By Will Caraccio
Both an author and celebrity, an intellectual and socialite, a literary genius and social icon, Truman Capote left behind an enduring legacy on both America’s popular culture and literary canon.
Though often remembered for his rowdy metropolitan lifestyle and flamboyant personality, Capote came from humble beginnings. Originally born in New Orleans (a city which plays a recurring role in his novels and short stories), Capote moved to Monroeville, Alabama after his mother abandoned him. A high school dropout with little knowledge of the outside world, Capote moved to New York City and vowed to become a successful novelist; by the age of 17, he had a job at The New Yorker–a witty and intelligent publication whose influence on the young Capote could be seen in his work, which contained a similar writing style–and within a few years he was writing regularly for an assortment of publications. His first book, Other Voices, Other Rooms, published in 1948, received immense critical acclaim and threw Capote into the spotlight for the first time. With the publication of Breakfast at Tiffany’s, perhaps the author’s most iconic piece, and the subsequent film adaptation starring Audrey Hepburn, Capote’s popularity and social clout grew on equal level with his literary reputation. However, when Capote published In Cold Blood in 1959, the book that most consider to be his masterpiece, the ambitious author reached his peak. Not only did In Cold Blood contain the flawless, captivating writing Capote was known for, it accomplished a task that few novels in history have replicated: it created a new genre of writing. Described as a “nonfiction novel”, the genre allows the author to inject his subjective response to the character and events contained in a true story, the way a journalist would in an editorial. Capote himself declared that this new format was the “solution to what had always been [his] greatest creative quandary,” as it allowed him to “produce a journalistic novel..that would have the credibility of fact, the immediacy of film, the depth and freedom of prose, and the precision of poetry.” Capote’s later work, Handcarved Coffins, which appeared as a short story in his acclaimed 1980 novel Music for Chameleons, also qualifies as a nonfiction novel.
Enraptured in the luxury and pleasure of fame, Capote became the quintessential socialite: in the upper echelon of American society, Capote was a ubiquitous presence. Constantly attending social events and parties (he answered accusations of frivolousness by claiming he was conducting “research” for a future book) he developed close relationships with some of America’s most glamorous and iconic figures, notably Marilyn Monroe, about whom Capote wrote the short story A Beautiful Child. Not only one of the first American authors to claim the status of celebrity, Truman Capote was also openly homosexual in an age where heterosexuality was the strict norm. Though living a life of glamour and notoriety, Capote suffered from chronic addiction and alcohol abuse–a side-effect of his underlying mental health issues and unsustainable lifestyle that would contribute to his premature death in 1984 at the age of 59.