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Why Did Truman Capote Write Answered Prayers?
Department of Psychology
Forest Grove, Oregon 97116(Manuscript under review.)
It would be Truman Capote’s fate–a fate he did his best to assure–to be remembered more for a book he did not write than for the many wonderful books he did. With Answered Prayers, his mysteriously unfinished “Proustian masterpiece,” a would-be skewering of society’s jet set, Capote in his later years launched a kind of campaign on behalf of his own genius. He talked the book up endlessly in interviews and on television. He threatened dreadful disclosures, scandalous revelations sure to destroy the lives of his subjects, the terrifically rich and famous. And as if that weren’t enough, Capote promised even more–a whole new style of writing, a unique method for capturing reality. If Capote once had remarked that he carried a whip for self-flagellation, then perhaps with Answered Prayers his foremost hope was to whip his flagging facility, defenestrated by drugs and alcohol, into action.
As it happened, the book–which Capote once estimated at triple the length of all his previous books combined–was more idea, more boast than reality. It never materialized, at least not in book form. Many wondered whether it ever really existed. Some say Capote dropped the work altogether. Some say he burned it. Some claim to have read large portions of it. Some recall Capote carrying around a manuscript several inches high, wrapped in a paper bag. Some, having riffled through the famous pages, report finding only a “Missouri bankroll,” three pages of typewriting with the remainder absolutely blank. And some, most notably Capote’s dear friend Joanne Carson, in whose arms he died, contend the book lies in a safe deposit box somewhere. Carson claims to know of a key, but a key, alas, with no number on it (for these and additional theories, see Plimpton, 1997, 436-51).Answered Prayers, then, turns out to be something of a literary sasquatch, a psychic vibration or magnetic field. It exists according to one’s capacity to believe in it, or in proportion to the wish that it might exist.
All that can be reliably known about Answered Prayers, apart from the assorted threats made by Capote, derives from the several installments Capote had published in Esquiremagazine (1975-76) as excerpts from a dreadfully anticipated work-in-progress. “La Cote Basque, 1965” introduces readers to the “Hershey bar whore” P.B. Jones sampling spoonfuls of gossip served up by his lady companion, Lady Ina Coolbirth. In “Kate McCloud” we meet the title’s heroine, a selenian goddess with a kidnapped son who hires her masseur as a paid companion. Finally, in “Unspoiled Monsters,” the most substantial segment of the work by far, resembling in some respects the outline of something even larger, we pick up much of the backstory, “Jonesey’s” bio (which sounds in many ways like Truman’s). A torrent of names gets dropped as the narrator-masseur-literary-wanna-be traverses the sexier and more opulent corners of the globe. All told, these three intimations of what was to come reach around 200 pages, hardly what Capote kept insisting he had in mind. Still, in other ways it was much more than enough. Capote’s “sitters” (as he called his subjects) were floored, and the response, as they say, was swift and brutal.
Liz Smith: “Never have you heard such gnashing of teeth, such cries for revenge, such shouts of betrayal and screams of outrage” (Clarke, 469). Nedda Logan, wife of director Josh Logan: “That dirty little toad is never coming to my parties again” (469). New York Magazine: “Capote Bites the Hands That Fed Him” (468). Tennessee Williams: “shockingly repugnant and thoroughly libelous” (489). Katherine Anne Porter: “unspeakably hideous. . . [Capote’s] life has turned to a kind of poison that he’s spitting out all over the world” (490). One “sitter,” Ann Woodward, featured at length in one of “La Cote Basque’s” more scandalous asides, is said to have swallowed a fatal dose of Seconal (she had been depressed for some time) after having gotten her hands on an advance copy (see Clarke, 467).
What was all the commotion about precisely? What liberated such fury? It’s hard to convey a sense of the sweep of these installments to those not already acquainted with them, or to a public which by now finds itself so inured to scandal. Capote spilled all his carefully hoarded confidences, chock full of the kind of minute detail his famously prodigious memory preserved. The work has been called a roman a clef, but that isn’t wholly accurate. Capote often dispensed with concealments altogether. As he explained to Gerald Grobel, “All the characters were real. Answered Prayers is not. . . a form where facts are disguised as fiction. My intentions are the reverse–to remove disguises, not manufacture them” (1995, 199-200). Sometimes Capote saw fit to use pseudonyms. Other times he apparently felt no need. Cole Porter unzips a “stud wine steward.” Salinger “must be a boy who cries very easily,” both brilliant and “just silly.” Jackie Kennedy is not so much a bona fide woman as “an artful female impersonator impersonating Mrs. Kennedy.” The Kennedy men are “like dogs”–“they have to pee on every fire hydrant.” Johnny Carson, “midnight TV clown/hero,” is a “sadist” behind a “huckleberry grin.” Faulkner is “Lolita-minded,” Sartre “wall-eyed, pipe-sucking, pasty-hued,” Koestler an “aggressive runt,” Toklas a “mustachioed spider,” Stein a “big-bellied show off.” Socialites, TV executives, Governors, heiresses, literary agents and editors, actresses, singers–all their secret stories get told too, down to the last bathetic embarrassment, usually with only the most superficial “anonymity.” Although Capote claimed he never expected so many people to find themselves in his prose, he couldn’t have been entirely sincere. His sitters knew who they were, and they all shut him out of their lives forthwith.
