By Francesca Panseri
Truman Capote (1924–84) was a frequent visitor to Palazzo Venier dei Leoni. He visited Peggy Guggenheim for the first time in September 1950, returned in September two years later, and again in the summer of 1953. He then stayed in her home for six weeks in the spring of 1956 and for the last time in the spring of 1961.
Truman Capote I first met in my entrance hall. A little man in carpet slippers shuffling around. We became very good friends and later he spent two months as my house guest writing The Muses Are Heard . He was very keen on keeping his line and made me diet also. Every night he took me to Harry’s Bar and made me eat fish. He only allowed me a very light lunch of eggs. He is always madly amusing and I loved having him stay with me.
Peggy Guggenheim, Out of This Century (London: Andre Deutsch, 1979), p. 348.
Who is Truman Capote?
Truman Capote was a reporter, writer, and celebrity renowned for being the author of Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1958), on which the film of the same name featuring Audrey Hepburn and directed by Blake Edwards was based. Together with Norman Mailer, he founded the genre of the non-fiction novel through his book, In Cold Blood (1966).
Capote was born in 1924 in New Orleans and developed an obsession with writing from a young age due to a childhood marked by loneliness and a cold and unaffectionate relationship with his parents. He attended prestigious schools, but at 17 decided to abandon traditional education and worked a modest job as a copyboy in the Art Department of the The New Yorker. In 1946, at the age of twenty-two, he won the prestigious O. Henry Award for his short story, Miriam. Between 1943 and 1946 he wrote a large number of short fiction novels, including Mink of One’s Own, My Side of the Matter, Preacher’s Legend, Shut a Final Door and The Walls Are Cold, which were published both in literary quarterlies and in well-known popular magazines, including The Atlantic Monthly, Harper’s Bazaar, Harper's Magazine, Mademoiselle, and The New Yorker. These works are rooted in the literary tradition of the Southern United States, characterized by a grotesque inclination and a fascination for violence—as found in Edgar Allan Poe, Flannery O’ Connor, and Carson McCullers—and the use of elaborate language—as found in many authors from Poe to William Faulkner.
In 1948 Capote released his first novel, Other Voices, Other Rooms, which maintained the Southern Gothic atmosphere of his previous writings. The work, with its implicit homosexual references, which were audacious for the time, gave him a certain notoriety and introduced him as an intellectual dandy to the social circles frequented by celebrities. Capote began the lifelong process of building his own public persona, which led him to fame as a television talk show host, but also to alcohol and drug abuse, which would eventually turn out to be fatal. Throughout the 1950s he wrote frantically, demonstrating that he knew how to create seductive characters and contrasting states of mind, and blend fantasy and the reality of social life with great skill. Breakfast at Tiffany’s, published at the height of this moment in 1958, addresses topics Capote had already explored, such as heterosexual love versus homosexual love, freedom versus stability, nature versus culture. However, from a stylistic point of view, it marks a turning point. For the first time Capote abandoned a charged and elaborate writing to embrace a more linear narrative, characterized by a minimal and naturalistic prose.
It is an important step towards In Cold Blood, his most important work. Written between 1959 and 1965, the story details a real crime that occured in Kansas in 1959, the heinous murder of the Clutter family. A father, mother and two children were murdered by two criminals who had just been released from prison. Capote researched and interviewed all the people involved in the event (including the lawyer, the residents of the area, and the killers themselves). His goal was to create a new literary genre that was the opposite of fiction, in order to portray American society objectively, as in journalistic reporting, but with a wider scope. “It originated at the intersection between ‘journalism’ and ‘literature’ and it stemmed primarily from the choice of a subject from the real world (as opposed to one invented by the writer), which could be documented via an exhaustive research that gave credibility to the story. The ‘fictional’ aspect was then provided by dramatic techniques, such as the construction of the narrated scenes with vivid descriptions of the contexts (instead of objective journalistic ones), dialogues reproduced in full (a style closer to literary prose), and refined language.” (Andrea Rondini, Pianeta non-fiction, “Heteroglossia” no.14, 2016, pp. 54–55). The value of the work lies not only in its narrative construction, but also in the creation of the characters, who are narrated in all their complexity, and in the way an epoch is given voice to. It captures the spririt of the United States in the 1960s, with its strange combination of violence and compassion. Capote intended to continue this narrative style in his last work, Answered Prayers (1986), but due to his increasingly precarious state of health, the work remained unfinished.