Pepper loses a wife but doesn't catch a killer. TC is away in Europe at the time, thinking he has missed a wedding, only to return Stateside to realize he has missed the funeral. The story becomes less about Pepper's enormous loss and feelings of guilt, but about TC's minor trespass. He forgot all about the wedding while travelling, and returns to apologize to a man involved in his own much deeper sense of contrition.
However, Capote appears to want to contain both Addie and Pepper within a broader metaphysic, one that also incorporates of course Quinn. Rather than relying on the morally dubious and categorical conclusion of In Cold Blood which gave Capote's non-fiction novel shape but that left corpses, 'Handcarved Coffins' demands shapelessness within the echo of ethical disquiet. It seeks a metaphysical dimension to comprehend the evil in the world, and a certain 'there but for the grace of the devil go I'. Here we have Quinn the man who could be both baptizer and executioner, and Pepper as the figure determined to do good but ends up getting the woman he loved murdered. Then we have TC fascinated by the case but for what end, as a tale of good finally overcoming evil as he hopes Pepper will solve the case, or equally as a tale of punctuated murder that allows each death to be another plot twist? At one moment as Pepper and TC talk, TC says: "I like Agatha Christie, I love her." Is that what this 'non-fiction' case is becoming: a narrative necklace of death, with each murder a piece of precious stone? But instead it arrives at a weak story as it becomes an enquiring examination of a writer's purpose and what hovers beyond it. Rather than tidily arriving at a conclusion (after all it was a fiction work whatever Capote's initial claims), the story fizzles towards a narrative end as it opens out into an investigation into evil, and wonders who might be escaping its encompassing powers. A few pages before the end, long after Addie's death, Pepper has become interested in another case, where a boy appears to have murdered his grandmother. Pepper is all excited, and TC feels disappointed. "After we'd hung up, I felt a surge of anger; and jealousy: not just a twinge, but a mean jab, as though I'd recently learned of a lover's betrayal. In truth, I don't want Jake to be interested in any case other than the case that interests me."
Equally, however, Capote has already 'damaged' the thriller aspect of the story by invoking Quinn as not only the murderer, but also this figure from his childhood. TC wants to keep the story tight, but it is as though Capote is the narrative conscience saying let us look at this not as a matter of narrative tension alone, but of a broader enquiry into man as well. The tale ends with TC meeting up with Quinn on the latter's land. Quinn asks about Pepper, and says: "Well, I don't guess I'll ever see that bastard again. Too bad. We could have been real friends. If he hadn't all those suspicions. Damn his soul, he even thought I drowned poor Addie Mason! He laughed, then scowled. 'The way I look at it is: it was the hand of God...' 'God's work. His will.'"
The neat story gives way to mystical claims. We can see this as a failure of narrative craft or the search for a first principle far beyond storytelling's demands. In the last piece from Music for Chameleons, the one where Capote interviews himself, discussing God he reckons that while he initially believed in the lord as a boy, then things started to ruin that faith. "And the Bible itself - nobody with any sense could believe what it asked you to believe...And at last life, plain living, took away the memories of whatever faith still lingered." Capote then insists: "I'm not the worst person that's crossed my path, not by a considerable distance, but I've committed some serious sins, deliberate cruelty among them; and it didn't bother me one whit, I never gave it a thought. Until I had to. When the rain started to fall, it was a hard black rain, and it just kept falling. So I started to think about God again." 'Handcarved Coffins' is like an encapsulation of such thinking within a thriller, just as 'Shut a Final Door' offers it within a psychological story. Yet perhaps Walter isn't only troubled in the head, but in the heart, and that a higher conscience than his own has come calling. In 'Handcarved Coffins' the story is deformed by the awareness of presentiments more encompassing than the evil of one man. If Quinn won't take responsibility for the crimes he has almost certainly committed, then how much blame will Pepper take for Addie's death, and how much will TC feel is his due, seeing Pepper as his central character as much as a friend? It is as if Capote explores the entanglements of evil here and while it would be silly to assume some moral equivalence between the characters, there is nevertheless a sliding scale of culpability. The conclusion with Quinn wondering if it is the hand of God combines well the refusal to accept responsibility and admit guilt, and the possibility that it is finally out of his hands. The story comes to no conclusion partly because it entertains the broadest of possibilities.
Is this a failure of craft, or Capote's attempt to move beyond its limitations? In Paris Review Capote discusses finding the most natural way to tell a story. "The test of whether or not a writer has divined the natural shape of his story is just this: after reading it, can you imagine it differently, or does it silence your imagination and seem to you absolute and final?" We can easily imagine 'Handcarved Coffins' differently, but is this, twenty years after the Paris Review remark, and the hard rain having fallen, what he was looking for?
