FEUD’s Truman Capote by Larry Grobel (Ghana)

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Feud’s Truman Capote Doesn’t Shine Like the Man I Knew Yes, he was a lonely, tormented alcoholic at the end, but he was also a riveting dinner companion and a transcendent writer.

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Capote does his version of a fan dance to the disco beat at Studio 
A minute before the Today show’s cameras rolled in February 1985, Jane Pauley smiled and said, “I’ll begin by asking you about Truman’s hate list.” My own smile disappeared, and my eyes widened in fright. I was about to go on national television to promote my first book, Conversations with Capote, and she wanted me to talk about some of the two thousand people Truman Capote claimed to have on his “hate list.” In the seconds before the camera’s red light turned green, my mind whirred through some of those people, and I didn’t feel confident that I’d get his dislikes right. Was it Saul Bellow or Philip Roth who was “a nothing writer”? Meryl Streep or Jane Fonda who was “a fake and a bore”? In his book Music for Chameleons, Capote had named some of the people on the list, like Billy Graham, Ralph Nader, Indira Gandhi, Jerry Brown, and Werner Erhard, but was it Jackie O or Richard Nixon at the top?

My mouth went dry, and I whispered to Pauley, “Why don’t you start with how I met Capote?” She caught my fear and when we went live, she introduced me and threw out the softball. Thank you, Jane Pauley!

It all started . . .

On July 16, 1982, when I met Truman for lunch at La Petite Marmite, across the street from where he lived at the UN Plaza, to discuss doing an interview with him. Though I was on time, he had already ordered his food and chuckled when I asked whether I was late or he was early.

I had read everything he had written, and considered him to be one of America’s great living writers.  

Before Capote criticized Norman Mailer for being nothing more than a “rewrite man”—he believed Mailer’s Pulitzer Prize–winning The Executioner’s Song was a rip-off of his own classic, In Cold Blood — Mailer considered him “the most perfect writer of my generation; he writes the best sentences word for word, rhythm upon rhythm.”


The Capote I knew was a more rounded personality than what we’ve seen on FX’s Feud: Capote vs. the Swans, though the man who was considered outrageous, petty, pitiful, and lonely comes through loud and clear. I found it uncomfortable watching how Truman was portrayed — being beaten up by a lover, being isolated by his “swans,” who felt he had betrayed them, talking with his dead mother, who, when he was two, locked him in a hotel room for hours while she went out with her boyfriends. “I would become hysterical because I couldn’t get out of this room,” Truman told me. It wasn’t that these things didn’t happen to Capote, it was that the portrayal seemed unbalanced, and sometimes, tedious.

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Slim Keith considered Capote a genius, something Capote echoed when he said of himself, “I’m an alcoholic. I’m a drug addict. I’m a homosexual. I’m a genius.” I once asked him to define “genius” and he said, “Being able to do something in an exceptional way that nobody else can do.” He did that with Breakfast at Tiffany’s, The Muses are Heard (his favorite book), In Cold Blood, and with the way he insinuated himself into the often humdrum lives of the very rich women married to powerful men who are depicted in Feud. What Capote was going for was a modern version of Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past. He had achieved enormous success with In Cold Blood; with Answered Prayers, he was aiming for immortality.

When I asked James Michener to write a forward to Conversations with Capote, he told me that if Truman finished Answered Prayers, it would very likely be the most remembered book of the last half of the 20th century.

After reading the first two excerpts in Esquire, Michener wrote a note to himself that he included in his foreword: “A shocking betrayal of confidence, an eating at the table and gossiping in the lavatory…. A masterly study in pure bitchiness which will close many doors previously opened. Why did he do it? Has he no sense of responsibility or noblesse oblige? A proctologist’s view of American society. But I am sure that if he can bring off the whole, Answered Prayers will be the roman à clef of my decade, an American Proust-like work which will be judged to have summarized our epoch…. Like Toulouse-Lautrec, he will come to represent his period, and he will be treasured for the masterly way he epitomized it. But only if he can finish his work in high style…only if he masters his subject rather than allowing it to overwhelm him. I hear he’s drinking so much and into drugs so heavily, that the chances of his making it are slim.