The nagging question, for those who cared about Capote, and even for those who now despised him, was why. Why did he do it? What precipitated such viciousness, such brutality, such betrayal? Slim Keith, likely the model for Capote’s malicious mouthpiece Lady Ina Coolbirth, expresses the general sentiment: “What I didn’t understand, to this day, is what sort of thinking brings a person to that point and to do something like that. . . It was unjust and dreadful to put those words in my mouth. . . I had adored him, and I was so appalled by the use of friendship and my own bad judgment. . . After La Cote Basque I looked on Truman as a friend who had died, and we never spoke again. I took the cleaver and chopped him out of my life. And that was it” (Plimpton, 1997, 348 & Clarke, 1988, 469, 473).
In the following I want to survey Capote’s possible motives for “frying the fancier fish,” as Norman Mailer once felicitously put it. But first, some detail about Capote’s sense of the work–his stated aims, the process of writing it, its psychological importance–seems in order, if only to show how Answered Prayers meant quite a lot to Capote, and became, in innumerable ways, uniquely consuming.
Constructing the Gun
Capote had long contemplated a Proustian work about the rich and powerful, at least as soon as he found himself admitted into their company. A sketch began to form in Greece, somewhere around 1958. To Bennett Cerf he called the work “a large novel, my magnum opus” (Clarke, 309). It was, moreover, “a book about which I must be very silent, so as not to alarm my ‘sitters,’ and which I think will really arouse you when I outline it (only you must never mention it to a soul). The novel is called ‘Answered Prayers.’ And, if all goes well, I think it will answer mine” (309). So Capote recognized the book as a furtive undertaking from the start. He knew it would shock, if not injure. Already he begins to name some of the names whose stories he plans to tell–Ann Woodward (a former showgirl who claimed to have accidentally shot and killed her rich husband, mistaking him for an intruder), C.Z. Guest, the Duchess of Windsor, Elsa Maxwell, and two heiresses, Rosie Chisholm and Thelma Foy. He speaks of laboring on “some dreadful treadmill of having to do dollar-making articles,” then declares to Newton Arvin, “I have a novel, something on a large and serious scale, that pursues me like a crazy wind. How did I ever work myself into this cul-de-sac?” (310-311).
Prescient remarks, coming as early as 1958, almost 20 years before the appearance of La Cote Basque, 1965. Apparently he projected 8 chapters, spoke of 800 pages, then 600, then 300, then two volumes of 400 pages each. In the early 80s he tells Grobel, “We’ll have to wait and see. I really mean that, because I don’t know myself till I see what the whole thing’s about. . . I don’t want to think about it or discuss it. I’m tired of that subject” (1988, 206). Does he expect the book to win him awards? “No, no. I’m the last person in the world. And especially Answered Prayers would kill my last chances in the world of ever winning anything. Except, perhaps, twenty years in jail” (206).
Jokes aside, Capote was aiming high, and the book was anything but dismissable. For one thing, he worked on it for roughly 25 years, picking it up, putting it aside, sharpening it, cutting it, continuously re-imagining it. It was a task he worried endlessly. The work eventually became a barometer of his level of artistry. In the preface to Music for Chameleons, a brief review of his career, Capote reveals that he stopped work on Answered Prayers in September 1977, not because of reaction to the published excerpts–a claim some would contest–but because he was suffering a “creative crisis” (see Capote, 1980, xiv-xv). This was no ordinary crisis, either. Says Capote, “it altered my entire comprehension of writing, my attitude toward art and life and the balance between the two, and my understanding of the difference between what is true and what is really true” (xv). He re-read every word he’d ever published, and found that he had never “exploded” the material’s energy and “esthetic excitements.” He was “never working with more than half, sometimes only a third, of the powers at my command” (xv). The problem needed to be solved, he figured, or else he may as well quit writing altogether. But the task before him seemed almost impossible–“How can a writer successfully combine within a single form all he knows about every other form of writing?”
In time he made his way, simultaneously bringing to bear everything he knew about writing, all he had learned from film scripts, plays, reportage, poetry, the short story, novellas, and the novel. The writing of this book and the crisis it engendered clearly altered Capote’s conception and practice of his art. All shocking contents aside, Answered Prayersassumed a higher, more personally significant importance for Capote. It represented the most perfect realization of his genius. Knowing as much makes some of his statements about the book sound a little less hyperbolic. For example, on different occasions he had said, “What I’m writing is true, it’s real, and it’s done in the very best prose style that I think any American writer could possibly achieve. That’s all my claim is, but it’s a pretty high claim.” Or, “my whole life has been spent developing the technique, the style, the nerve to write this thing. It is the raison d’etre of my entire life” (Clarke, 491).
The book was also psychologically demanding. Capote thought about it all the time, calling it an obsession. Because of its density and intensity, “you can only work on it for a certain length of time without becoming quite a nervous wreck” (Grobel, 204). Joanne Carson’s observation is maybe most to the point. “He always said this would be the last book he would ever write,” she recalls. “It was by far his most difficult. He was letting his barriers down in this book and writing from his heart and soul” (Grobel, 201). Maybe as a result, his drug and alcohol use increased, to such a point that much of the book was written in a semi-daze, the quality growing more and more uneven. Cocaine in particular fueled large parts of Answered Prayers, Capote reveals, but he wearied of its use and stopped it altogether when he found it made him too physically nervous to write (Grobel, 221).
Last but not least from a psychological standpoint is the question of how the reaction to Answered Prayers–those published excerpts–affected Capote. There are two possible answers, one provided by Capote–and exceedingly suspect–the other provided by those who observed a definite change first-hand. Capote, for his part, seems to want to appear unfazed, the artist answerable only to the art. “When I’m writing something,” he says, “I truly cannot think about what anybody’s reaction to it is. . . I mean, I don’t think about it. I truly don’t.” He cites a talent for denial–“I have a way of blocking things completely out of my mind and I have had since I was a child. . . It’s just as though I took some kind of magical pill or something, but I just drop it completely out of my mind” (Grobel, 203).
