Truman Capote was a small man with a childlike voice that floated in the air, as light as the breeze in the Kansas wheat that he described in his...

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“The village of Holcomb stands on the high wheat plains of western Kansas, a lonesome area that other Kansans call ‘out there’ … “
— Opening sentence of “In Cold Blood”

Truman Capote was a small man with a childlike voice that floated in the air, as light as the breeze in the Kansas wheat that he described in his blockbuster nonfiction novel “In Cold Blood.” For a short time, he was the biggest writer in America. And then he disappeared.

Not that he physically vanished in the long years between the publication of “In Cold Blood” in 1966 and his death in 1984. He, or a version of him, threw famous parties in New York — like the legendary Black & White Ball — and turned up on talk shows, and wrote a few short stories.

But “In Cold Blood,” a spare, chilly retelling of the murder of a Kansas farm family and its aftermath, had changed him. After its completion, he became bitter, increasingly dependent on drugs and alcohol. The book consumed six years of his life, and was seemingly his death knell as a writer: He never wrote another full-length work.

Now, more than 20 years after his death, we’re more likely to remember the caricature of Capote — the corpulent, lisping eccentric of ’70s pop culture — than the young writer whose promise and talent once glittered so brightly.

That’s about to change, with the arrival of two high-profile films about Capote’s life and work. “Capote,” directed by Bennett Miller and starring Philip Seymour Hoffman, opens Friday at the Egyptian, in the wake of glowing reviews. And Douglas McGrath’s “Have You Heard?,” starring Toby Jones (as Capote), Sandra Bullock, Daniel Craig and Sigourney Weaver, comes to theaters next year.

Miller, interviewed at the Toronto International Film Festival, pointed to “In Cold Blood” as “the thing [Capote] was looking for his whole life — the project that was going to earn him the praise and respect that I think he fundamentally felt he needed.” It’s also the focus of Miller’s “Capote,” which was written by Dan Futterman and based on “Capote: A Biography” by Gerald Clarke. Miller describes the arc of his film as “the emergence of his tragic flaw, which is desperation and greed for this success and for the praise that it would get him, that would embolden him to do whatever it takes to get it. And in so doing, [he would] create his own demise.”

“There were so many things that I knew I could investigate, so many things that I knew I could find out about. Suddenly the newspapers all came alive, and I realized that I was in terrible trouble as a fiction writer … “
— Capote, to a friend, shortly before finding the newspaper article that would inspire “In Cold Blood”*

Capote was born Truman Streckfus Persons in New Orleans in 1924, the son of a smooth-talking ne’er-do-well and a flirt. Clarke’s book describes a troubled childhood that Capote never quite left behind. His parents’ marriage quickly failed, and young Truman spent much of his early years in the care of four reclusive cousins in Alabama. His mother, when she had time for him, was in the habit of locking him in hotel rooms so she could go out at night; late in life, the memory of that key turning still haunted him.

In the 1930s, his mother remarried to a businessman named Joseph Capote — giving her son a new name — and relocated the family to the New York suburbs. Struggling to come to terms with his difficult mother and his own homosexuality, Truman didn’t do well in school but focused single-mindedly on his writing; determined from an early age to be not only a great writer, but a famous one.

After high school, a job as a copyboy at The New Yorker magazine brought Capote closer to his literary dreams. Though he lost the job after less than two years (after offending the poet Robert Frost by walking out of a reading), it brought him hoped-for connections. He climbed the ladder of literary fame with great speed in the ’40s, meeting the right people, publishing short stories and receiving star treatment in a Life magazine profile of promising young writers.

His first novel, “Other Voices, Other Rooms” (1948), was a semi-autobiographical tale of growing up in the South. A come-hither dust jacket photograph, showing a seductively lounging, ruby-lipped Capote, caused a sensation, and the book immediately made the best-seller lists. Soon to follow was another Southern novel, “The Grass Harp,” which Capote later adapted for Broadway.

