Plimpton's 'Capote': The talk never ends

"Truman Capote: In Which Various Friends, Enemies, Acquaintances, and Detractors Recall His Turbulent Career," by George Plimpton. Talese/Doubleday. Illustrated. 498 pages. $35.

OK, so remarks aren't literature. Still, had Gertrude Stein encountered the literary techniques of George Plimpton, she might have amended that famous bon mot once lobbed to Ernest Hemingway. Remarks are, in fact, biography. Or at least they are when choreographed by the old-pro writer, Paris Review editor, commercial pitchman, actor and literary personage-about-town whose concept of "participatory journalism" is to round up a parade of fellow personages and get them jawing.


Plimpton has put the technique to good use before: His "Edie: An American Biography" (produced in collaboration with Jean Stein), about the late American blueblood/downtown denizen Edie Sedgwick, was the right book at the right time to capture the skanky lure and shallow, tatty glamour of the Andy Warhol crowd.

Words were the least of Sedgwick's assets (a state of affairs that only adds to the crummy poignancy of Edie). Ah, but Truman Capote, now, Capote lived by the mot; in his weird, bantamweight voice, he literally sang for his supper. Which is what makes "Truman Capote" such a fascinating, cautionary, sad, entertaining piece of tit-for-tat: Here, the swells, low-lifes, snobs and competitors Truman Capote sang for - 120 of them gathered here - warble back, in raucous chorus.


Capote was, at least before he declined into a state of pickled self-caricature, an astonishing writer with a sure sense of style; reread "Other Voices, Other Rooms" or "Breakfast at Tiffany's" for a dose of his South-meets-the New Yorker lyricism. ("He had a lovely poetic ear," allowed Norman Mailer. "He did not have a good mind. I don't know if there was ever a large idea that bothered him for one minute.") For a time he was even an important writer, having gone to Kansas to investigate some small-town murders and emerged six years later with "In Cold Blood," his sui generis "non-fiction novel."

But Capote was known as much for the theatricality of his life as for his art. His legendary 1966 black-and-white ball at New York's Plaza Hotel was a defining moment in modern high-society life, ++ as vivid as a chapter out of Edith Wharton. The small, dandyish, baby-faced raconteur with the pale blond hair and fancy wardrobe lived to regale, to monologize, to amuse and charm. He also, self-destructively, was hellbent on outraging.

At his peak, he won over rich and bored Beautiful People with his stories and lies; at his rock bottom, after he betrayed those rich friends by writing down their secrets and publishing them, he was seen as a monster - and eventually a drug-addled drunk, who died, dissipated, and not quite 60 years old, in 1984. "There was something Proustianly sad about him, having changed so much," said pianist and writer Robert Fizdale.

"Truman Capote" is not nearly as deep or thorough as Gerald Clarke's excellent 1988 literary biography. But it fits, it fits the man. "It's almost as if he had no shadow. ... I cannot think of one funny thing that Truman ever said," announced jewelry designer Kenneth Jay Lane. And yet they can't stop talking about him. Which is just as he would have wanted it.

Lisa Schwarzbaum, a critic at Entertainment Weekly, was previously a feature writer at the New York Daily News and has worked for the Boston Globe and the Real Paper.

Pub Date: 12/28/97