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Tru identity

The many faces of Truman Capote



Writers have many faces. The guise they present in their work, or even out in public, may not be the real one. Throughout his life, Truman Capote revealed enough facets to baffle a jeweler.

Born Truman Streckfus Persons in New Orleans in 1924, he spent his formative years being reared by relatives in Alabama. Upon his mother's remarriage, he took his stepfather's last name, Capote, and became a lifelong New Yorker.

He not only became a successful author, he turned his quirky voice and appearance into part of his mystique during an era when writers could be American celebrities and talk show guests.

Capote also serves as the autobiographical protagonist of his most famous stories, whether as the unnamed narrator of Breakfast at Tiffany's, young Buddy in "A Christmas Memory," or as lightly fictionalized, 12-year-old Joel Knox in his debut novel, Other Voices, Other Rooms. He even emerges in other people's art, reportedly providing, for instance, the model for the young milquetoast Dill in To Kill a Mockingbird by his old friend Harper Lee.

Currently we're witnessing new incarnations of the author via Philip Seymour Hoffman's uncanny performance in the film Capote and a comic book portrayal titled Capote in Kansas. These different works pay tribute to the man more than his words. You catch a glimpse of Capote's writing in embryonic form in the newly published first novel Summer Crossing, but Theatrical Outfit's staged reading of A Christmas Memory may best explain why he's worth remembering.

Capote's 80th birthday last year marked a resurgence in his work, including the publication of The Complete Stories of Truman Capote and Too Brief a Treat: The Letters of Truman Capote. Capote himself, however, ultimately became a more flamboyant character than any of his creations on the page. Like an Andy Warhol of letters, Capote became a social "get," a much-prized party guest, as well as a habitual collector of gossip and famous connections.

Capote and Capote in Kansas both treat the researching and writing of In Cold Blood as a literary touchstone -- transforming the lurid "true crime" genre to an artistically respectable form -- as well as a tipping point in Capote's life. They both focus on the compelling incongruity of the short, bespectacled, piglet-voiced author reporting the plain details of a family's senseless murder in Middle America.

Subtitled "A Drawn Novel" (a self-conscious nod to Capote's phrase "nonfiction novel"), Capote in Kansas uses shadowy, black-and-white images to evoke the stark tone of In Cold Blood. Creators Ande Parks and Chris Samnee argue that Capote matured in the heartland, replacing his city-slicker condescension with genuine empathy. But the book's main relationship -- Capote's imaginary friendship with the ghost of a slain teenager -- feels more sentimental than anything Capote could have written.

Capote in Kansas includes a touching flashback to the author's lonely childhood, but provides a superficial treatment of the writer compared to the film's complexities.

The movie suggests that the completion of In Cold Blood marked a high point in Capote's career, as well as the beginning of the end: He never finished another book. Following its success, he moved out of his longtime Brooklyn apartment but left behind boxes of trash -- including four notebooks that contained his abandoned first novel, Summer Crossing, which resurfaced in 2004.

Read today, Summer Crossing mostly has a kind of anthropological value, revealing a writer's creative intellect before its evolutionary leap to literary greatness. The book offers a kind of Holly Golightly prototype in Grady McNeil, an aristocratic teenager who comes of age when having an affair with a Jewish veteran one summer. Ironically, the brief, pungent tangents about working-class Brooklyn prove more vivid than the familiar details of Grady's patrician upbringing. Summer Crossing is no embarrassment, hinting at the writer's intelligence and seriousness, but it's obvious why Capote trashed the book instead of revealing himself in such an unformed, adolescent fashion before the reading public.

"A Christmas Memory," written in 1956, more eloquently testifies to his gifts. Despite its reputation as a holiday chestnut and scenes depicting fruitcakes and Christmas trees, the yuletide season proves nearly incidental to the tale of the friendship between two small-town outcasts, lonely young Buddy and an elderly cousin, "Miss Sook."

Theatrical Outfit artistic director Tom Key first performed a dramatic reading of the book in 1974, and believes that Capote's skills as a reporter give "A Christmas Memory" its unsentimental power. "He recorded the events in a way that was so moving that he didn't have to tug at the heartstrings. The same objective eye he turned toward tragedy in In Cold Blood he turned to the goodness of Miss Sook." To be performed at Theatrical Outfit through Dec. 24, A Christmas Memory demonstrates the writer transcending nostalgia and joining the company of such Southern writers as Eudora Welty.

Capote could have made a career of writing such work. But even in Breakfast at Tiffany's, you hear the voice of the attention-hungry raconteur and not the close observer with "total recall." Capote seems to have intended to elevate gossip to epic stature with his scandalous, never-finished novel Answered Prayers. Instead, excerpts in Esquire (1975-'76) made Capote a pariah among the glitterati, and no doubt accelerated his decline into alcoholism. Viewing his career today, it's as if Truman Capote carefully crafted an original, unforgettable persona, then spent his last years disappearing into it. Now you see him, now you don't.

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