Others paint a less flattering picture. Liz Smith says, “He seemed as if he was going all to pieces” (Plimpton, 345). The writer John Knowles recalls, “He was completely unstrung” (Plimpton, 347). Kate Harrington, the daughter of one of Capote’s lovers and a frequent guest in Capote’s home, observes, “It was tragic. It was so sad. . . He went into a colossal depression” (Plimpton, 355). She recalls answering the phone for him on the rare occasions when it still rang, and how he rarely got out of bed, never opened the blinds, how he’d cry, how he never truly picked up again “except for a few blips of pulling himself together.” It seems “for two years he sort of went on, but it was never the same. He went heavily into the drinking and drugging. . . It was as if there had been a death in the family” (355). So much for the magical pill of denial. It may have done the job before, but not this time.
Plainly with Answered Prayers Capote was up to much more than tattling on trillionaires and their trophy wives. He had reached a point in his life as an artist where, for what must have been a variety of reasons, he found his earlier work somehow unrealized. It all came too easily. He grew bored with his facility. Like others before him–one thinks of Picasso, Pollock, Plath, Agee, even Kerouac–Capote was searching for a different way to capture experience, a way allowing him to express himself more fully than ever before. The literary archivist Andreas Brown takes a similar position–“A considerable school of thought in contemporary American criticism at the time concluded that American creative writing had become stagnated–stuck in a kind of groove–and that there hadn’t been any breakthroughs in style or concept. There was a lot being written about that. . . , and Capote seemed to latch on to that. He was very sensitive to the idea of making a significant stylistic breakthrough” (Plimpton, 1997, 438).
From this angle, at least, content assumes a secondary role. Capote’s chief concern was with form. Yet the subject he chose–a sprawling geography dotted with desultory characters (real and imagined) ricocheting in and out of one another’s lives, from one continent to another–called forth all his skills as reporter, social critic, novelist, poet, and storyteller. Form and content found a happy alliance, in other words. Capote must have sensed that on some level. He was obsessed. Everything had been leading to this artistic moment–then came the fallout which, despite what he says, sent Capote into a tailspin. In retrospect he would claim that he regretted publishing the notorious excerpts because “they were very misleading as to what the book is really all about” (Grobel, 1985, 200). That much is true. The book was about Capote achieving the highest possible perfection of his art. After Esquire, it came across more like a glorified gossip column.
Firing the Bullet
Like everything we do, the making of art must happen for a combination of concerted or competing reasons. One thing Capote hoped to get out of Answered Prayers was a fresh understanding of his medium. The book was to be his swan song, the summation of a creative life. But in all likelihood, Capote also wanted something else from the enterprise. And it is precisely this “something else” which continues to puzzle his friends, biographers, and fellow writers. Why did Capote choose such incendiary content to wrap his experimental form around? Or more simply, why did he bite the hands that fed him?
Since his death in 1984, almost everyone who cared about Capote or made him the subject of scholarly investigation has felt obliged to weigh in on the question of Answered Prayers. A body of opinion now exists. And each opinion carries the provisional status of a hypothesis, subject to testing. It may be that none of these provisional hypotheses make very much sense. Or it may be that some make better sense than others. Perhaps one, and one alone, will turn out on analysis to be exclusively correct. Whatever the case may be, I propose taking each in turn. The list to follow is not necessarily complete. I may have omitted an opinion or two. But the following certainly represents a good start and, with a future addition or two, a fair summary of present thinking on the subject.
1. Answered Prayers as a self-destructive act. If we add to it artistic aims, this might express Capote’s own opinion about the book’s motives vis-a-vis content. While he doesn’t offer it outright, he does put it in the mouth of the character who seems clearly to represent him, the book’s narrator P.B. Jones (for a list of the similarities between Jones and Capote, see Clarke, 1988, 485. About these similarities, Capote replied, “P.B. isn’t me, but he isn’t not me. His background is totally different from mine [obviously not true, in Clarke’s and my view], but I can identify with it psychologically. I’m not P.B., but I know him very well,” 485). Jones says, “I keep thinking that maybe, if I change most of the names, I could publish this [notebook] as a novel [as it turns out, the character Jones does later publish a book called Answered Prayers]. Hell, I’ve got nothing to lose. Of course, a couple of people might try to kill me, but I’d consider that a favor” (Capote, 1988, 13). As noted before, Capote himself also felt the book would kill his chances of ever winning anything in terms of literary prizes. He foresaw lawsuits and, half-jokingly, jail time.
George Page, Capote’s friend, sees things in a similar light–“It dawned on me that his publishing those excerpts was a very self-destructive act and that I think he knew it. When he was sober he took a sort of impish glee in what was about to happen. I really believe that he knew he had thrown a bombshell that was going to change his life. . . It knocked him for the most part right off his extraordinary social pedestal” (Plimpton, 1997, 341). Author William Styron agrees–“It was disastrous. And to me, inexplicable. Writers don’t have to destroy their friendships with people in order to write. It seemed to me an act of willful destruction” (343). Finally, Joan Axelrod, wife of George, the producer of Breakfast at Tiffany’s–“He hated himself, so I think he wanted everyone else to have the same opinion he had of himself. . . Writing’s a profession that attracts so many self-destructive people. . . then they all have the fear that they didn’t deserve the success to begin with. That was a huge part of Truman’s thing” (410).
