• Would Truman Capote now be read if he hadn’t written In Cold Blood? I wonder, and Portraits and Observations: The Essays of Truman Capote makes me wonder all the more.
It happens that I hadn’t read any of Capote’s early essays for a number of years prior to the publication of this posthumous collection, but the impression they made on me when I was in college remained unchanged after I looked through Portraits and Observations. The young Capote was a very talented, very precious journalist who had a knack for travel writing and literary portraiture but was greatly in need of precisely the kind of rigorous editing he got when he started writing for the New Yorker. There is an unmistakable difference between the flossy essaylets he was writing for Vogue and Mademoiselle in the 40’s and early 50’s and the long, elaborately reported pieces on Marlon Brando and Porgy and Bess in Russia that passed through the scrupulous hands of William Shawn before seeing print. In “The Duke in His Domain” and “The Muses Are Heard” we meet for the first time the “nonfiction novelist” who poured all the tricks he’d learned from writing fiction into the creation of In Cold Blood, a book that for all its undeniable flaws remains a classic of postwar American journalism.
Capote never wrote anything better than In Cold Blood—and next to nothing after it that was any good at all. Once he made his bundle, he let loose the reins of his craft and succumbed to self-indulgence. The results can be seen in Portraits and Observations, the first half of which consists of pieces written between 1946 and 1959, not a few of which are very fine indeed. In that year Capote departed for Holcomb, Kansas and his rendezvous with the murderers of the Clutter family, and from then onward Portraits and Observations becomes increasingly uneven and ultimately pointless.
In 1963, Random House brought out Selected Writings of Truman Capote, a neat little anthology of Capote’s fiction and journalism that contains the best of his work prior to In Cold Blood, including “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” “A Christmas Memory” and the two big New Yorker pieces reprinted in Portraits and Observations. Selected Writings is out of print, alas, but I suggest that you seek out a used copy, since this new volume is not an adequate substitute for it, unless you feel an irresistible desire to wallow in Capote’s later writings. The only “late” piece in Portraits and Observations that I was glad to add to my shelf was “Ghosts in Sunlight: The Filming of In Cold Blood,” an interesting 1967 reminiscence of the making of Richard Brooks’s film. The rest is dross.
Incidentally, Capote makes the following nostalgic claim in a 1959 essay about Louis Armstrong:
I met him when I was four, that would be around 1928, and he, a hard-plump and belligerently happy brown Buddha, was playing aboard a pleasure steamer that paddled between New Orleans and St. Louis…. The Satch, he was good to me, he told me I had talent, that I ought to be in vaudeville; he gave me a bamboo cane and a straw boater with a peppermint headband; and every night from the stand announced: “Ladies and gentlemen, now we’re going to present you one of America’s nice kids, he’s going to do a little tap dance.” Afterward I passed among the passengers, collecting in my hat nickels and dimes.
As the Brits say, no doubt this is true, but the fact is that “the Satch” stopped playing on New Orleans excursion boats in 1921, three years before Capote was born. It seems that the author of In Cold Blood was fabricating material long before the reliability of his most successful and admired book was challenged by those in a position to know. William Shawn wouldn’t have liked that one bit.