A Strange Kennedy Connection to Truman Capote's Ashes: From a Bel Air Halloween Bash to Marilyn Monroe's Crypt

The fate of the writer's remains is its own story of love, loss, deceit — and the sometimes fleeting benefits of fame

Joanne Carson - Truman Capote
Joanne Carson and Truman Capote. Photo: John Roca/NY Daily News Archive via Getty; Keystone/Getty

The tangled tale of Truman Capote's ashes is worthy of the writer who spent much of his life among the rich and famous. And the details of how his remains ended up with a starring role at a Halloween bash his dear friend Joanne Carson once threw at her Bel Air home in 1988 certainly match his outsized reputation.

Of course, Capote had been dead for years by the time that candlelit soiree was in full swing. Still, suspicious circumstances involving the writer's ashes created quite a buzz among Carson's masked party guests.

And from here, the story begins.

Halloween 1988

Author Laurence Leamer was at that party on Halloween night, dressed as "the executioner with a big black hood and these leather gloves, and this plastic hatchet," he tells PEOPLE. Leamer's new book, Capote's Women: A True Story of Love, Betrayal, And a Swan Song for an Era, documents the lives of Capote's beloved "swans" — a nickname he gave socialites like Lee Radziwill — and the backstory of his supposed masterpiece, Answered Prayers, about their elite social circles that he never completed.

Leamer had befriended Carson while writing an earlier book about her ex-husband called King of the Night: The Life of Johnny Carson. He was invited to her Halloween party but was asked to keep his mask on so that no one would know that Joanne had become close to the man writing a book about her ex.

Johnny Carson, Joanne Carson, Joanne Copeland Comedian Johnny Carson and his wife Joanne Carson attend a party in the Grand Ballroom of New York's Hotel Pierre following the opening of "Hello Dolly." Their marriage from 1963 to 1972 ended in divorce. Joanne Carson, who later in life became a close confidant of Truman Capote, died at home in Los Angeles, according to the executor of her estate. Johnny Carson, who hosted "The Tonight Show" from 1962 to 1992, died in 2005 Obit Joanne Carson, New York, USA
Johnny and Joanne Carson. AP/Shutterstock

"I will lose my $200,000 a year alimony," Leamer says Joanne told him. "If [Johnny] sees I'm talking to you, I'm going to lose it."

According to Leamer, some of the other guests were also worried about the wrath of Johnny and didn't show up for the party over fears he wouldn't invite them back on The Tonight Show, which he hosted for 30 years.

"I go into the party and it's kind of pathetic," Leamer remembers. "There are all these tables around the pool, and candles, and champagne, and everything. And there's just nobody there."

Determined to get some press about her party, Joanne had a PEOPLE reporter there — as well as a backup plan.

Once it was obvious that the dismal turnout wouldn't warrant much coverage, Leamer says, Joanne came running from a room where Capote used to sleep when he stayed with her, exclaiming, "Somebody's stolen Truman's ashes. They've stolen the last manuscript to Answered Prayers and they've stolen $200,000 worth of jewelry."

Joanne never called the police to report the alleged crime because, Leamer believes, "I think she made it up."

The following week, Capote's ashes mysteriously returned, dropped off by the thief, Leamer says Joanne told him. "She was hysterical," he recalls. "I said I'd go over and help her."

Taken from a Crypt

Capote could not be interred just anywhere. Joanne wanted her deceased friend at the Westwood Memorial Park, alongside Marilyn Monroe and Natalie Wood. Also placed there were the ashes of Peter Lawford, the British actor of dozens of films and the hit television show The Thin Man who had married into the Kennedy family when he wed Patricia Kennedy, John F. Kennedy's younger sister.

Patricia Kennedy and Peter Lawford
Patricia Kennedy and Peter Lawford. Bettmann/Getty

The marriage lasted 12 years. Before his death at age 61 of cardiac arrest, Lawford married three more times. In his later years, he drank heavily, spent time in rehab and became more "famous for being famous," according to a Turner Classic Movies biography.

Through faded stardom and subsequent marriages, Lawford fell out of favor with the Kennedys, Leamer says now.

Four years after Lawford died in 1984 and was cremated, an urn containing the ashes was taken from a crypt and handed off to his fourth wife, according to a 1988 Associated Press report.

Lawford's widow said at the time that a $10,000 funeral bill hadn't been paid and blamed his four children with his first wife, Patricia. "The Kennedys wouldn't pay," his widow told the AP.

President Kennedy and his brother-in-law Peter Lawford aboard the United States Coast Guard yacht 'Manitou'
President Kennedy (right) and his brother-in-law Peter Lawford. CORBIS/Corbis via Getty

Though the children denied any wrongdoing at the time and said they paid the bill once they learned of an oversight with the funeral expenses, Leamer believes there may be more to it.

"These families — they show a common front to the world but they're very jealous and competitive, unbelievably competitive," Leamer says.

And so in a strange twist, the AP reported that "the tomb was opened … by cemetery workers who handed the brass urn with the ashes to Mrs. Lawford, who later scattered the remains in the Pacific Ocean off Marina del Rey."

And that left the opening Joanne Carson was looking for.

Half of Half of Capote's Ashes

"Joanne was close to Truman Capote," Leamer tells PEOPLE. "In fact, so close that Truman died in her arms in 1984" — the same year Lawford died.

After his death, Capote's ashes were split between the writer's longtime partner, Jack Dunphy, and Johnny Carson's ex.

The final resting place of Marilyn Monroe is seen in the Westwood Village Memorial Park in Los Angeles on August 18, 2009.
Marilyn Monroe's grave at Pierce Brothers Westwood Village Memorial Park. GABRIEL BOUYS/AFP via Getty

Once the purported Halloween bandit returned Capote's ashes to Joanne, she and Leamer set off to find a spot to scatter them, Leamer says.

"We drove around L.A., trying to decide what to do with the ashes," he says. "They're sitting in my lap and we're discussing it with Truman. It's like, 'Truman where do you want to go?' It's as if he's having this conversation with us."

Pierce Brothers Westwood Village Memorial Park, a funeral home and cemetery with 10 mausoleums that serve "some of the biggest legends in entertainment," according to its website, was the most desirable, especially their marble crypts. But none were available — except for Peter Lawford's.

Truman Capote and Joanne Carson's graves at Pierce Brothers Westwood Village Memorial Park on May 19, 2020 in Los Angeles, California, USA. Photo by Barry King/Alamy Stock Photo
Truman Capote and Joanne Carson's graves at Pierce Brothers Westwood Village Memorial Park. Alamy

According to Leamer, the mortician told them: "The Kennedys didn't pay for that, so we can take Mr. Lawford out of here and we can put Mr. Capote in there, and we'll cut you a special price."

Joanne agreed but hesitated about parting with Capote's remains. Back at home, she removed half of her half of the late writer's ashes.

"So," Leamer says, "she's got a quarter of Truman's ashes. She adds 100 percent of her dog's ashes and takes them over [to Westwood Memorial Park]," where they still remain, next to Monroe, Wood and others.

"You go there now," he adds, "and it says, 'Truman Capote,' but it's a quarter of Truman and the rest is of a dog."

Joanne Carson died in 2015 at 83. The following year, Capote's ashes — the portion she kept — were sold for $43,750 to an anonymous bidder by Julien's Auctions.

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