WHO’S GOT STYLE? THE “TINY TERROR” TELLS WHO.
Byline: Andre Leon Talley, July 1976
Truman Capote has always been controversial. Even at the age of 5, he began to cause some sort of furor in his own town because he hated church.
“I just refused to go to the Southern white Baptist church because I hated it at that age instinctively. Don’t think I was physically carried to church, because I wasn’t. I was like those people in riots who just slump,” says the pint-sized dynamo, who speaks in a lazy, soft, fluted voice. “I would just slump and there was nothing they could do about it.”
The angelic, blue-eyed, bouncing Capote hasn’t slumped through the last 10 months. He did a 32-city college lecture series, acted in his first film, “Murder by Death” (in which he was murdered by the critics), and survived the publication in Esquire of three chapters from his roman a clef, “Answered Prayers.”
For the book cover, Capote plans to make a jigsaw puzzle of faces of the famous women who are massacred or glorified in “Answered Prayers.” When one figures out the crossword puzzle, one knows who the heroine of “Answered Prayers” is.
Capote also found time to trek across the country with C.Z. Guest to launch her garden primer. And then a serious, 10-day bout with bronchial pneumonia didn’t tie him down.
After weeks of tracking Capote through the streets at the crack of dawn, at Pumphouse Gang luncheons and by phone, he finally relinquishes an entire afternoon in a restaurant one block away from his high-rise East Side apartment. Hardly one of the famous French restaurants in which Capote regularly deposits himself, this is his favorite local hangout, where he unofficially has his own banquette.
“At an early age, I knew the difference between style and no style,” says Capote, as he does a soft-shoe shuffle toward a quiet back table where he will lunch on prosciutto, more ham, asparagus vinaigrette, cheese and ginger ale.
“There was nothing in my background that would make it lean toward any such presumption. My mother was very stylish, but then, I never knew her. She never really had any influence on me. I could instinctively tell if a thing had style even if it was ugly….Style is everything. It really is on a certain level. There is no such thing as a literary artist who is an artist without style. Most of the contemporary writers had style.
“Katherine Anne Porter had style. Willa Cather had great style. Hemingway got lost in his style because he sort of became a a parody of himself. James Baldwin writes very well as an essayist. Gore Vidal has no style at all.
“Because Gore’s books are number one or two on the best-seller list doesn’t mean anything. That’s because he spends half his life on TV. I do give Gore a lot of credit. He is not a bad writer. He’s a good essayist. But he is not an artist. His work does not echo. It has no tone. He writes like something coming out of a machine. The only time he ever showed the slightest bit of style was with the novel ‘Myra Breckinridge.’
“The rest of his work is always copying a sort of cynical Kenneth Roberts. I could scarcely say anything more insulting than that. Roberts wrote highly historical novels during the ’30s. Very Book-of-the-Month Club.
How did Capote develop his artistic style?
“When I was 9 years old, I started writing. Like other children went home and did piano lessons or whatever it is they do, I just wrote. At first, I did it for no particular reason I can think of. Some people have an instinctive feeling for jumping into the water to swim. I had the instinct to write. I got in the habit and suddenly things began to take shape.
“Then I took it seriously. I read an enormous lot. I had limited access to things, living in Alabama, but I managed to get hold of things.”
Capote got around to reading the works of Marcel Proust by 17, but he had read all of Dickens by the age of 12.
“My favorite writer is Gustave Flaubert. It wasn’t so much what he wrote. It is something in the conciseness, the precision of his writing. He had an ear, a whole dedication to style. The total understanding of style was what he really had.”
Concerning Capote’s style in the published chapters of “Answered Prayers,” critics have compared his technique to writers as far apart on the literary pole as Jacqueline Susann and Proust.
“As for the parallels to Jackie Susann that appeared in Time, that shows how absolutely stupid something can be. My book is the exact opposite of Proust. He keeps transposing and changing the characters and sexes in order to write an extraordinary novel about himself. I always wondered what would happen if somebody would do the opposite. Cut all those madeleine-cake associations out,” chuckles Capote while biting into wedge of cheese.
“Proust and I are both accurate in description. For instance, you could never find anything more sensually exact about La Cote Basque than that chapter. It is exact about that kind of restaurant and those kind of people in that period — even down to the scent of the flowers in the room. And at the same time, you are skating right along on the edge of some terrific sensation about people.”
Also like Proust, Capote did a little transposing of some of the characters in “Answered Prayers.”
“What I did do, and I did it on purpose, I used Lady Slim Keith’s wardrobe for Lady Coolbirth. I thought Slim would enjoy the irony of it. She would have, had all those would-be friends loved it. I used certain physical gestures and mannerisms and then inserted into the character a woman who happens to be her worst enemy. She knows that. I wrote her a letter and told her so.”
At this moment, a man interrupts to offer Capote a complimentary cordial since the maitre d’ told him he is occupying the so-called Capote banquette. Then, an advertising executive comes over and asks for an autograph for his daughter, who is an English literature major.
“Oh, if we had sat up front, this would have happened at least 20 times,” whispers Capote, his breath scented with ginger ale.
Capote copes with constant requests for autographs, but he doesn’t ponder his own fame.
“Fame, what is fame? People who are famous in this country are often unfamous elsewhere. It’s all because of television. Johnny Carson is famous here, but the moment he steps off the plane in Paris nobody knows who he is.
“About 15 people would know who Babe Paley is in Teheran. I know Teheran quite well, so I can say that. Outside of fashion, nobody knows who Babe Paley is either. Halston is like Coca-Cola. He himself personally isn’t famous. He is just a name. He is selling his name like a product. Coca-Cola is a name! Andy Warhol is just a name.
“Warhol never even signed his own pictures. His mother signed them. I think he works hard as one of the greatest publicity agents that ever lived. He turns out these paintings done on Polaroid pictures and he runs to every party.
“I’ve known Warhol longer than anybody in New York. He does have talent, but he manages to surround himself with the great exploitation teams of all times. In a way, his life is ideal, although I think it’s a sheer horror. He got what he wanted. To be famous.”