I’ve started something called the Capote project.
I’m trying to read as much of Truman’s work–or any book–involving him as a key player. It all started several years ago with Capote’s In Cold Blood, the first true-crime, nonfiction novel. The story of the 1959 Clutter family murders was a sensational reading experience, and Capote hooked me with his first sentence (The village of Holcomb stands on the high wheat plains of western Kansas, a lonesome area that other Kansans call “out there.”). By the bottom of page one his style and rich detail consumed me, and I raced through the dense book in a few days.
Which brings me to Christmas, 2015. My daughter presented me with a collection of Capote’s early short stories. They are small, abbreviated pieces of fiction and most ended before I wanted them to, but you can hear that distinctive voice coming through.
The foreward from the collection had this from Capote about his early work, “The most interesting writing I did during those days was the plain, everyday observations that I recorded in my journal. Descriptions of a neighbor, local gossip. A kind of reporting, a style of ‘seeing’ and ‘hearing’ that would later seriously influence me…”
There it is. A lesson for all writers, I think, but a clear path you can trace to how and where Capote’s style took shape. If you’re a Capote-ite like me or enjoy reading about Southern places and characters, this may be something for you.
But if you’re a fiction reader I highly recommend The Swans of Fifth Avenue by Melanie Benjamin. Capote’s here too, but now he’s surrounded by his socialite swans, women from New York’s upper crust who fall in with Capote and share their time, their wealth and their gossip.
Because of my Capote project, about five years ago I read a fun bit of nonfiction by Sam Wasson, Fifth Avenue, 5 A.M.: Audrey Hepburn, Breakfast at Tiffany’s and the Dawn of the Modern Woman. Of course Truman was there because he wrote the book upon which the movie was based. And it was here that I first heard about his tight friendship with Babe Paley, wife of Bill Paley, head of CBS. The two were inseparable, and in Swans Melanie Benjamin tells us how the pair became soulmates.
Of all the swans, it was Babe’s beauty inside and out that Truman craved. While reading I surmised it was Truman’s sad childhood, passed from one relative to another while his mother roamed the world, that made Babe his socialite of choice. She had unconditional love for him. She listened to him, encouraged him, vacationed with him. And why not? Her own husband was philandering and emotionally distant.
Tru-Heart, as he was known, filled the void and Babe Paley found a life. But Capote was gay. You know that. The relationship had its limits.
Benjamin recreated the pace and sophistication of midcentury Manhattan, and I felt like I was lunching with all the beautiful people and attending their parties and sipping champagne. What a life! But it was never perfect and before long Truman was on the outs. For all his talents Truman took friends for granted. He used people. Talked. And then wrote. Naughty boy.
I’ve read a number of Melanie Benjamin books. The Aviator’s Wife was the last, but I’m a fan of this time and place, and the people involved lived a fantastical fast-lane life. This latest historical novel is my favorite by far and for those of you seeking a great juicy book for summer, this is it.