AN INTERESTING SLANT ON THE TRUMAN CAPOTE/HARPER LEE RELATIONSHIP BY NORMAN MAILER… (Originally published Dec. ’07)
Someone forwarded the following essay to me, and I thought – in light of Norman Mailer’s recent death – that it was of great interest, especially considering my personal love of the book, ‘In Cold Blood’…
In the winter of 2004, I returned to the works of Truman Capote, reading through his entire corpus for the first time in 25 years. I don’t believe there is a finer stylist in the history of American letters, and yet the legacy left in the minds of most Americans is that of a preening, flamboyant gay man high on drugs and liquor and the social-climbing obsession of the rich and famous.
Capote was openly and extravagantly gay, a caricature of himself driven to a fame and notoriety that was forever threatening his work as a writer. But that’s the way it was; to say how much more he could have accomplished had he been, well, less notorious, is to lament the inefficiency of Van Gogh’s insanity.
That winter I went on to read new material released since my last Capote foray in the late ’70’s. The 1988 biography by Gerald Clarke, his newly published letters ‘Too Brief a Treat’ (2004, edited by Clarke), and a wonderful biography in the form of recollections from those who knew Capote, (’98, edited by George Plimpton). What emerged was not just one of the saddest portraits of a life I’ve ever studied, but more so, an inspiration to the love of the sentence. The perfect sentence, recognized, by those who take the time to read at the sentence level, to appreciate and adore the rhythm of a perfectly metered sentence. Or as Norman Mailer remarked, on the publication of Breakfast at Tiffany’s: “He writes the best sentence word for word, rythmn for rhythm. I would not have changed two words.”
On the opposite spectrum would be the temperament of his life-long friend Nelle Harper Lee. As next door neighbors in Monroeville, AL, they developed, as children between 1924 and 1932, a bond that easily transcends any literary friendships before or after. Their activities, the activities of children filling long idle afternoons, were indicative of Capote’s later life: The grand circus that would return many decades later as his famous Black and White Ball in 1967, interrupted that evening in Monroeville with a visit from the KKK (Capote, ignoring protocol, had invited a black boy to the festivities–a very Bo Radley-like figure, by the way) and a scene with Harper Lee’s father, as the town’s local, respected prosecutor, quelling the disturbance in a way that was brought to life in the much later To Kill A Mockingbird. Or their favorite pastime of sneaking into her father’s study where Lee would take her place at the typewriter with little Truman pacing the floor dictating the wildly imaginative stories that are lost forever.
There is this Truman, an only child, abandoned early on by his skirt-chasing small-time entrepreneur father, then his beauty queen, social-climbing mother, and deposited with this trio of eccentric Aunts and this result of forever looking to please, going to extremes to win over the attention then loyalty with stunts like his perfect gymnastic cartwheels in Lee’s front yard that were no different, 30 years later, from the cartwheels he was performing in a drunken and drugged state down in the VIP room of Studio 54, turning cartwheels to steal attention from the gang-banging debacle of the 70’s. He never outgrew this craving for acceptance, this uncanny desperation to trade extravagant favors in return for loyalty. And this Nelle, Nelle Harper Lee still in Monroeville in the house where she grew up, playing golf everyday and scratching this itch of an interest in criminal proceedings to find her commonly at the Monroeville courthouse, sitting in on whatever proceedings fell under the local jurisdiction.
Nelle performed as a steadying ballast to Capote’s eccentricities. “I’m about as tall as a shotgun, and just as noisy,” he once described himself, reveling in the amount of noise and attention he could create for such a diminutive figure. “A pocket Merlin,” as Lee described him, treating him more as a toy, an amusement to be pulled from her pocket when she was bored. It was this very ballast that allowed the friendship to last as it did. They never lost touch. Years passed and Truman found the fame he craved, storming the NY literary scene in a way that had, of all people, Andy Warhol camping in front of Capote’s apartment every day for months, hoping for some acknowledgement by this master of self-promotion.
In Capote’s letters of this period (and he was one of the most voluminous letter-writers in literary history), he frequently makes mention to others of some news or another regarding Nelle back home. He wrote everyone — wonderful, engaging, insightful, yet quickly-penned letters to the Who’s Who of the era, filled with spiteful gossip and flowery back-stabbing and, commonly, references to the goings-ons back in Monroeville, back with Nelle.
And yet, oddly, not a single letter between Capote and Harper Lee has survived. Nothing uncovered in anyone’s attic that might afford us a glimpse of a life-long correspondence between life-long friends and childhood next-door neighbors who just happen to represent the apex of Ernest Hemingway, or that early draft of Huck Finn. Likely, it was destroyed, by mutual agreement. Less likely, it exists in Harper Lee’s attic, the most reliable and incriminating evidence of something that has intrigued me for years. Like his cartwheels and his craving for the love of others, Capote was always offering himself to others, his services and his talents. Sometimes large prodigious favors, asking nothing in return. It was, again, a deep-seated need to win the loyalty and praise and support, and of course. attention, lost to him as an abandoned only-child. He is on record of repeatedly urging Lee to write. But Lee was a golfer and a court-room aficionado. Not a writer.