Laurence Leamer (Nepal 1965–67), who wrote the book that Feud is based on, told Rolling Stone: “His great creative achievement for a whole decade was pretending he was writing—pretending. He couldn’t do it, so he’s angry. He’s angry at the whole world…. He had his early success, and early success is not a great thing often. He had it too early and too much.”

Writer Malcolm Brinnin thought that, in the end, Capote had become a “mascot for café society.” Truman took exception to that when I brought it up. “I was never that. I had a lot of rich friends. I still have a lot of rich friends. I don’t particularly like rich people. In fact, I have a contempt for most of them. Most rich people I know would be totally lost if they didn’t have their money. That’s why money means so much to them, why they’re so desperate and fixated on the subject, and why they hang together so closely like a bunch of bees in a beehive, because all they really have is their money. If they didn’t have it, they would just about be without anything.”

And it seems that without his swans, Truman was just as lost. Capote said he always thought of himself as a two-headed calf. He told Slim Keith, “I’m a freak. You think I don’t know that? I know how difficult it is for people to adjust to what I look like and how I sound when they first see me. It’s one of the reasons why I’m so outrageous. I don’t think anyone has ever loved me…. I’m an object. I’m a centerpiece, not a figure of love, and I miss that.”

When I asked Truman what he was most scared of, he said, “I don’t like being alone over too long a period of time.” It made me think of the last time I saw him when I drove out to Bridgehampton in the pouring rain to meet him at Bobby Van’s, a restaurant on the main street of the small town. He was there when I arrived a few minutes before noon. He was wearing a red sweatshirt and looked older. Wisps of white hair fell down the back of his large head, and very thin blond hair came to a V on top. The nails on his stubby fingers were long, and he was drinking already, sitting alone at a corner round table that could seat eight. I knew that he had been hospitalized after having an epileptic seizure a few months before, and I said, “It hasn’t been easy for you these last months.”

It was dark when we left the restaurant. “I’m going to let you drive me home,” he said, “but I’m not going to let you in.” First, he asked me to stop at a liquor store, which was closed. He tapped at the store’s window and the owner came and, recognizing who it was, sold him a bottle of vodka. We drove along the stark, flat land, which reminded me of the Kansas plains Capote so well described in In Cold Blood. In Sagaponack, we turned and drove a while, until we came to the two small cottages where he and Jack Dunphy lived.

I waited, my car’s headlights providing a path to his door. I watched as this rotund man with his bottle of vodka tucked under his arm entered his house—this small, brilliant man in the lonely wooden house far out on the edge of Long Island.

Tom Hollander captures this character in Feud but without the humor. There is nothing to laugh at in the series and that’s too bad, because so much of Capote’s charm was his ability to make people laugh. Was he a court jester? His swans and their spouses may have thought so. But he was more than that. He was a writer. And his last choice of subject led to his downfall. If he didn’t realize this when he decided to publish those chapters in Esquire before finishing his book, he knew it by its reception, making the last 10 years of his life a kind of long, slow suicide.

“I made a great mistake by publishing any chapters of the book before I just finished the book,” Truman told me. “Those chapters were very misleading as to what the book is really all about. But I never think about what anybody’s going to think about anything because, otherwise, I would just freeze up.”

And that’s what happened. Capote froze up after seeing how much he had hurt his swans—Babe Paley, Slim Keith, C.Z. Guest, Marella Agnelli, Gloria Vanderbilt, and Lee Radziwill—by turning their gossip into his barely disguised fiction. When I asked Truman if he had ever written about people to their satisfaction, he laughed cynically: “You must know as well as I do that that is an impossibility. It is totally impossible. Unless you’re working for a greeting card company.”


Lawrence Grobel (Ghana 1968-71) has written 31 books and for numerous national magazines and newspapers. Playboy called him “the Interviewer’s Interviewer” after his interview with Marlon Brando for their 25th-anniversary issue. He created the MFA in Professional Writing program for Antioch University in 1977 and in 1985 his book Conversations with Capote received a PEN Special Achievement award and reached the top of several bestseller lists. He is married to artist and textile designer Hiromi Oda and they have two daughters, Maya and Hana.


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  • I do agree with all the ideas you have introduced on your post. They are very convincing and will definitely work. Still, the posts are very short for newbies. May just you please prolong them a little from subsequent time? Thank you for the post.

  • An intriguing article filled with compassion and a surprising lack of judgement about a man who was so often ridiculed but was so talented.

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