Which is more interesting: the plot of a Truman Capote novel, or
the story of how he wrote it? That’s a hard one to answer. Let's
call it a toss-up. I admire Capote the writer, but with the passing
years, the growing controversy and disputes over his methods
and contrivances force even the most starry-eyed fan to reconsider
their assessment of the celebrity-author. In short, the more we learn
about Capote, the more we realize the importance of the stories
behind his stories.
Capote's most famous book, In Cold Blood is a lightning rod for
his critics. They point out factual errors and fabricated quotes—
familiar failings of over-reaching authors—but the harshest attacks
focus on the dubious ethics of Capote's
relationship with his sources. Did he
befriend and mislead a man on death row
in order to get a first-person confession that
would help propel In Cold Blood to the top
of the bestseller list? One would hope not,
but the evidence suggests otherwise. Did
Capote distort his presentation of real-life
protagonists in the Clutter murder case to
enhance the sensationalistic elements in
the book? Probably. Was his deliberate
blurring of fiction and non-fiction more a
dodge to avoid his own culpability than the
invention of a new writing technique? I don't
think so, but the jury is still out on that question.
In any event, the end result was a journalistic
methodology so compromised that Capote himself, like the killers
and victims of In Cold Blood, became the subject of a tell-all movie—
the 2005 film Capote—that made cinematic magic out of an ugly
Alas, this was no isolated instance. Capote frequently played fast-
and-loose with the truth. He often told people that he got his start as
an author by winning a storywriting contest sponsored by the Mobile
Press-Register. A editor of that newspaper later tried to find details
of this contest, but came up emptyhanded after a thorough search of
the Press-Register’s archives. Did Capote invent this biographical
detail? Probably, although I’d like to think that he may simply have
gotten his facts jumbled. Maybe he won some other contest, and
forgot the details. Johnny Carson, whose ex-wife Joanne was close
to Capote, was less forgiving than me. Carson claimed that the
Capote would lie about even the simplest incidents. When confronted
with these prevarications, Capote would respond: "If that's not the
way it happened, it's the way it should have happened."
That sentence may stand as the best summary of Capote's con-
tribution to the so-called "New Journalism" of the 1960s. If they
ever establish a Hall of Fame for fact-twisters and journalistic
flimflam artists, Capote will deserve a wing all to himself. Long
before Jayson Blair, Jonah Lehrer, Janet Cooke, Mike Daisey,
and those other later charlatans of the written word, Capote was
defining the role of writer-trickster.
But Capote's last book represents his biggest scam of all. Over
the course of decades, the author wheedled and whined and got
more and more money from his publisher for a book that he never
finished—and, indeed, apparently stopped working on long before
his death in 1984. During that period, he often announced that his
titanic gossip novel, which would rival Proust's great masterpiece,
was almost completed. Here’s the chronology: In 1966, Capote
received a $25,000 advance for Answered Prayers, with a delivery
date set for January 1, 1968. He missed the deadline, but he got
more advance money in 1969 by signing a three-book deal that
superseded the original contract. The delivery date for Answered
Prayers was now set for 1973, but in 1973 Capote received another
extension to 1974. Eventually his publisher allowed a further delay
until 1977. The contract was amended in 1980, and a 1981
delivery date was specified. The advance was now raised to
a staggering $1 million (although cash would now be withheld until
the submission of the manuscript). Along the way, Capote told
interviewers about the progress he was making on the novel, and in
two instances actually claimed that he had finished the manuscript
and had delivered it to Random House. This was, of course, news to
the editors at Random House.
Finally, after Capote's death, a thorough search through his archives
found no trace of the great Proustian novel. The only signs that
Answered Prayers ever existed were three chapters that had
appeared in Esquire many years before. These sections, less
than 200 pages in total, were eventually published as Answered
Prayers: The Unfinished Novel in 1987. (Another brief fragment
of a chapter, entitled "Yachts and Things,” was published by Vanity
Fair in 2012.) A few devotees believe that more of this book
exists—perhaps hidden in a safe deposit box somewhere—and
can draw on various firsthand testimony from people who allegedly
saw more of his book. But I tend to believe Capote's longtime
companion Jack Dunphy, who knew the author as well as anybody.
Dunphy claims that Capote stopped working on Answered Prayers
around the time the Esquire chapters were published. His later
promises of a soon-to-be-published novel were just more of the
usual Capote smoke-and-mirrors routine.
Three Literary Gossip Novels
Certainly Capote would have had a good reason to halt the project
after the publication of the Esquire chapters. His close friends were
angry at him for sharing their secrets. Capote was reportedly surprised
at their outrage. After all, he was writing a novel based on gossip, and
did they really think he was going to leave out all the juicy stories he
had heard from his society friends over the years?
Sometimes the characters in Answered Prayers are thinly-veiled
versions of real people. But in many instances, Capote used the
actual names of the famous and almost-famous. In the course of
the surviving chapters, he dishes the dirt on Jackie Kennedy,
Dorothy Parker, Montgomery Clift, Peggy Guggenheim, J.D.
Salinger, Oona Chaplin, Cole Porter and many, many others.
The stories are usually salacious, and—give Capote his due—our
author does know how to spin a yarn. Answered Prayers may not
be Capote's best book, not by a far cry, but it is one of his most
readable. This is as close as you can get to Capote the dinner guest,
who could keep the table captivated with his anecdotes, witticisms
and public washing of the dirtiest of linen. Even so, I’m sure I’m not
the only reader who is alarmed by the tone of exaggeration and
campy theatrics in the context of stories about real historical people.
If these stories are true, Capote is a scoundrel for sharing them; and
if they aren't true, he’s worse than a scoundrel. Judging by what we
know of Truman Capote's honesty and ethics in other matters, the
latter view is, sad to say, the far more plausible assessment.
Of course, there are glimmers of unvarnished truth, even in a book
filled with dubious tales. About 50 pages into Truman Capote's
almost-a-novel, the stockbroker Woodrow Hamilton fires a point-blank
question at the narrator P.B. Jones: "So you've started writing again.
Novel?" To which Jones cagily responds: "A report. An account. Yes,
I’ll call it a novel. If I ever finish it." Then he adds: "Of course, I never
do finish anything."
And if you still have any doubts, Hamilton asks for the title of this
work-in-progress. To which Jones replies: "Answered Prayers"—
and explains that it comes from a quote from St. Teresa of Avila,
who allegedly claimed "More tears are shed over answered prayers
over unanswered ones."
Capote gots his saints confused.. Thérèse of Lisieux, not Terese
of Avila, uttered those words. But the rest of this passage is true-
to-life. In other words, the part of his fiction that was supposed to
be true was fictional, and the part that was supposed to be fiction
And that may be the most accurate description of this entire book,
the Proustian novel that petered out in a trickle of scurrilous
anecdotes and the fury of angry friends. And I won't even go into
issues of drugs and other personal matters in Capote's own life,
either to condemn or explain—although one doubts that the author
would have shown that kind of discretion in dealing with the failings
of others. Instead, I’ll take the kindest path of all, and suggest that
perhaps Truman Capote had lost the ability to tell fact from fiction.
From that perspective, not only was he the right person to invent
the "non-fictional novel." It may be that he had no other choice.
Ted Gioia writes on literature, music and popular culture. His most recent book is
The Jazz Standards: A Guide to the Repertoire.
Published June 24, 2013
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