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Truman Capote: Self-Described "Tough Little Bitch"

Capote talks about himself, his times, and the venom of writing in his blood.

Truman Capote
"I look like a tough little bitch in that one." Truman Capote cocks his head, flips his hand over his shoulder and points to his full-length oil portrait. It hangs adjacent to a wall of windows overlooking Manhattan south.

I was a nice Bryn Mawr girl (we weren't yet called women), unprepared for this outburst, let alone his oddity. Capote was a miniature man compared to the lanky guest editors from Mademoiselle magazine - five college girls, bright, energetic, with questions prepared. I took in his mannerisms and speech - theatrical, sardonic. Thirty-seven years later, Philip Seymour Hoffman's performance would bring me back to that afternoon with the baby-voiced author.

Fresh from a year in Europe, I was Daisy Miller Innocent Abroad, back home. I didn't get that I was talking to one of the greatest writers of my time. In fact, I was a bit disappointed because I'd been looking forward to interviewing John Lindsay, New York's handsome star mayor, on his way to great things. Lindsay had cancelled; Capote pinch hit. I was young and knew nothing.

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If I were interviewing Capote today, I'd be aware of his brilliance and breadth, from "Breakfast at Tiffany's" to "In Cold Blood." I'd be familiar with his background, might ask how being abandoned by parents and left with eccentric elderly cousins affected his decision to be a writer, his choice of material. Or maybe not. His sharp sibilant tongue, whether slicing himself or others, was evident from the moment he critiqued his portrait.

The upside of my naiveté is that I was relaxed, not awed. Then, as now, I was a woman of substance, to a point. Well-educated, well-traveled, observant. I knew a little about a lot. A lot about very little.

Capote gives us a turn around his living room. On the table below the portrait is a banana peel, delicately carved from ivory. "People think I'm slob when they see that, but it's art!"

We perch on the couch. In the photo accompanying our interview, which appeared in Mademoiselle's August 1968 issue, Capote is laughing, though it has been a bitter-sad week. He has just returned from the Kennedy compound in Hyannis. His friend Bobby, who was to be featured in the magazine, had been assassinated in a Los Angeles hotel days earlier.

"I assume everything is going to turn out for the worst and when it doesn't that's just so much gravy," he says.

"I don't think America is more violent than any other country, although recent events don't seem to bear that out. Speaking of statistics, did you know that 8 per cent of all hitchhikers have served some time in prison?"

We didn't. He tells us he is sure the Supreme Court will rule capital punishment cruel and unusual treatment, because of the rarity with which it is enforced. That so-called student rebellions are just a "kind of grim fun," a desire for identity.

We five in our summer linens are aspiring editors, not rebels. My brown and white plaid dress, cinched at the waist, a bow at the decollate, clings to the small of my back on this hot June afternoon.

The writer talks about writing, claiming his material chose him. The serious artist, like Proust, as opposed to a mere craftsman, is "like an object caught by a wave and swept to shore, obsessed by his material. It's like a venom working his blood and the art is the antidote."

His sprightly tone dims, now reflective. "Sometimes the drone of the talk shows helps me fall asleep," he tells us. "Last night I suddenly realized they were talking about me. It was boring. There is a certain kind of serenity that comes with that feeling."

I leave his apartment thinking about liberal leaders assassinated that spring - Martin Luther King and RFK, about whether the venom of writing is in my blood, that I needn't go abroad to meet strange people. Daisy Miller is a tad less innocent.

Writing prompt: Remember or imagine your 15 minutes of fame.

 

Copyright © 2011 by Laura Deutsch

 

Laura Deutsch is a San Francisco-based writer. Her work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, San Francisco Chronicle, and More magazine, among others.

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