There is mention in a letter dated in early 1955 to his long-time male companion Jack Dunphy, the mention of this phrase regarding a childhood pastime: “. . .the killing of mockingbirds.” Five years before the book’s publication! There is the uncanny wizardry of Capote’s ability to mold his writing style — a chameleon-like quality to dazzle his literary peers and best shown in his knack for redefining his art from the early innocent stories to an about face with In Cold Blood to yet another dramatic turn-a-round with the much-anticipated excerpts from the gossip-oriented dialogues of Answered Prayers. Three very distinct styles in a profession where it is almost unheard of for an artist to change their style. This is almost never seen in literature — perhaps Dickens with his departure to The Pickwick Papers, and Twain with the invented dialect of Huck Finn. But each of them again returned to their natural narrative voice. I cannot think of a single major novelist whose early work is unrecognizable from later works. In other forms, yes — most notably Picasso, the Beatles, Frank Lloyd Wright. But not in literature.
Capote was a prodigy with words and style and even story. He could adopt a voice and narrative style the way a character actor adopts a role on stage.
In 1959 Lee accompanied Capote for a two-month stay in Holcomb, KS. to investigate a brutal murder that had caught his fancy and perhaps an opportunity to put to test a new form of fictional journalism he had dallied with in a few earlier articles (The Muses Are Heard, originally published by his dear friend and editor at Harper’s Bazaar). A large favor to ask of anyone. But he knew the folks in Kansas would not warm to a tiny freaky flamboyant gay man with an oversized head and a manner so affected it drew attention to itself like bees to honey. Lee, with her normal, low-key gregarious personality, would win them over and open their trust to the exhaustive interviews Capote’s project would require. Later, she accompanied him again on one of several follow-up visits to Kansas.
The first visit was less than a year before the publication of Mockingbird (presented, by the way, to only a single publisher — Lippencott — an unknown writer selling her first book on its first submission). Can we assume Lee’s trip to Kansas was in some way returning the loyalty and favors of Truman’s efforts with Mockingbird? He, of course, appears in Mockingbird, as Dill, and, conversely, she is repeatedly fictionalized in his early stories. In the years immediately following the hullabaloo of Mockingbird, and its Pulitzer, Lee must have been pressed from every corner to publish. To publish anything. There would have been innumerable requests from all the leading magazines for something written by her. And yet she published only two essays in these first two years following Mockingbird, both in 1961. One, an essay with Vogue titled ‘Love — In Other Words’. And ‘Christmas To Me,’ for McCalls. Read them. Do they read like the writer who wrote one of the most enduring classic of modern times? Hardly. They read like a layman who had spent very little time honing a literary style. They are embarrassing, in this respect.
In a small Alabama history gathering in 1983, she read from something called: Romance and High Adventure, furthering the lackluster post Mockingbird legacy, and securing her preference for factual over fictional. None of these post-Mockingbird writings exhibit anything close to the sort of behavorial insight shining throughout Mockingbird.
We have to assume the general reaction to all those eagerly waiting for something more, anything, from the author of Mockingbird, was similarly unimpressed. She consequently never published again. Not another blurb over the subsequent 46 years.
At about this time it is reported by Donald Windham — a long-time correspondent of the recently deceased Capote — in his book ‘Lost Friendships’, that Lee mentioned how she had not spoken to Capote in over 15 years! Not surprising in itself, as nearly everyone dropped away from Capote’s sad, sad decline during those years. But one wonders as well if the weight of his ‘big favor’ was best kept at a distance. Securing an interview with Lee is as improbable as anticipating a follow-up novel. I
n 1995, Harper Collins — having acquired Lippencott — published a 35th anniversary edition of Mockingbird with great fanfare, promising a new foreword by Lee. The ‘new foreword’ was in fact a short, very short, excerpt from a letter to her agent declining Harper Collin’s request. I myself wrote her on several occasions in the 1980’s, receiving, in every instance, a note from her agent Jane Fallowfield. It is the rare piece of mail that gets through to arrive in Monroeville.
So who cares who wrote what? Isn’t it the work that stands, and not the author who penned the work? Capote himself apparently didn’t care. But one can’t help wonder what it requires, personally, to carry such a secret for so many decades, to avoid interviews and further writings published, and the urge or inherent need of a novelist to write more novels. Really, how many instant best-selling first-novels exist, alone in a writer’s corpus? How many instant best-seller, Pulitzer-winning first novels exist in this light? How many instant best-seller Pulitzer-winning first novels with follow-up credits of an Oscar-winning film classic, and nothing more from the author.
The little library in Monroeville has a museum devoted to an extensive inventory of works and memorabilia donated by Truman himself. While Lee, on the other hand, has steadfastly turned down not only the library’s requests, but a town proposal for an annual Harper Lee Day. And yet to this day she continues to reside in Monroeville, a very ordinary one-story brick house with a chain-link fence and a carport, playing golf, maintaining her reclusiveness. Unlike a Salinger or Pynchon-like withdrawal — the classic trait of an eccentric recluse — her house is exposed, her tee-times available, her presence known.
We could wait for the eventual findings in that attic. The anticipated trove of papers and writings and letters. But that would be foolish, and ghoulish, as no such corpus exists. The letters, the correspondence that would have marked itself as one of the most enlightening and unique exchanges in literary history, was, we must assume, long ago destroyed in a mutual pact made among two childhood friends who grew up together passing their southern afternoons in a father’s study, one dictating like a fountain, the other typing like a machine. Norman Mailer – September-2005
(This essay was written on the eve of a newly released film on Capote’s time in Kansas. I have not seen the film, but I do anticipate a renewed interest in one of our greatest literary treasures. I apologize if I have in any way offended fans of To Kill A Mockingbird. It is a whimsical theory that has no bearing on anything, backed by nothing more than circumstantial evidence at best. To Kill A Mockingbird exists, and that in itself is enough. What role Truman Capote played, and to what extent Harper Lee acquiesced, is the stuff of literary hounds.)