Book Broads • Summer of Truman

by Angie Eakley

I'm not sure when my fascination with Truman Capote began. I read In Cold Blood years ago, not for any class but because it was one of those books you're supposed to read. I also don't remember being blown away by it, but then again, I was young. It would be years later, probably after passing it on display at the book store many times, that I would read Deborah Davis' Party of the Century, and my interest in him would be renewed.

It's not even his obvious, famous attributes that are so interesting to me. It may be because those things - the strange, high voice; the tiny stature; the extravagant style of dress - are dwarfed by the slurred speech and ravaged, puffy appearance that dominates recordings of him from the last part of his life. It seems the real Truman, the one he crafted his entire life, is the Truman of the 50s & 60s: famous author, darling of society, "pet" of the richest and most glamorous women of the time.

It's this man and those relationships that are explored in Melanie Benjamin's historical fiction novel The Swans of Fifth Avenue, a book that's long been on my reading list but that I only recently tackled. These women are the real housewives of the past, although I wonder how much their behavior would mimic that of the current Bravo stars if they had cameras and contracts rooting them on. These women lived by a very strict set of rules, with rule number one being to maintain appearances at all times. Slim Keith never threw shade about her friends to the cameras. Babe Paley never flipped a table.

I think it may be the duality of Truman's life that is so beguiling to me. From the time he could talk he told everyone who would listen that he was going to be a famous writer, and almost through sheer force of will he made it happen. In every way he seemed most himself on the arm of one of his beautiful swans, at the best table at the best restaurant, sipping champagne and trading gossip, making up for their husbands' neglect and their friends' duplicity, and giving them a credibility beyond "enviable beauty with rich husband," with the most talked about novelist of the time at their side. Although he embellished his youthful literary accomplishments, Truman never betrayed his dream. His writing life and his social life were separate, and when he was writing he was diligent and serious. He spent years in Kansas researching In Cold Blood, and even he didn't need to exaggerate the impact his "non-fiction novel" had on crime writing in general and on his notoriety as a public figure. It may be this aspect of him that makes the motivations behind his short story La Cote Basque, 1965, so curious. Its publication sets off the events in Benjamin's novel and in real life marked the beginning of Capote's own downfall. His social life became his writing life, and everything fell apart.

To some degree, we've probably all been betrayed by someone we considered a friend. Imagine if your life revolved around maintaining appearances, your every move documented by paparazzi and written about on Page 6. Even your closest friends don't know all your secrets, but the ones they do know are kept to themselves, because you know their secrets too. People like to imagine they know what your life is like, that behind all the glamor and the expensive clothes and the carefully curated magazine spreads and the seemingly effortless beauty and the older, handsome, wealthy husband, that something has be rotten beneath the surface because if not then life is simply not fair. So they talk. They talk about how your husband can't even be discrete about his affairs, how your "natural" beauty is the result of very good plastic surgery, how you must be miserable and all the money in the world can't make you happy.

Now imagine at least some of that is true, and after a lifetime of training to be a society wife, you find a soulmate in the most curious form of a tiny dandy with a very high voice and a very serious literary talent. And this friend accompanies you to the best restaurants, the fanciest boutiques, even on vacation at your second home and on your yacht. He makes you feel like you're more than a pretty face on the arm of an Important Man. Sure, he gossips about your friends, but you two have a real connection, and you know he would never betray you. Until he does.

Until it's 1975 and you open the new issue of Esquire. Your friend, the man who happily touted the publication of anything he wrote, who got you advanced copies and bragged about how this new thing would be better than all the old things, he hadn't even mentioned it. And you read it and there, laid bare, or hidden under the thinnest of guises, are all your secrets. And all your friends' secrets. And you have been played a fool. You have been unmasked, and your whole life at this point has succeeded because you were the best at wearing that mask. No matter what anyone said about you, you were the woman with the beautiful face and the rich husband and the mansions and vacation homes and the latest fashions and the best jewelry and the most fabulous friends.

And afterword, through the press because you have stopped taking his calls, what does this man have to say about it? That you should have expected it; that he is a writer. That he did it for you - to free you of the miseries in your life that you kept secret. But what does that make you? A fool for befriending him? Stupid for telling him anything about your life? A pawn he used for money and fame and material treasures while he catalogued every detail of your life for public ridicule? Because that story isn't a thoughtful meditation on the empty life of a glamorous public figure. Or about the face we show the public no matter what's going on in our private lives. It is a catty takedown, the flailing of a once great writer who took the easy route. A great work of self-destruction.

And so my fascination with Truman Capote continues. I'll end with a confession of my own (and the only way that his swans and I are at all similar): outside of In Cold Blood and "La Cote Basque, 1965," I don't believe I've actually read anything else that Truman wrote. I've read much more about him than by him, which for some reason I think he'd appreciate. 1960s, top of the social world Truman would, at least. The strange, athletic child from Monroeville, Alabama; the earnest writer embedded in Holcolmb, Kansas working on his genre-breaking masterpiece; or the sad outcast, drunk and on pills, stalking the dance floor at Studio 54? Him, I'm not so sure.

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