Acclaim for Gerald Clarke's
Too Brief a Treat:
The Letters of Truman Capote
"Capote’s letters [are] as addictive as potato chips, often very funny and reflect a gift for empathy." —Los Angeles Times Book Review
"[A] real pleasure for Capote fans.… Clarke, the author of the warm, sympathetic and insightful 1988 biography Capote, has served his subject well, gathering letters from all over the world, and providing thoughtful introductions to each section of Capote’s life… There is wicked fun in reading these letters.… Truman Capote was a breath of fresh air, rare and witty and urbane." —The Times-Picayune
"There are, as one would expect, lovely, delicate lines… along with the nervy charm of the writer’s unabashed effeminacy… There are also sharp sightings… and some feline boldface dispatches [and] a measure of scandalous fizz." —The New Yorker
"Charming… Intriguing… The letters will doubtless provide many tasty morsels for students of midcentury American social and publishing history." —The New York Times Book Review
"Offer[s] Capote acolytes a compendium of snappy remarks and several details of more serious interest." —The Advocate
"A delicious dish of hurried prose and unwitting autobiography…" —The Washington Post
"Among the most unexpectedly hilarious reads of the year." —Genre Magazine
"Poised, poignant, persuasive… full of affection and caring… Reading his letters… is a singular experience… They are newsy, capricious, full of endearments, a bit precious, funny, emphatic, occasionally duplicitious, and always, signature Capote." —Library Journal
Gerald Clarke on Capote's LettersExcerpt from an article in Architectural Digest, October 2004
Though he’s been dead twenty years, I’ll swear that when I slide into a booth in certain Manhattan restaurants, I can still hear Truman Capote high-pitched laughter. On his good days, the days I like to remember, no one was as much fun as Truman. How can I describe what joy it was be in his company? I can’t and now I don’t have to try, for the Truman I knew is present on every page of the book of his letters that I edited and that Random House has just published. Too Brief a Treat it’s titled.
Many of our conversations revolved around his concept of style—style in writing, style in dress and style in design. For Truman—"the most perfect writer of my generation," Norman Mailer once wrote—style was both a philosophy and a religion. "Style is what you are," he said. "The freedom to pursue an esthetic quality in life is an extra dimension, like being able to fly where others walk."
Like Holly Golightly, the heroine of Breakfast at Tiffany’s, he longed for a permanent home, and in 1957, at the age of thirty-two, Truman found it in a Brooklyn Heights townhouse. But how do you make a stylish home in a basement, which is what his new apartment was? If you know everybody worth knowing, as Truman did, you call the ever-resourceful Billy Baldwin, whose solution was elegantly simple: make dark rooms even darker with wallpaper the color of a shiny spruce. The result was an apartment that had a warm, Christmasy feeling all year round. "Come into my winter living room," Truman would tell his guests, as if he were leading them into the inner sanctum of a palace in old St. Petersburg…
Gerald Clarke's Introduction to Too Brief a Treat
Truman Capote wrote to his friends as he spoke to them, without constraints, inhibitions or polite verbal embroidery. Not for him was the starchy vow of Samuel Johnson, who complained that since it had become the fashion to publish letters, "I put as little into mine as I can." Capote did just the opposite: he put as much into his letters as he could—his hurts, his joys, his failures, his successes. The thought that his correspondence might someday be published apparently never occurred to him. "Destroy!!!" Capote, then only twenty-one, scrawled at the top of one gossipy letter. But how little he meant that command can be adduced from the sotto voce instruction that followed—"after showing Barbara."
Christened Truman Persons, he became Truman Capote (pronounced Ca-pote-e) after his parents divorced and he was adopted by his stepfather, Joe Capote. The first letter in this volume, written to his real father, Arch Persons, in the fall of 1936, when Truman was eleven or twelve, was his assertion of his new identity over the old one. "I would appreciate it," he told Persons, "if in the future you would address me as Truman Capote, as everyone knows me by that name."
The many letters that follow constitute a kind of autobiography. There is the very young Capote, childlike in his exuberance and high spirits, who, in the months that followed the end of World War II, jumped feet first into the turbulent waters of the New York literary scene. There is the only slightly subdued Capote of the fifties. Living most of the time in Europe with Jack Dunphy, who had been his companion since 1948, he busied himself with plays and screenplays, fiction and journalistic experiments.
Then there is the Capote of the early sixties, deeply involved in the research and writing of the most daunting and traumatic book of his life. That book was In Cold Blood, the story of the murders of a family of four in rural Kansas and of the two men—Perry Smith and Dick Hickock—who murdered them. The publishing sensation of the decade, In Cold Blood combined the techniques of fiction with the factual reporting of nonfiction and it permanently transformed the writing of popular nonfiction. Thanks to the book's success, the hungry eye of television and his own flamboyant personality, for several years Capote was the most famous writer in America, and probably much of the rest of the world as well.
Finally there is the Capote of the seventies and early eighties—he died in 1984—who was disillusioned with both his life and his career and who became increasingly, and all too publicly, dependent on drugs and alcohol. The letters dwindled to almost nothing, mostly postcards and telegrams, and this book ends with a telegram from Capote in New York to Dunphy, who was, as always, spending the winter in Switzerland. All it said was: "miss you need you cable when can i expect you Love Truman."