Even in The Tree of Night and Other Stories, published in 1949, one senses Capote vacillating between the well-told tale and the story that opens out into the mad or the metaphysical, towards the story becoming about the central character's mind, or the story hinting at a world beyond immediate reason. We've already discussed the ending of 'Shut a Final Door' where voices from the other end of the line could be voices in the central character's head, but 'Miriam' also shares this interest in what is going on in someone's mind to the point that anything outside it might just be a product of that person's thinking. In 'Miriam', Mrs H. T. Miller has been living alone in her brownstone apartment since her husband died, and one evening meets the title character at the cinema. The young girl pays her a visit, and over time exploits the old lady more and more. But Capote ends the story with us wondering whether the girl exists at all: a neighbour insists when Mrs Miller asks her to look around the apartment for the troublesome Miriam that there is nobody in the flat. The rationalist will assume that in both 'Shut a Final Door' and 'Miriam' the character is going half-mad in the first instance and half-crazy in the second. Yet alongside Capote's ambivalent relationship with God we have the writer's unequivocal relationship with superstition. Can there be a voice tracking us even as we go to another town and happen to be in a stranger's room; can they still get us on the phone? Is it possible that a young girl could be wandering around New York on her own and ingratiate herself in a woman's life without anybody else noticing her presence? Capote seems a writer who has a rational grasp on the world, but also often wonders what might be sitting behind it irrationally. If Pati Hill can talk about no wool being pulled over his eyes, it is because Capote doesn't fall into ready belief, thus arriving at the naivety of the conspiracy theorist, the religious fanatic or the believer in UFOs, but nevertheless retains a curiously skeptical relationship with rationalism. We could insist that both stories are merely the workings of unstable minds, but if they are of interest is it not also because they hint at an unstable universe?
Let us think of another couple of tales in A Tree of Night and Other Stories: 'Jug of Silver' and 'Children on Their Birthdays'. Here both stories are realistically presented (there is no sense of a warped mind shaping events), but both also possess the quality of myth and fable which makes them unbelievable in the colloquial sense: as when we say wow or astonishing. In 'Children on their Birthdays', ten year old Miss Bobitt arrives one day on the six o'clock bus with her mother, and "nothing she ever did was ordinary, not from the first time that we saw her, and that was a year ago." At one moment the wonderful Bobitt who enchants the boys in the town and looks like a movie star, admits that she sometimes calls on the help of the devil. "I've had enough experience to know that there is a God and there is a Devil. But the way to tame the devil is not to go down there to church and listen to what a sinful mean fool he is. No, love the Devil like you do Jesus." "I always called in the Devil to help me get the biggest part in our annual show. That is common sense. You see, I knew Jesus wouldn't have any truck with dancing." This devil she thinks has frequently done her good turns, but the very opening line of the story announces her demise. "Yesterday afternoon the six o'clock bus ran over Miss Bobitt." It is a variation of "the Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away", with the story suggesting why should it only be God who can give and take if, as Bobitt believes, the Devil has similar powers to shape one's destiny?
In a 'Jug of Silver' there is competition between two stores in Wachata County. One is owned by the narrator's uncle; the other by a newcomer Rufus McPherson. The uncle's place is old-fashioned; McPherson's is new, with electric fans and coloured lamps, and even serves grilled cheese sandwiches to order. The uncle's business is losing ground until he decides to buy a jug and fill it with change: a quarter will give you the chance to guess how much is in the jar, and people can keep guessing up until Christmas Eve, when the sum of money in the jar will be revealed. If anybody has guessed right then they get to keep all the money. A young emaciated looking farm boy Appleseed is seen in town with his sister and he comes into the shop and reckons he'll know exactly how much is in the jug by counting the nickels and dimes through the glass, no matter if he doesn't have a quarter to place his guess. Eventually he gets hold of one and makes a bet, even though the uncle's friend is worried for the boy since he has put so much hope into winning. "The kid has the most touching faith. It's a beautiful thing to see. But I'm beginning to despise this whole business...Hope of this kind is a cruel thing to give anybody, and I'm damned sorry I was ever party to it."