Capote apparently saw two different psychoanalysts in late 1976, in part because of his difficulty finishing the book, a project he was beginning to suspect he did not want to finish because “finishing is like dying. I would have to start my life over again” (Clarke, 1988, 499). In this fraught context, one analyst bluntly declared–“I think that you are going to kill yourself. It’s the number one thing on your mind” (499). Capote says he knew it was true. He thought immediately of his loaded .38 and his stash of Tuinal, enough to kill “fifteen people!” In the end, it was suicide by a kind of indirection. The combination of drugs and alcohol threatened to stop his heart. His doctors pleaded with him. So did his friends. Capote said, “Let me go. I just want to go” (417).
2. Answered Prayers as an act of vengeance. In its way, #2 is the counterpart, the obverse of #1, just as sadism complements masochism. In fact, the two hypotheses really could be blended into one for the reason that, psychodynamically, they derive from an identical root, the urge to destroy self or other. Such urges were with Capote from the start. He was abandoned by his parents early on (more on that later), and the resultant anger bubbled up immediately, never entirely leaving him. Attack may have been his first instinct. Its opposite, expressing love, never met with much success.
Several times Capote told the story of what he claimed to be his first publication, “Mrs. Busybody.” Since this little tale, written when Capote was just 10, suggests impulses fuelingAnswered Prayers as well, I quote at length.
“I made a terrible mistake when I was about ten years old. The Mobile-Register had a contest for readers to submit something that they had written and I took a whole lot of my journal, which was absolutely, literally true, about Mr. and Mrs. Lee, Harper Lee’s mother and father, who lived very near. . . [and] I wrote something called ‘Mrs. Busybody’ about Mrs. Lee and I sent it to the Mobile-Register. I won second prize and they printed the whole thing and it was just ghastly. It was sort of like when I began publishing those chapters of Answered Prayers and everybody was so upset. Well, they were very upset in Alabama. . . People started to whisper about me. I’d walk down the street and people on their front porches would pause, fanning for a moment. . . I was a little hesitant about showing anything after that. I remember I said, ‘Oh, I don’t know why I did that, I’ve given up writing.’ But I was writing more fiercely than ever” (Grobel, 1985, 53-54).
So Answered Prayers just recapitulates, on a grander scale, Capote’s first writing experience. He used words as weapons, people on their porches whispered, he thought about giving up, but then got even fiercer. It seems hard to deny, but according to someone who ought to know, Eugene Walter, a writer born and raised in Mobile, it’s mostly a lie. Capote did write the piece, Walter says, but it was stopped from publication by Capote’s aunt when she realized that it concerned, not Mrs. Lee, but an eccentric next door neighbor. “Truman pretended all of his life that ‘Old Mrs. Busybody’ had been published. . . He liked the joke. . . But it was never published. . . There are people working on their doctorates, or whatever, searching the files of the Mobile Press-Register to this day” (Plimpton, 1997, 16).
This all seems especially significant. If Capote did fib or embellish, the details he chose (knowingly or not) to alter suggest certain psychological conclusions. He invented the source for the character Mrs. Busybody–turned her into a target who happened also to be famous. And he invented the reaction to the imaginary publication. It provoked whispers of disapproval. It got everybody’s attention. It singled the young Truman out as someone to be feared. And, as he also said, it led to short-lived self-doubt which rapidly transformed itself into urgent resolve. Capote in telling this lie retrospectively projects motives and outcomes which, in all likelihood, apply more to the present than the past. When we make up stories or falsely recall incidents, we do so not out of whole cloth, but out of current concerns. In this instance, the concerns determining the details of Capote’s fictional memory may derive, it seems fair to speculate, from Answered Prayers. But one thing Capote evidently did not imagine. He wrote the story. He just never published it. So the fact that he culled literal truths about people from journals and then turned those truths into a kind of art was a practice present from the start, and it could have served a similar aim in both “Busybody” and Answered Prayers, Capote’s first and last works–the expression of hostility.
Gerald Clarke, Capote’s biographer, thinks so. He doesn’t get into the “Busybody” affair, but as for Answered Prayers, he sees that as a sort of “hit list.” Ann Woodward supposedly had called Capote a “fag.” Josh and Nedda Logan, also named in the book, once had sabatoged one of Capote’s pieces for the New Yorker. And Bill Paley’s inexplicable failure was to not suitably appreciate his glorious wife, Babe (465-467). In fact, Capote is on record openly attacking almost all of the book’s named subjects, including Gertrude Stein, Sartre, Salinger, Faulkner, Sammy Davis Jr., Jackie Kennedy Onassis, and others (see, for instance, the delightfully wicked comments in Grobel, 1985). If he could be vicious in real life–Women’s Wear Daily christened him “The Tiny Terror”–then he could also be vicious in his work. The rapier-like put down drolly delivered was one of his trademarks and goes a long way towards explaining Capote’s arch popularity on talk shows and in the press.
The writer Judy Green adds a subtle spin to the vengeance hypothesis. She sees Answered Prayers as a virulant attack, but against the men, not the women. “He really loathed the men and adored the women. . . I think, in his warped way, he was trying to say, ‘I understand how awful it’s been for you [the women]. I’m your only friend, I’m your savior’. . . That’s basically what he wanted to convey–almost an offering, an obeisance to them. . . Of course, the men he decried were all macho, the complete opposite of Truman” (Plimpton, 1997, 349). But this seems like a highly selective reading. It might be true in a kind of mathematical sense–maybe more men than women do get singled out for attack–yet both women and decidedly un-macho, gay men get their fair share of abuse too. Comments like “Women are like rattlesnakes–the last thing that dies is their tail. Some women, all their lives, will put up with anything for a fuck” or “Women are like flies–they settle on sugar or shit” are hard to read as protective assertions of sympathy. And the book is full of gay characters, many of whom come across as petulant, pathetic schemers and liars or talking dildos. One such figure, whom Capote called “Boaty” (an “extraordinarily unpleasant” fictional duplicate of magazine editor George Davis, according to Clarke, 90), gets “beaten to death in his mahogany house by a heroin-crazed Puerto Rican hustler who left him with both eyeballs unhinged and dangling down his cheeks” (14). If Capote’s fangs dripped poison, then he was an equal opportunity rattler. He didn’t believe in scapegoats.
