Cocktails with Truman Capote

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In 1975 Truman Capote, the literary darling of New York’s inner circle – the confidant, bitchy sister and confessor to Babe Paley, Lee Radziwill and Gloria Vanderbilt, among others, whom he referred to as his “swans”– was suddenly in disgrace. He had just spilled the beans in Esquire about their secret exploits. And “La Cote Basque” was only the first installment of his planned roman a clef, “Answered Prayers.”  Now a swan outcast,  he was in L.A. starring, albeit reluctantly, in "Murder By Death,” a satirical mystery movie. And when I went to see him he looked a little worse for wear .

 Capote with Gloria Vanderbilt

Capote with Gloria Vanderbilt

 With Lee Radziwill

With Lee Radziwill

I was still acting myself in those days ( I’d recently done Ken Russell’s "Lisztomania," the life of composer Franz Liszt – deemed by one reviewer as 'the most embarrassing historical film ever made' – starring Roger Daltrey ofThe Who, Ringo Starr and, more unbelievably, a giant inflated penis). But I was  also writing about movies for the Los Angeles Times.

  Me and Roger Daltrey in "Lisztommania"

Me and Roger Daltrey in "Lisztommania"

Frankly, I was astonished I’d become a writer, that I was taken seriously, or seriously enough to be published. Other people obviously thought the same. More than once, I can remember a man sidling up to me at a party, barely able to conceal his bafflement. “Did you really write that? " he'd say, "Or did some journalist friend do it for you?”

  Capote's famous Black and White ball.

Capote's famous Black and White ball.

It was the old cliché. I didn’t look like a writer. I certainly didn’t dress like one. I dressed like an actress and I wore too much make-up. After all, using your looks as currency, or thinking you might not have much value without them, is a hard habit to break. I was also very self-conscious in my new role as interviewer.  And when I met Capote that afternoon in his trailer on the Warner’s Burbank lot, he was in a bad mood. 

It was a hot day, the smog thick on the horizon and he hated the movie. Immediately, I was scolded because I had the audacity to bring a tape recorder with me. “A real journalist,” he whined, “uses a pad and pencil” – as he had done, he reminded me, while researching his book In Cold Blood. He was wearing one yellow and one green shoe that I wasn’t altogether sure were part of his wardrobe, and took frequent sips of “water” from a thermos that obviously contained booze. Even so, he was full of twinkly charm. “I’ve read your pieces. They’re good,” he said. To be honest,  I thought he must be talking about someone else.

 

Nevertheless, I asked him to tell me about the scandalous Answered Prayers, the only thing I, or anyone else, was really interested in. But he wouldn’t. “No, honey. Not that,” he said. Nor did he want to talk about much else. As a novice, I didn’t have the guts to press further. So instead he dragged me, not unwilling, to a dive across the road from Warner Brothers, an empty rib joint with movie stills looped over the bar, where we got smashed on Whisky Sours.

We talked about love, the great tormentor. “Do you think it’s the only thing worthwhile?” he asked. “Well, it’s always disappointing,” I said, because I really hadn’t a clue. Flush-faced, he took my hand. “Oh, honey,” he whispered, “I’ll say. It’s the impossible dream…” We stayed there for a couple of hours, holding on to each other like orphaned children. The irresistible outcast, the genius. "Life is a moderately good play with a badly written third act," he murmured. It was a long way from "Other Voices, Other Rooms," the first book of his I'd read and loved, and certainly from "Breakfast at Tiffany's."

 Capote in the heady days

Capote in the heady days

After that, he was in and out of dry-out centers. He did publish two more exerts from "Answered Prayers" in Esquire, but to this day no one knows if there ever was a finished manuscript.  He died in Los Angeles, at Joanna Carson's house, Johnny's wife. A lonely fifty nine.