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If Truman Capote hadn't been cremated, he'd be turning in his grave.

By Leonard Gill

JANUARY 5, 1998: 

Truman Capote: In Which Various Friends, Enemies, Acquaintances, and Detractors Recall His Turbulent Career
By George Plimpton
Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, 490 pp., $35

You can dip into George Plimpton’s latest “oral biography,” Truman Capote, anywhere you like and have some dispiriting fun doing it. But by all means start with the eloquent tribute James Dickey delivered on Capote’s behalf (and on behalf of Capote’s early output), which closes the book on a high and deeply felt note. Read it and keep it in mind. For the better part of the preceding 400-plus pages, you’ll be working, mostly down, from there.

OR you can work, mostly up, from the random shots, some deserving and some deservingly cheap, delivered by Capote’s enemies and detractors, as so deliciously promised in Plimpton’s subtitle. For that most endearing and enduring of enemies, you can start with Mr. Gore Vidal.

“I write about the fifth century B.C. and comparative religion and Confucius and the Buddha and Zoroaster and Socrates, and, of course, American history. Subjects of no interest to my contemporaries,” Vidal is quoted as saying (in all seriousness). “I don’t want to know about marriage. Suburban adultery. And who gets custody of the children. I’m not even interested in the awakening of the young homosexual in the South and whether or not to wear crÍpe de chine before sundown. ... Important though these things are to the sensitive author, they do not tug at my heartstrings.”

Nor, for that matter, did Truman Capote. When, in (for once) all-out innocence, a young Capote mistakenly confided to Vidal, “Thank heavens, Gore, we’re not intellectuals,” Vidal shot back, “Speak for your fucking self!”

Vidal, despite his customary misanthropy, was, as usual, onto something early and something with real relevance to the late career – and careerism – of Truman Capote. And in keeping to the style of the book under review, I depend for that something on another eyewitness, this time the writer and onetime friend of Capote’s, Marguerite Young. On Capote’s unfinished, unfinishable Proustian epic on jet-set society, Answered Prayers – the book that was to raise further and crown the reputation of the author of Other Voices, Other Rooms, The Tree of Night, The Grass Harp, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and In Cold Blood – I quote:

“I don’t think [Capote] could have been an epic writer because that requires a formidable strength. It requires an education. ... Like many American writers, he existed in tidy vignettes of limited dimensions. No one could be better at that. But just stringing them together doesn’t make an epic. ... [He] didn’t read enough books. He didn’t know anything. He was ignorant. ... When I went to Europe with Carson McCullers, she was reading Proust for the first time and reading it through blue sunglasses. That’s how educated those people were.”

George Plimpton has had the required education, but this and past projects have displayed his own tendency toward “tidy vignettes of limited dimensions” and a sizable horror of topics taken on full-scale. For lack of the “formidable strength” required? Or is it that Plimpton, deep down, does care about the question of crÍpe de chine before sundown?

The jacket of Truman Capote proudly reminds us that Plimpton originated “participatory journalism” (remember Paper Lion?), but his ideal mode is really nonparticipatory authorship. His (or was it Jean Stein’s?) Edie: An American Biography, on Andy Warhol’s doomed muse Edie Sedgwick, was all strung-together quotes, the bare-bones of the biographer’s art bound and forced to perform as biography itself. (When you consider Plimpton’s long editorship of The Paris Review, consider as well that that magazine’s most-read feature has always been its interviews.)

Plimpton, however he sees himself as author, doesn’t even lay sole claim to that title with Truman Capote. He recognizes Susan Morgan and Anne Fulenwider, in an opening note to readers, as virtual co-authors, and properly steers us to Gerald Clark’s official biography, Capote, if it’s a writer who actually writes on his subject you seek. If your idea of primary source material is cocktail-party chatter, however, here you have it. Capote the social climber and backstabber at least fits the method, and everyone who is or was anyone has been invited – from old-timers in Monroeville, Alabama, to John Kenneth Galbraith to the producer of The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour. No Babe Paley, firsthand, though (dead). No Pat Buckley (but we do get William F.). And, for some reason, no Dick Cavett, who, when last seen, was doing print ads for a company that manufactures an antidepressant.

Cavett could exasperate Capote almost as expertly as Vidal and he outdid himself by cornering Capote on his flimsy definition of the nonfiction novel. That exasperation turned to squirming so violent a TV audience watched as a writer, nearing the end of his tether and talent, appeared to be in the act of wetting his pants. This, in a book such as Plimpton’s, however, doesn’t count as a grave oversight. A point that does matter – that it’s the “tidy vignettes” of Truman Capote we reread and not Gore Vidal on Confucius – is almost as overlooked.

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