3. Answered Prayers as bridge burning bid for independence. This view deserves respect if only because it is ventured by Norman Mailer, who despite their disagreements (Capote always felt Mailer didn’t pay sufficient respects to In Cold Blood when he published The Executioner’s Song), probably knew Capote as well as anyone. Mailer says, “he had to feel that his social life was swallowing him. Because the warmth, the entertainment, the humor, the creativity he brought to his relations with all these people had to have its reverse side, which is that he’d slowly get to hate them more and more because they swallowed his talent” (Plimpton, 1997, 444). Mailer thinks Capote was of two minds. He felt he had to burn his bridges, and he felt that the burning, far from injuring him socially, would only increase his power. It’s hard to imagine given the simple amount of time Capote spent with the rich, but he claims not to have liked them. “I have a kind of contempt for most of them. I’d say most rich people I know would really be totally lost more than any other kind of person I can think of if they didn’t have their money. . . If they didn’t have it, they would just be without absolutely anything” (Grobel, 1985, 208). As for bridge burning specifically, Capote doesn’t deny the possibility–far from it. Those who believed themselves betrayed had not been wrong, he says. “They assumed that I was living by their values. Which I never was. It’s as though, by writing that, I was saying to them, ‘Everything you lived for, everything you did, is a lot of shit.’ Which is true! I was saying that” (Clarke, 1988, 492).
Answered Prayers liberated Capote, no question about it. But as for increasing his power, that is another story. Mailer in fact perceives a double miscalculation in the sense that Capote’s aims produced effects he could not handle. “He didn’t understand the true social force of New York. . . That certain things he wrote could not be forgiven. But then he also misjudged his own resources. He did not have the stuff left to say ‘A plague on your house’ and write the book he could write. That book had probably died in him ten years earlier” (Plimpton, 1997, 444).
So to Mailer, Capote needed to reject his subjects–remove all impediments–before he could feel sufficiently disengaged to write the book. Severing the connection increased the internal pressure. He couldn’t allow himself to be eighty-sixed for nothing. He could allow himself to be eighty-sixed if it meant the creation of a masterpiece. It’s as though he were saying, Now I have no choice. But what Capote discovered, in Mailer’s view, is that he didn’t have the goods when the time was right.
4. Answered Prayers as indictment of lifestyle. This is a rather ingenious notion advanced by literary archivist Andreas Brown. It is, like the two to follow, a step up in terms of complexity from the motives considered thus far. It would also, if operative, appear to be working relatively unconsciously. That fact alone doesn’t make the case weaker. It just tells us we have to look beyond Capote’s own words for support.
Capote’s mother Nina (Lillie Mae) swallowed a fatal dose of Seconal in January 1954. To all who knew her or knew of her she had been something of a larger than life figure. She was apparently beautiful, ambitious, glamorous, but very much a social climber whose design it was to find a rich man, achieve an elegant lifestyle, and be accepted by Cafe Society. All this she did, in a sense. But as Brown explains, “Though her dream had come true, she was still vigorously pursuing it, as some people do” (Plimpton, 1997, 114). Then ruin came. Her husband, Joe Capote, was caught stealing cash to support a serious gambling habit, and it looked like the federal government would move to indict. “The anticipation of this terrible disgrace to Truman’s mother was evidently more than she could bear. . . In effect, her obsession with being accepted by [society], her addiction to their lifestyle, is in all probability what destroyed her and in turn her husband” (114).
Brown says these circumstances provide Capote’s motivation for writing Answered Prayers. Though there must have been many reasons why Nina took her life, Capote zeros in on one–her social disgrace. She was “addicted” to being accepted by the rich, and the failure of her life’s project destroyed her. “‘Somebody killed my mother.’ That would be the question [Capote] must have asked himself almost on an unconscious level. So he had to be filled with bitterness and a need for retribution, or at least some kind of redirection of those anxieties and those angers and frustrations. And I think he channeled it into Answered Prayers,” says Brown.
Capote’s relationship with his mother was intensely ambivalent. As I said, she abandoned him–to aggressively pursue the lifestyle Brown thinks killed her–and so there might have been some resentment, though Capote rarely expressed any. On the other hand, as difficult as she could be, many feel Capote adored his mother. To Brown, her suicide “was so devastating to Truman that it became an obsession, a focal point in his life” (113-114). Likewise, according to Phoebe Pierce Vreeland, who knew Nina well, “Like a crack in the foundation of a house that is not apparent, that whole thing of Nina’s suicide affected Truman. I think it was central. . . He’d been in a way responsible for Nina and failed. In many ways Truman was the parent and she was the child” (112).
The chronology offers some support. In the wake of Nina’s death Capote made his very first plans for the “great Proustian novel.” The obsession that was Nina’s suicide, and the need to assign blame, transformed itself into the equally obsessing Answered Prayers, a book Capote could not let go. If retribution provided the unconsciously driving energy, then the heedlessness of the project and Capote’s obliviousness of its viciousness seems less puzzling. He liked to complain that those who attacked him for the book’s content always seemed to misunderstand what the book was truly about. Maybe unconsciously, revenge for his mother’s suicide was the mysterious X factor. Maybe that was what nobody understood.
