June 20, 1988 12:00 PM

by Gerald Clarke

The central tragedy of Truman Capote’s life was that he was never loved by the people who were most important to him. His father, Arch Persons, was a con man incapable of supporting his wife and son; his mother, Lillie Mae Faulk, was a beautiful alcoholic who locked young Truman in hotel rooms while she partied with men. And Capote’s companion of 36 years, Jack Dunphy, a novelist and ex-dancer, while accepting Capote’s financial support, all but abandoned him when he was dying. Reading this gracefully written, well-researched biography, one is struck by Capote’s courage and ability to succeed in spite of such adversity. In 1933 he moved from Alabama to New York to live with his mother and was adopted by his stepfather, Joseph Capote, a businessman. From the time he was 9 or 10, Truman was writing short stories, and in 1947 Vogue sent him to California to do an impressionistic piece about Hollywood. Capote, then 22, wrote a friend, “I’m the only person of any sex whatever who’s not being kept in this place.” Truman became the sensation of the 1948 literary season with his novel about a 13-year-old boy, Other Voices, Other Rooms. Later came Breakfast at Tiffany’s and in 1966, after nearly six years of reporting and writing, In Cold Blood, an account of the brutal murder of four members of a Kansas family. Doing that book, he said later, “scraped me right down to the marrow of my bones. It nearly killed me. I think, in a way, it did kill me. Before I began it I was a stable person, comparatively speaking. Afterward, something happened to me.” He drank more, became addicted to drugs and eventually began a series of self-destructive affairs, mostly with married men. Clarke, a TIME contributor, devoted 12 years to this biography and vividly captures Capote’s essence—his impish charm, his literary integrity and his childlike vulnerability. To socialites, such as Capote’s beloved Babe Paley, those qualities were irresistible. Writes Clarke: “He had a reserved seat by the fire, and he was there listening when the brandy was poured after dinner, when voices were lowered, hearts were opened and secrets were passed.” Capote had an acerbic side too, and a nasty wit; in the end, he alienated his friends with the published excerpts from Answered Prayers, a roman à clef he never finished, which betrayed many confidences. After the first segment ran in Esquire, a friend, columnist Liz Smith, said, “he was never happy again.” The man who called himself “the freak celebrity of the ’70s” died in 1984, probably of an accidental overdose of various drugs. His fame had brought him little solace. (Simon and Schuster, $22.95)

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