To millions of Americans watching TV next Sunday, New Orleans means the Super Bowl. But to Truman Capote, who was born in the city’s Tulane Hospital in 1924, New Orleans is the wellspring of his most intense memories and a continuing presence in his writing. Capote lived for the first three years of his life in the picturesque French Quarter. His mother was a Southern belle and former Miss Alabama. His father, a New Orleans businessman, was working as a tour booker for a local steamship company. Later, after his parents separated, Truman lived in New York with his mother, but found himself returning to New Orleans often—even to this day. “I get seized by a mood and I go,” he says. “I stay a few weeks and I read and write and walk around. It’s like a hometown to me.” On his most recent visit, Capote was accompanied by PEOPLE Senior Writer Andrea Chambers, who reports on his sentimental journey:
The sound of a calliope tinkles across Jackson Square, and the scents of oleander and beignets, those sweet fried New Orleans doughnuts, mingle in the warm air. Tilting his Panama hat and crossing his tiny feet in their hand-tooled shoes, Truman Capote, all 5’3″ of him, leans back contentedly on a park bench.
Fresh from the success of his bestseller Music for Chameleons, he has ventured south from his New York apartment. “I love this city,” he says in the high-pitched drawl so familiar to talk show audiences. “It’s the most secretive I know. It’s also the most class-conscious. The Garden District is like Greenwich, Conn. I think of these people as John Cheever people…only very rich. Socially, they’re Group A. You know, in Los Angeles, the Group A’s are all octogenarians. Several I happen to know,” he concludes, pausing for dramatic effect, “are married to Swedish call girls.”
That established, the 56-year-old author is off on a pilgrimage to his favorite haunts. The first stop will not be the place he spent the first years of his life, the Hotel Monteleone. Memories of those years still haunt him. “My mother, Nina, would go out and lock me in the room and tell people not to pay attention if I banged,” recalls Capote. “I’d become hysterical. That was the beginning of my chronic anxiety in life. Once, when I was 5, I got lost during Mardi Gras and they took me to the police station. I was there all night before my mother came. I was terrified. I was never interested in Mardi Gras after that.”
Instead of the Monteleone, Capote commences his tour at 811 Royal Street in the French Quarter. There, in a shabby $70-a-month flat, Truman wrote part of his first novel, Other Voices, Other Rooms, published to widespread acclaim when he was only 23. Capote slept all day and wrote all night, propped up in bed beneath a twirling overhead fan. “That was the freest time of my life,” he sighs. “I had no commitments to anyone or anybody.” Alas, arriving at his old address, he is shocked to find Matt’s Junk Shop. “The last time I was here, it was still apartments,” he says incredulously. “My God! They’ve certainly done a job on that.”
Then, with a shrug of resignation, he marches on to St. Louis Cathedral, the stately old basilica bordering Jackson Square. “I was religious in my youth and I am again. I’ve had a bad few years,” he admits. “You know, I believe in patterns. I believe things happen because of God. But I don’t want to go to heaven or hell. I want to go to someplace called peace.”
He pauses en route at a temporal abode: the doughnut cafe in the renovated version of the old French Market. During his long nights as a young writer Truman would wander over at 4 a.m. and watch the truckers and vegetable farmers. “Wow, did this used to be a sexy place,” he says. “The truckers used to try and lure me to the backs of their trucks.” Did he yield? “Well,” Capote giggles, “sometimes.”
Later, as the sun dips low over the Mississippi, Capote heads for the river where his father often took him as a young boy. Along the way, he spies a derelict snoring by a pier. “Oh, you’re not very inviting,” he snaps. “You’re Gore Vidal’s type.” (The animosity stems from a libel suit over remarks Capote made about Vidal in a Playgirl article.) But such thoughts are quickly forgotten on the deck of the S.S. President, a tour boat owned by the Streckfus Steamship Company, his father’s former employer. “I remember tap-dancing here to Louis Armstrong’s band. Look, here’s my best Fred Astaire number,” Capote announces with a twirl, a wink and a snapping of his well-manicured fingers.
That night—and every night of his stay in New Orleans—Capote dines in the Caribbean Room of the Hotel Pontchartrain. “Antoine’s is worse than McDonald’s. Brennan’s is worse than awful,” he claims, summarily denouncing two of the city’s most renowned restaurants. Snuggling into his favorite banquette, he pokes listlessly at a bowl of gumbo, murky as a Louisiana swamp. Mealtimes, Truman would rather gossip than eat. “Norman Mailer won a Pulitzer Prize [for Executioner’s Song] for doing a very expert imitation of my book In Cold Blood. He wouldn’t be doing what he’s doing if I hadn’t done it first…. Tommy Thompson [author of Blood and Money] is another of my imitators…. Pete Hamill,” he continues, “has a desperately ordinary macho quality….” Later Capote drifts beyond literature. “I suspect Jackie Onassis is not very interested in sex, but Lee is. Neither of those Bouvier girls has the slightest gratitude or faithfulness.” He and Lee have been on the outs ever since she sided with Vidal in the lawsuit, which, says Truman, is still pending. “That little bitch,” he bristles.
As he whines and dines, Capote finishes two glasses of vodka and orange juice, half and half. “One drink doesn’t drive me on to another the way it once did,” he says. “I’ve been okay for the last three years.” He has other vices, however: “As they say in sanitarium circles, I know everything there is to be known about every drug and pill there is. I’ve tried everything but heroin. That’s the end of the line. You see, it’s awfully hard for me to endure reality in an unaltered state. I see everything so clearly. I get 100 impressions and reactions to everything. I never wanted that.” His eyes fill with tears. “I wish to God I didn’t have it. But it’s the basis of my gift as a writer.” Wiping his eyes with the sleeve of his Courrèges sweater, he heads wearily to bed.
On his last day in New Orleans, Capote is a cheery little figure in a blue serge tunic. “This is my Basque peasant outfit. Do you like it?” he asks. Onward to another of his favorite locales: a cemetery. Capote has always been fascinated by the fact that the graves in New Orleans are above-ground, a circumstance made necessary by the swampy soil and occasional flooding of the Mississippi. “I used to come here and do gravestone rubbings,” he recalls. “You know, in Mardi Gras time they turn this place into a positive sex orgy. It’s dark and convenient to the bars in the French Quarter.”
The thought tickles him all the way to a Bourbon Street nightspot called the Gunga Den. This, he explains, has the best female impersonator show in town. “When I lived in the quarter, the drag queens were great friends of mine. They all lived in one house and had a Sunday brunch. I’d go by. I had more fun with them than with anybody else in New Orleans. They were generous and funny and clever.”
The demimonde at the Gunga Den is aflutter at the prospect of meeting the famous author. “I read Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” says Tara, a 21-year-old from Biloxi, Miss. “I think he’s neat.” A delighted Capote gathers a group for a picture. “Smile like the Civil War has ended and we’ve all gone back to the halls of Tara and we’re having gumbo for supper cooked by our old slaves,” he teases, adding: “Let’s do one with a blink. I mean a wink….” “Oooh,” frets Aja, 18, from Houston, “I just know my cheeks aren’t even. I mean the blush kind.”
Many hugs and kisses later, everyone parts great friends. Capote is beaming. At last he seems to feel truly at home. Why, he is asked, doesn’t he move back to his beloved New Orleans? “Well, when Oscar Wilde was leaving England, someone said to him, ‘Why don’t you go live in Venice? You’ve always loved it so.’ He said: ‘What? And be a monument to tourists?’ Well,” concludes Capote, “that’s the way I feel about New Orleans.”