Hollywood soon came calling, and Capote dabbled in screenwriting, further cementing his status as a literary It Boy. And his popular 1958 short novel “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” was quickly made into a now-classic film, though Capote was disappointed with Audrey Hepburn as his Holly Golightly. (His choice would have been Marilyn Monroe.)

“Wealthy Farmer, 3 of Family Slain … “
— Headline on New York Times article, datelined Holcomb, Kan., Nov. 15, 1959

Capote wanted to find a true-life story that he could spin into a big, important work of literary nonfiction — and looking through the Times one morning, he found it. With the blessing of editor William Shawn at The New Yorker, and with friend Harper Lee (author of “To Kill a Mockingbird”) in tow, Capote traveled to Kansas to investigate the murder of the Clutter family.

A fish out of water in his stylish New York attire, he spent a month interviewing the locals, insinuating himself into the fabric of the town, breathing its air. He got himself invited to Sunday dinners and entertained visitors at his headquarters at the Warren Hotel. The details he observed, and the confidences he elicited, made their way into the book — as did vivid depictions of Dick Hickock and Perry Smith, the two suspects who were convicted in March 1960 and ultimately were hanged, after several appeals, five years later.

It would perhaps not be accurate to call Capote’s close relationship with the two killers, particularly Smith, a friendship. But he found himself very much affected by their deaths. (He would later pay for their grave markers.)

It’s a tension that’s visible in “In Cold Blood,” which is written with a spare, elegant economy and a leisurely style. Hickock and Smith’s own words, culled from hours of conversation, appear throughout the book; Capote lets them speak, alongside the voices of the bereaved, leaving judgments to the reader.

The book’s technique was something new for Capote; Miller describes it as “a very austere prose style, which was a far more difficult thing to pull off than the more frilly, colorful poetic writing he had become famous for.” But it was groundbreaking for literature as well: He was telling a factual story not as a journalist, but as a novelist, using tools shaped by fiction to make true events even more vivid and startling. No writer of his stature had attempted a project quite like this before; many would follow.

“I stayed with Perry to the end. He was calm and very brave. It was a terrible experience and I will never get over it. Someday I will try to tell you about it. But for the moment I am still too shattered.”
— Capote, to a friend, after Hickock and Smith’s execution *

With anticipation whetted by a public reading of an excerpt in late 1964, “In Cold Blood” was first published in four consecutive issues of The New Yorker, and then in book form in January 1966. It was an immediate sensation: Capote’s face beamed from the covers of magazines, paperback and movie rights sold for then-record figures, and the book was credited with reviving nonfiction as a genre.

But the strain of writing the book — of realizing his dream — had changed him. Capote became bitter over his book’s failure to win major awards, and increasingly turned to drugs and alcohol. He feuded with friends, including a falling-out with Lee. And his ambitious new novel, “Answered Prayers,” became an unreachable goal, never completed.

In 1978, he made headlines after a drunken appearance on a New York talk show, telling the host, “Eventually I’ll kill myself.” His last years were sad and difficult, and he died a month before his 60th birthday. According to Clarke, whether his fatal overdose was suicide or accident will forever be an unanswered question.

In a late scene in Miller’s film, as Capote is nearing the final days of writing “In Cold Blood,” we see a man tragically diminished. Hoffman, as Capote, whimpers as he eats banana baby food, washed down with Scotch. The confident, brash fellow in his cashmere coat is gone; a pale and pathetic shadow remains.

It’s a moment that resonates when reading this quote from Capote, from one of many long conversations with Clarke: “No one will ever know what ‘In Cold Blood’ took out of me. It scraped me right down to the marrow of my bones. It nearly killed me. I think, in a way, it did kill me.”

* Quotes from Gerald Clarke’s “Capote: A Biography” (Carroll & Graf Publishers, 1988)

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or mmacdonald@seattletimes