Between the first letter and that last plaintive telegram there is, for the reader, a world of fascination, pleasure and fun. Capote did not work at "the great epistolick art"—to quote Dr. Johnson again. He came by it naturally. A man who rewrote and polished everything else that bore his name, sometimes pausing for hours to find the right word, wrote his letters at breakneck speed, rushing, as he sometimes said, to get them to the post office before the last pickup of the day. "Have 10 minutes before the post-office closes," he told one friend, "so this is in haste." As a result, his letters have a spontaneity that is often lacking in the correspondence of more cautious and deliberate writers. "Your letter was too brief a treat," he told one friend, but he was really describing his own letters, which really are too brief a treat—the title I have chosen for this book. As fresh now as the day they were written, they all but leap off the page, demanding to be read.
Capote loved gossip, both the telling and the hearing. "Send me another of those lovely gossipy letters; it makes me feel we are having a drink together somewhere," he wrote one correspondent. "Write me! And answer all the above questions," he commanded another. Living in Europe for most of the fifties, Capote missed the excitement of Manhattan. "New York in the autumn—really, it is the only place to be," he said—and he prodded, cajoled and begged for news. "Hello! And why haven't you written me?" he inquired of one friend. "Write me, my precious heart, for your adoring friend has you always in his thoughts," he told another.
To liven the day, as well as to winkle out letters from tardy correspondents, he invented a new game that he called IDC—International Daisy Chain. "You make a chain of names," he wrote friends in New York, "each one connected by the fact that he or she has had an affair with the person previously mentioned; the point is to go as far and as incongruously as possible." The combinations were endless, but his favorite chain, the most incongruous of all, was the one that linked Cab Calloway to Adolf Hitler. The all-American jazz man and the model of all evil were separated, according to Capote's reckoning, by only three partners.
Capote addressed men as well as women with ever more inventive terms of endearment, starting with "honey," "dear" and "darling" and proceeding to "precious baby," "lover lamb," "Magnolia my sweet" and "Blessed Plum." Anyone not better informed would assume that he had carried on affairs with most of the people in this book. But the truth is more interesting, if less lurid. Like a child craving affection, he loved his friends without reservation—he told them so again and again—and he expected from them an equal affection. "I feel full of love for you today," he wrote Andrew Lyndon, a man with whom sex was never considered; "woke up thinking about you and wishing that it wasn't Sunday so there would be at least the hope of a letter." Who could resist such an embrace?
For his enemies Capote had a tongue as sharp and wounding as an assassin's dagger. But he did not write to his enemies. He wrote to his friends, and to them he was, from beginning to end, almost saintly in his generosity. He smothered even their thinnest achievements with praise, comforted them when they were down and offered help and money, even when he had very little himself. When one betrayed him, however, he never forgave. In the early fifties, for example, he extended his help and his hand to William Goyen, a Texas writer living in New York. A quarter of a century later, when Goyen's wife requested a favorable comment for the twenty-fifth anniversary edition of her husband's first novel, Capote suggested she look at Goyen's dismissive, indeed contemtuous, review of Breakfast at Tiffany's to realize "how really ludicrous" her request was.
A loving friend, a zestful gossip, a buoyant spirit—Capote was all of those. But he was also, almost to the end, a writer of vaulting ambition and Spartan dedication. "To be an artist today is such an act of faith," he told one friend; "nothing can come back from it except the satisfaction of the art itself." He was only twenty-five when he wrote those words, and he was determined, even then, to join that holy gallery of Flaubert, Proust, James and Faulkner. "These last few pages!" he wrote Robert Linscott, his Random House editor, shortly before turning in his first novel, Other Voices, Other Rooms. "Every word takes blood." For his part, Linscott was the ideal editor for a sensitive young writer, warmly encouraging, yet critical when he felt criticism was necessary. "Wonderful wonderful wonderful," Capote wrote him after receiving praise for the first chapters of his second novel, The Grass Harp. But when Linscott expressed disappointment with the novel's ending, Capote was devastated. "I cannot endure it that all of you think my book a failure," he said.
In fact, Capote was his own best critic, as perceptive about his own writing as he was about other people's. Writing to William Shawn, the editor of The New Yorker, he said that he had finished a piece, "A Daughter of the Russian Revolution," but had belatedly realized that "it did not accelerate with the right rhythm" and would have to be reworked. Later he abandoned it entirely. "I seem to have lost faith in the piece, or at least in my ability to do it," he told Shawn. For any writer, novice or seasoned professional, his letters should be instructive, as well as inspirational. But non-writers, I suspect, will find in them equal rewards.
"No good letter was ever written to convey information or to please the recipient," Lytton Strachey wrote. "It may achieve both these results incidentally; but its fundamental purpose is to express the personality of the writer." The letters that follow prove the justness of Strachey's observation. They convey information—and plenty of it—and they often aim to please. But, more than anything else, they express what otherwise would be inexpressible, a personality so buoyant and expansive that it defied the accepted laws of human gravity.Gerald Clarke
April 1, 2004
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