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The Non-Fiction Novel: Is it an art form or was Truman Capote a fraud?

copyright: Anne Nygård at Unsplash

Full disclosure. I had adored Capote’s writing and have a signed postcard from him sent from his Hampton’s home. In it, he indicates he has filled his “friend” quota and appreciates my kind words about his writing.

I’ve read everything I could find that he wrote, including “Miriam,” “Mojave,” “La Cote Basque, 1965,” “Kate McCloud,” and his novellas and books. Possibly two articles are missing. I will not search for them.

Truman Capote was a fraud? Was he a person who stole other writer’s ideas and styles? Did he take from Carson McCullers’ “Ballad of the Sad Cafe” or other works?

It’s rumored that Capote, who had formed a close friendship with McCullers, fell out of her good graces. Why? She believed he had taken either ideas or work that she had created, and he was never sufficiently grateful for her help in launching his career.

Later, in his life, this same theme of friendships not honored and the help he received never adequately admitted would recur again and again. He would die almost alone in a pool cabana in the home of one of Johnny Carson’s ex-wives. His ashes would be auctioned off and bought for a bit less than $45K. Not bad when the auction house didn’t expect more than $6K.

One has to wonder about his authenticity once you begin delving into the Tiny Terror’s life and the articles that have dissected his tome, “In Cold Blood,” and “Hand-Carved Coffins” which appears in his last work, “Music for Chameleons” which was to be “Answered Prayers.” It was, he said, his magnum opus, the novel that was forever coming and, to his publisher’s dismay, never made it, except in excerpt form in major magazines.

“Hand-Carved Coffins,” once extensively researched, wasn’t a work of non-fiction but a creative work based on one murder, not six. If the research holds up, the couple’s death took place in Kansas, not Nebraska. No, I am not nitpicking.

Creativity is the stuff of writers, but to deceive the reader isn’t permissible. It’s total fiction. Forget the new genre Capote claimed to utilize. There were no little coffins, each with a photograph. Complete fiction again. It makes me wonder about the pile of frozen cats in the freezer on Long Island.

Was the novel ever finished? Capote was cryptic on that one and said that it was in a bank safety deposit box. It would be found when it would be found; he is alleged to have told someone, possibly a nephew.

Vintage; Reprint edition (March 29, 1994)

Remember, initially, when he came to New York City, he was a young twenty-something with a high school education and no formal literary training. He scoffed at any formal literature training and believed professors could teach him nothing.

Capote would earn for himself the less-than-honorific of the “Tiny Terror” that the media bestowed on him. One thing he was not was a journalist, so let’s put that one to bed right now. It seems he was eager for the big payday without producing the finished product.

You might say he wrote somewhat like the Dominick Dunne style of journalism, but not really. Dunne tried to write about the facts, Capote embellished and distorted them to his wishes. Reports of his helping to obtain legal representation for one of the killer in “In Cold Blood” appear to support this falsehood, too. Further evidence of Capote’s wish to raise his reputational stature.

A chance meeting at Yaddo, the artists’ colony, in 1946 provided Capote with an esteemed mentor/lover (Newton Arvin) who would help him polish his first work, “Other Voices, Other Rooms.” Capote’s template for future beneficial meetings was created early for this 23-year-old from the South. Ok, Lillian Hellman may have had an enormous amount of help by Dashiell Hammett in her plays, so Capote’s not alone.

Enter the swans

Capote would use his cunning plan repeatedly as he worked his way into the homes, onto the yachts and private jets of New York’s rich and powerful and, especially, the wives. These “swans,” as he called them, would provide the grist for his gossip mill that was ever churning and made him a tiny delight in dull afternoons or dreary luncheons.

The man who never felt rich wanted to immerse himself in the aura of the wealthy women he collected in his carefully developed social circle. It is an attempt to validate his right to adulation.

For all his carefully-developed expertise in manipulating his swans, Capote forgot that swans have the power to kill. Never having seen or imagined it, he was the perfect victim of his venomous verbiage. Foolishly, he boasted to one of the women, “I can break up anybody in New York I want to.” His method? Gossip made out of whole cloth. Take a bit of gossip, turn it around into a book, and you have non-fiction novels.

A self-destructive effort

He must have believed he was immune to the cruelty of others, but it worked both ways. The swans would abandon him once the overlay of cuteness and pander was pulled back in the revealing “La Cote Basque, 1965,” published in Esquire magazine in 1975. Laying their secrets bare for a hungry public, he betrayed the whispers, the gossip, and their trust. Capote would then create social suicide, not non-fiction fiction, with himself as its first victim.

For someone who enjoyed ripping people’s inner workings apart, he didn’t do such a good job on himself. In the 1965 piece, he rails about the Southern waifs who head north to find men and climb the social ladder; him to a tee. He was a pet and an interloper into their world, and he made them pay for their revelations. But why? It was so destructive not only for the women but for his carefully cultivated tuffet in their world.

The swans, in turn, shunned him summarily from the world to which he craved entree. Didn’t he know how the article would be viewed? The women, including his favorite swan, were quickly recognized by the detail he provided. Rumor has it that one woman committed suicide after she received an advanced copy of the piece.

Did Capote create the non-fiction novel? I hardly think so. He papered over facts with imagination and called it a new genre, but it wasn’t. How Norman Mailer said he wouldn’t change a word is, to me, disingenuous.

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