5. Answered Prayers as disguised attack on Nina. Like #2 complements #1, in the same way #5 can be said to complement #4. Capote may have attacked society for fomenting his mother’s suicide, but simultaneously, and just as unconsciously, he may have attacked his mother too, someone he had ample justification for attacking. Nina was not a mother in the sense one ordinarily understands the word. She really could not have cared less for Capote. Vreeland says, “She was the only mother I met who was not a mother kind of mother at all. She was lovely to Truman at one point and terrible the next, so he was constantly ricocheting. She’d insult him in front of people. You never knew what she was going to do next and that is not any fun to live with” (Plimpton, 1997, 30). Jack Dunphy, Capote’s longtime lover, makes no effort to hide his disgust. “She was forever trying to make him over, make a man of him. . . It was the commencement of her life-long determination to dominate a spirit she no more understood than she did the turnings of the moon. . . She would have liked to sit on him and smother him. . . She did not really want him, and never had. . . I disliked her intensely. . . He did not love her, but he wanted her to love him” (Dunphy, 1987, 124-125). Moreover, Capote once confessed how “he had almost pushed her out of the window of the Park Avenue apartment once when she was drunk. He never said he hated her, but he did all the same. He despised and feared her somewhat as well” (124).
Capote collected “swans,” women he saw as “extremely attractive, alert, and au courant,” with “qualities of style and appearance and amusing good sense beyond the point of easy youthful beguilement” (Capote, 1972, 408). He sought to become their counselor and confidant. He includes on his list Babe Paley, Gloria Guinness, Lee Radziwill, Oona Chaplin, Slim Keith, and C.Z. Guest, among others. These swans, devastatingly beautiful women who embodied style and whose attentions Capote coveted, also happen to be counted amongst the unlucky who find themselves skewered in Answered Prayers. Babe Paley and Slim Keith never spoke to Capote again (although others, like C.Z. Guest, did). He cherished his swans and, at least in Babe Paley’s case, really did seem to love some of them, but he was not reluctant to–in their minds–destroy them in print. It must have been a fraught complex of feelings Capote had. He pursued, adored, but also despised and feared them. They seemed to enjoy his company, this little pocket Merlin, but as Radziwill keeps repeating, Capote failed to see that they treated him like a toy.
What is most striking about all this is how the details of his relations with these women uncannily mirror the details of Capote’s relations with Nina. Nina may have been Capote’s first swan. Like the others, she was evidently darling, charming, original, exotic, extremely sexually attractive, beautifully dressed, beautifully mannered, and possessed a great feeling for style (see for these and other descriptions of Nina, Plimpton, 1997, 28-32). Capote himself calls her “very intelligent and very, very beautiful” (Grobel, 1985, 49). Vreeland says, “Perhaps her death paved the way for Babe Paley and so forth. I hate pop psychology. I don’t think he was looking for a mother. I don’t know what he was looking for. Some woman, somebody glamorous, somebody wonderful, somebody perfect” (Plimpton, 112).
In this scenario, the swans comprise an unusually saturated signifier for Capote. In Answered Prayers he partly protected them, like Judy Green asserts (see #2), by attacking their undeserving and ungrateful men. He may also have defended his mother Nina by destroying the tony jet-set he believed had destroyed her. But he injured the swans too, many of whom never forgave him. If the swans were his mother, a kind of surrogate collective, then in disposing of them he succeeded at last in pushing his mother out the window, but with this added benefit–he protects her memory and excercises his scorn, simultaneously.
There may be a precedent for this dynamic in Capote’s earliest fiction. In many ways the most successful short story Capote ever wrote was one of his first, “Miriam” (published in Capote’s Trilogy, 1969). It is a piece that continues to enjoy almost universal admiration, with a Hawthorne-like eerieness and other-worldliness. The tale concerns a mysteriously motherless little girl who enters then promptly destroys the life of a 61 year-old widow, Mrs. H.T. Miller. As Capote was to explain much later, the girl, in his interpretation, doesn’t really exist. The old woman essentially hallucinates her, and in so doing precipitates her own descent into madness. I can imagine a different reading, not necessarily contradictory. Miriam is Capote, and Mrs. Miller is his mother. It sounds pat, but it seems to work. First of all, Miriam is peculiarly motherless, like Capote was as a child. And as Mrs. Miller observes more than once, Miriam’s mother, whoever she may be, must care little for her, especially in light of the fact that Miriam arrives at the old woman’s home at all hours of the night. “Your mother must be insane. . . She must be out of her mind,” the widow exclaims. Of course, as a child Capote experienced a similarly unchaperoned freedom. His mother never knew where he was because she was never around.
Miriam’s hair is “absolutely silver-white, like an albinos.” Truman’s hair was “snow white,” he was a “tiny towhead pretty enough to be a girl” (see Clarke, 1988, 22). Miriam dressed with a special tailored elegance. Truman’s mother “dressed him too well. . . and made him as conspicuous as Little Lord Fauntleroy” (22). In fact, Capote’s cousin Sook often made him up like a girl, “putting a bonnet on his head [Miriam wore a beret], wrapping a feathered boa around his neck, and fitting his feet into embroidered slippers” (Grobel, 1985, 59). Miriam had a large vocabulary for such a small child, throwing around words like “moderately.” Capote did too, by all accounts. And Miriam’s strange exoticism mirrors Capote’s. Both seemed spookily un-childlike, possessed of a luminous ethereality. In one of the story’s first scenes, the moment when Miriam meets Mrs. Miller, the two attend a movie. One of Truman’s teachers got in the habit of walking him home from school, stopping along the way at a theater (Clarke, 44).
