Who was Truman Capote?

Liz Highleyman | August 21, 2006

Author Truman Capote, who popularized the genre of creative nonfiction, was as well-known for his open homosexuality and his extravagant social life as he was for his writing.

Truman Streckfus Persons was born September 30, 1924, in New Orleans. As a young boy, he was sent to live with his mother's relatives in rural Monroeville, Ala., while his parents divorced. He moved to New York City at about age 10 to live with his mother and her new husband, Cuban businessman Joseph Capote.

Though highly intelligent, Capote despised school and dropped out at age 17 to take a job as a copy boy at the New Yorker. He never attended college, believing that "either one was or wasn't a writer, and no combination of professors could influence the outcome."

Capote's first major published work, the short story "Miriam," appeared in Mademoiselle in 1945 and led to a book contract with Random House. His debut book, Other Voices, Other Rooms (1948), a semi-autobiographical novel about his childhood in Alabama, was a smash hit. Equally sensational was the photograph on the book jacket, which showed the handsome young author reclining in a languorous pose with a come-hither expression.

Many people were taken with Capote's boyish charm, including several high-society matrons who acted as benefactors. He had one of his first serious relationships with Newton Arvin, a professor of literature at Smith College. In 1948, Capote met Jack Dunphy, a working-class writer, with whom he shared a nonexclusive partnership for nearly 40 years.

In 1958, Capote published one of his best-known works, Breakfast at Tiffany's (1958). The following year, he began work on In Cold Blood (1965), a story about the murder of a rural Kansas farm family. Though the work was hugely popular, some critics charged that Capote became too emotionally involved with the alleged killers, yet failed to adequately aid their defense because he required their execution as a dramatic denouement to his tale. In Cold Blood brought Capote even more fame and considerable fortune. To celebrate, he hosted a Black and White Ball at New York's Plaza Hotel in November 1966, which many considered to be the social event of the era.

Despite his success, Capote began drinking heavily and using drugs in the late 1960s. A fixture on the television talk-show circuit, he established himself as a catty queen spreading scandalous gossip about old friends and benefactors. Though his proposed magnum opus, Answered Prayers, was never completed, a few installments appeared in Esquire in the mid-1970s, after which Capote was shunned for his mean-spirited portrayals of the rich and famous.

With the waning of his youthful good looks, Capote became a caricature of his former self. During a falling out with Dunphy, he began frequenting New York City bathhouses, picking up working-class men many years his junior. Toward the end of the decade, Capote entered rehabilitation, reconciled with Dunphy, was adopted into Andy Warhol's circle, and revived his career. But by the early 1980s, he was again drinking and using drugs, his health deteriorated, and he grew increasingly reclusive. He died of liver disease and drug intoxication on August 25, 1984.

Despite his downfall, Capote largely fulfilled his early dreams. "I was not meant to work in an office," he said in a 1978 interview. "I always knew that I wanted to be a writer and that I wanted to be rich and famous."

For further reading:

  • Clarke, Gerald. 1988. Capote: A Biography (Ballantine).
  • Davis, Deborah. 2006. Party of the Century: The Fabulous Story of Truman Capote and His Black-and-White Ball (Wiley).
  • Plimpton, George. 1997. Truman Capote, In Which Various Friends, Enemies, Acquaintances, and Detractors Recall His Turbulent Career (Doubleday).

    Liz Highleyman is a freelance writer and editor who has written widely on health, sexuality, and politics.

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