Yet hope with a bit of faith might be exactly what Appleseed needs as he wins the money. The narrator asks the boy's sister how in "God's name did he know there was just exactly seventy three dollars and thirty five cents?" The sister replied that he counted it, and then eventually says: "Well...he did do a little praying too." As she leaves she turns round and adds: "Besides, he was born with a caul on his head." This is often seen as a sign of good luck, and so if Bobitt pays the price of her general good fortune as the devil comes round to collect at the end of 'Children on Their Birthdays'; in a 'Jug of Silver' has the Lord given at last to the blessed child? It is not that Capote is an explicitly religious writer (and much less so than Graham Greene, Georges Bernanos or Francois Mauriac), but that he works within a culture of belief, superstition and religiosity, and would be unlikely to want us to reduce his work to rational readings that undermine the mystery of the material. While he always sought clarity in the prose, he often seems to ask for an acceptance of obscurity in the meaning. While he said of Faulkner, "I find Faulkner's prose so cumbersome and tanglesome, the exact opposite of what I admire and try to do myself" (Conversations with Capote), the way we should take the stories gives us room for interpretive manoeuvre.
Was Capote's fascination with celebrity part of the curious wonderment concerning whether it was a Godly gift or a devilish bequest? The profiles on Monroe and Brando contain the awe of the admiring mingling with the mood not of jealousy but fretful premonition. Monroe will not make old bones, and the way Capote describes Brando's eating habits (ordering "soup, beefsteak with French fried potatoes, three supplementary vegetables, a side dish of spaghetti, rolls and butter, a bottle of sake, salad and cheese and crackers, an apple pie and ice cream") he all but proposes Brando will turn into lethal lard. Equally, concerning his own life, and possible death, it might be flattering when you're name-checked by one of Japan's most important writers, but not unequivocally so when he is hinting at your self-inflicted demise.
This is the Manichaeism of cultural celebrity, with the dichotomies of good and bad often brought together in the perils of fame. Perhaps the most sympathetic portraits in Capote's work, and certainly in Music for Chameleons, are the cleaning woman, Mary in 'A Day's Work', and Mrs Kelly, the old woman in 'A Lamp in a Window'. At the end of the former sketch Capote has followed Mary around New York as she cleans various apartments, they go into a church as Capote watches Mary pray for the souls not only of her own nearest and dearest, but also for the lives of the unhappy people that she cleans for. Capote reckons her "requests on their behalf have the earnest shine of the altar's candle flame". She asks him if he is praying and he tells her he is praying for her; he wants such a good person to live forever. Mary insists that she doesn't need it; she is already saved, and we might wonder whether she is aware of how badly Capote might want to be one of those invoked. In the latter, Capote is stranded in rural Connecticut and gets taken in by Mrs Kelly. This stranger offers him great hospitality and serious conversation. She has read Dickens, Austen, Chekhov, Hawthorne and Maupassant, but never travelled. Near the end of the story she shows him a freezer full of cats - she never could quite let them go, and admits she is clearly dotty. "A bit dotty. Yes, a bit dotty, I thought as I walked under grey skies in the direction of the highway she had pointed out to me. But radiant: a lamp in a window."
Mary and Mrs Kelly are good people and invisible in the first instance (Mary cleans apartments in people's absence) and reclusive in the latter. But are they closer to meaning and happiness than Brando, Monroe, the capricious and ambitious Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany's, the killers in In Cold Blood, the notorious Robert Beausoleil, the Lonely Hearts Killer, Pepper and Quinn? Capote may have been about the only person in the world to have known both Jack and Robert Kennedy, and their killers, but there is the suggestion that he might have been finally happier keeping his own counsel, attending not to the rich and famous, the violent and the psychotic, but to the simplicity of everyday life. Yet it is often in the yoyoing between the hoodlum and Hollywood where we find Capote's distinctiveness, no matter if he viewed the worlds with no wool over his eyes. Perhaps because he could see the qualities in lambs like Mary and Mrs Kelly, he could see through the motives and manipulations of the more powerful. "My great fault is that I understand everything" Capote far from modestly claimed. "When someone does something duplicitous to me, I always understand their motivation." Capote fell out or feuded with, and was badly treated, or treated badly by, anyone from Robert Frost to Ernest Hemingway, Gore Vidal to Jack Kerouac. Vidal thought he took his plots from Carson McCullers and Eudora Welty; Capote thought Kerouac's work wasn't writing but typing. Of course this is typical literary rivalry. Yet he probably never respected anyone more than the likes of Mary and Mrs Kelly. If Capote could see through people, it was perhaps because finally he was looking for the qualities that no amount of flashbulbs could reveal, qualities that went beyond Faustian deals with fame and saw that fortune refusing to look down on you was no bad thing.
© Tony McKibbin