As the plot advances, Miriam grows more and more irrepressible. She moves into the widow’s room–sternly telling her “I’ve come to live with you”–steals her precious cameo brooch and hurls a vase filled with paper roses to the floor, then instructs Mrs. Miller to “kiss me good night” (the woman musters just enough strength to decline). The tale ends obscurely. The widow seems hopeless and bleary, while Miriam remains, eluding a neighbor’s apparent pursuit. We aren’t sure what the future may bring, though we expect the worst. The widow is under Miriam’s thumb.
I am inclined to see this as almost pure wish-fulfillment sharing a thematic affinity with Capote’s attack against the “mother-swans.” More directly, each can be read, in part, as an attack against an abandoning mother. In “Miriam,” however, the table-turning is made explicit. If Capote’s mother acted like she never wanted him, then Miriam makes the widow want her and the widow is pathetically powerless to say no. If, as Dunphy maintains, Nina aimed to dominate a spirit she never understood, then Miriam is a “spirit” thoroughly indomitable, in fact dominating. And if Nina abandoned Truman, then Miriam-qua-Capote is the motherless cast-off come “home” to exact revenge, to drive the capricious and crazy-making “mother” into abject insanity. What this suggests is a continuity of aim. If from the start Capote used his writing to vent feelings about his mother, then the idea that he pursued similar (and similarly disguised) aims in Answered Prayers becomes less improbable. Psychobiography seeks ever-diminishing states of doubt. Identifying continuities furthers that goal.
6. Answered Prayers as pre-emptive abandonment. One thing about Capote nobody disputes. Friends, family, and lovers alike unanimously stress the enduring impact of Nina’s abandonment. Capote himself is crystal clear. “I had a very difficult childhood. . . There was a great absence of love” (Grobel, 1985, 47).
Psychologists Silvan Tomkins, Rae Carlson, and Dan McAdams all have pointed to the special meaningfulness of what they call “nuclear” scenes or episodes. These are affect-laden, formative events during which something possibly good turns bad, and they tend hauntingly to recur, usually in altered form, and to demand reparation. Capote’s life-story contains one of the clearest nuclear scenes imaginable. In fact, it represents a constellating metaphor for his entire life. The writer John Knowles spells it out.
Truman often talked about himself. Oh, my God, yes. Endlessly. Sometimes you wondered whether he was doing it with some ulterior motive to get you, to set up something inside you, or whether he was really telling the truth. . . Just after I first met him, Truman began telling me his life story. This terrible, tragic story. The central tragedy, as he saw it, in his life is a scene. Truman is two years old. He wakes up in an utterly strange room, empty. He yells, but he’s locked in there. He’s petrified, doesn’t know where he is–which is in some dumpy hotel in the Deep South–and his parents have gone out to get drunk and dance. They have locked this tiny little boy in this room. That was his image of terror, and I think it was his way of symbolizing the insecurity of his youth–this image of that kind of abandonment (Plimpton, 1997, 26).
Capote descibes the same scene to Grobel. “It was a certain period in my life. I was only about two years old, but I was very aware of being locked in this hotel room. My mother was a very young girl. We were living in this hotel in New Orleans. She had no one to leave me with. She had no money and she had nothing to do with my father. She would leave me locked in this hotel room when she went out in the evening with her beaus and I would become hysterical because I couldn’t get out of this room” (Grobel, 1985, 48).
There are several things to notice about this recollection. First of all, it is extremely unlikely that Capote truly remembered the scene described. Research shows that before ages 3 to 4, children cannot consolidate or retrieve complex memory material. In addition, the fact that a two year old could be left alone for as many as, say, four to six hours simply strains credulity. The story doesn’t sound particularly plausible. Given these facts, it seems far more likely that Capote reconstructed the event, that he imagined then adopted it as an especially potent psychological symbol–part fact and part fiction, like most memories are. As Knowles implies, he seems to feel that it tells us something uniquely revealing about who he is and what he has become. It holds the key to Capote as a person. Its truth value is less important than its psychological function. Secondly, we meet again with the theme of abandonment, and the shocking self-centeredness of Nina, who cares less for her son than she does for her social life. If she did not in fact leave the two year old Capote in these rooms, it still feels that way to him. But Capote can’t resist the impulse to defend her. She was very young, she had no money and no husband. There was no one to leave him with. What Nina did was wrong, Capote seems to be saying, but also understandable. He wants to hate Nina (and telling this story makes her eminently hate-worthy), but he wants her to love him too, and to find her lovable in return.
Fear of abandonment was something Capote clearly recognized in himself. He tells his biographer, “Because of my childhood, because I always had the sense of being abandoned, certain things have fantastic effects on me, beyond what someone else might feel. . . Every morning I wake up and in about two minutes I’m weeping. . . I’m so unhappy. I just have to come to terms with something. There is something wrong. I don’t know what it is” (Clarke, 1988, 498).
Was Answered Prayers Capote’s coming to terms? Is abandonment fear the key to the book’s content and motive? In many ways, I think it is. In the broadest terms, Capote’s attack on the jet set, on those he loved but couldn’t quite trust, was a pre-emptive strike. He abandoned before being abandoned and in so doing avoided his biggest fear–loss of love. If the swans really were stand-in moms, then they must have worried Capote terribly, for moms disappoint, moms disappear. Paradoxically, the closer Capote got to them the more he must have feared them–they would not or could not love him as reliably as he needed to be loved (“a betrayal of affection can still traumatically disturb me,” Capote revealed in 1972. See Capote, 1980, 411). Slim Keith recounts the following conversation. “He said, ‘I love you very much, Big Mama.’ And I said, ‘I love you too, Truman.’ ‘No you don’t.’ ‘Yes I do. How can you say that?’ ‘People don’t love me [Capote says]. I’m a freak'” (Plimpton, 1997, 156-67).
Capote assigns his own predilections to his fictional alter-ego P.B. Jones, thereby asking Jones to disclose what Capote perhaps could not. “I didn’t say goodbye to anybody, just left. I’m the type, and a type by no means rare, who might be your closest friend, a buddy you talked to every day, yet if one day you neglected to make contact, if you failed to telephone me, then that would be it, we’d never speak again, for I would never telephone you. I’ve known lizard-bloods like that and never understood them, even though I was one myself” (1988, 30). Earlier Jones leaves an orphanage and a nun there, Sister Martha, whom he especially liked, explaining, “when I left the orphanage, ran away, I didn’t leave her a note or even communicate with her again. A typical sample of my numbed, opportunistic nature” (5).
So three lines of evidence point towards Answered Prayers as a pre-emptive strike. One, Capote feared abandonment probably more than anything else, his first, nuclear memory–whether fantasy or fact–a testament to the dread of lost security. Two, threats of betrayal–imagined or real–upset him deeply, particularly when the potential betrayer was someone whom he cared for or even loved. And three, as revealed by his double in Answered Prayers, Capote may have tended to respond to uncertain affection with a defensive disappearance. As Jones says, “If you failed to telephone me, that would be it.” Like Mailer supposes, Answered Prayers was a bridge burning. But Capote set the fire to keep from getting burned. “Abandon before being abandoned” might have been Capote’s unconscious charge.
Surveying the Field
We won’t ever know exactly why Capote wrote Answered Prayers for the simple reason that all our actions, from the most heroic to the most prosaic, always retain a measure of obscurity. Even so, we are born interpreters, defenseless against the impulse to guess why so-and-so did what he did, said what he said, or in this case, wrote what he wrote. The preceding represent six reasons for Capote’s destructive literary ambitions. Each serves to narrow the field. Each carves out its own triangle of truth. In aggregate, they all describe one central motive–aggression. Aggression towards self, others, or the mother who left and the surrogate mothers who took her place. What Capote derived from this single objective cannot be easily reduced, however. Similarity of motive does not necessarily imply similarity of method or of outcome. Motives can succeed or fail, they assume countless forms, and they express themselves in the context of a life which is anything but one-dimensional. The motive supplies the “why” of an action, but not the “how” or the “what.”
Was Answered Prayers an act of self-destruction? Only obliquely, it seems. To be sure, Capote was a self-destructive person. He essentially drank and drugged himself to death, repeatedly dismissing the dire predictions of doctors. At a certain point he gave up the fight and resigned himself to his fate. Literature shows that children tend to blame themselves for parental abandonment. Maybe Nina’s rejection of him also left Capote guilty, full of self-blame or even self-hatred. But as Capote says (and Mailer corroborates), the reaction to Answered Prayers surprised him, at least in part. He hadn’t expected to be quite so reviled as a result (maybe feared, but not utterly rejected).
Was Answered Prayers Capote’s revenge? Possibly, but his targets were so limitless, so carelessly selected as to make the revenge motive rather indeterminate. Revenge usually implies an object or a class of objects. But as noted, Capote was an equal opportunity attacker. Whose vengeance was he seeking? It is hard to say in light of the promiscuity of his viciousness. On the plus side, Capote’s tendency to “spill the beans” as a way of inciting fear and gaining attention apparently began early on with the writing of “Mrs. Busybody.” Words were always his weapons. Perhaps he used them not so much to seek revenge for perceived wrongs, but to achieve a kind of angry power, at least in the instance ofAnswered Prayers.
To me, Nina Capote seems key. More than anybody else’s, her behavior created Capote’s personality. Because of her, Capote feared not just abandonment, but even the slightest betrayal of affection. At some level he must have known he was living the lifestyle Nina intensely desired, surrounded by a coterie of “mothers” whose love he devoured as Miriam devoured Mrs. Miller. But to Capote, love was always unreliable. It left. Writing Answered Prayers may have allowed Capote to leave first for once. He made himself unlovable, and while he may not have expected the swiftness and the finality of society’s response, he did his best to make it a possibility. He feared love as much as he sought it.
So did Capote’s Answered Prayers answer his? Yes, in the sense that through the power of the written word he controlled those who thought they controlled him. He became the master of his own fate, not the hysterical two year old locked behind a hotel door. But no, in the sense that he failed to secure or even to accept the love that had always eluded him, although, as Capote was fond of saying, “More tears are shed over answered prayers than unanswered ones.” Maybe he was happiest not getting what he wanted.
Capote, T. (1988). Answered Prayers. New York: Plume.
Capote, T. (1969). Trilogy. New York: Macmillon.
Clark, G. (1988). Truman Capote: A Biography. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Dunphy, J. (1987). Dear Genius: A Memoir of my Life With Truman Capote. New York: McGraw-Hill.
Grobel, L. (1985). Conversations with Capote. New York: NAL Books.
Plimpton, G. (1997). Truman Capote: In Which Various Friends, Enemies, Acquaintances, and Detractors Recall His Turbulent Career. New York: Talese-Doubleday.