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Truman Capote Q&A — Coda: Another Round With Mister C.

A conversation in the wake of Andy Warhol’s “Sunday with Mister C.”

American, writer, Truman Capote, dog

American writer Truman Capote with his dog, in 1973.

Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty

The following tape was made in early March when The Editor visited Mister Capote at his residence in Palm Springs.

(Saturday evening. Muffled sounds of traffic.)

TC: Should we go to Don the Beachcomber’s?

JW: I don’t like it that much. It’s kind of ersatz Trader Vic’s. Do you have a personal chopstick holder at Don the Beach…?

TC: Well, of course.

JW: Oh, then – Don the Beachcomber’s. Can we have a drink?

TC: Oh, we will.

JW: When did you first meet Andy Warhol?

TC: I don’t remember it. He used to write me these letters all the time. They were just admiring letters. He liked my work, etc.

JW: Did you take any note?

TC: Well, I got so many of them, of course I remember them.

JW: What? Every day?

TC: Yes. For quite a long time. He used to send me lots of pictures and drawings and things. But I don’t remember when we first met. I don’t have any clear visual memory of it at all. I do remember him sitting in my living room the first time I saw him, and him telling me about his mother and how he lived with his mother downtown and they had 28 cats and he seemed a very shy, pale person, rather like he is today. Only much shyer. That’s my first memory of him. I can see him in the room sitting on this pink couch, but I don’t remember how he got there. [laughs]

JW: Well, I was trying to think of a title for it, and I saw on the top of the page – the very first thing on the page said “Sunday.”

TC: Just that all by itself?

JW: Well, with a subtitle like “An Interview Starring Truman Capote by Andy Warhol.”

TC: “An Andy Warhol Tape Starring Truman Capote” would be more like it.

JW: Did you have any thoughts for a title?

TC: No, but I’m good at titles. Well, “Sunday”‘s nice and simple.

JW: I was thinking about “Sunday with Truman Capote,” but that sounds like…

TC: That sounds like a TV program. Um, I know what the subtitle is: “An Audio Documentary by Andy Warhol Starring Truman Capote.” ‘Cause that’s, in effect, what it actually is.

I have a two-way thing, which is really the basic reason why I can do certain things that seem very mysterious to other people. I have both a photographic memory and it’s almost 100% reliable, and I also have an audio memory … I can focus on two things. Now there are quite a few people who have an audio memory, and there are quite a few people who have a photographic memory. But the two things combined are rather unusual.

JW: Can you re-create a long conversation?

TC: Oh, yes. I can re-create a conversation as long as up to six hours which is over 90% accurate and have done it. You remember I told you how startled Marlon Brando was I hadn’t taken a note. I hadn’t done a thing. I hadn’t even seemed to be interested, and yet I produced six and a half hours of conversation verbatim. . . . A lot of which was used in Last Tango in Paris.

JW: Mmhm. What do you think makes people so knocked out about Last Tango in Paris?

TC: Most of the reviews that I’ve seen have missed the whole point. It’s about something – and God knows it’s been done over and over in literature with Madame Bovary and Anna Karenina, but never really been done in a film before – the way two people create total fantasies about each other on purely sexual terms, and they become involved in a physical enslavement of one another without really knowing anything about the other person or wanting to. The other person is a total creation that you’ve made up and a symbol of the things that you’ve most desired and you somehow enslave them and have them enslave you. This happens over and over in life to various degrees. Then gradually the mirage removes itself and there’s a rejection, in this case of Brando. It’s got extraordinary production values. The photography is wonderfully done. There’s all sorts of qualities beyond that, but I haven’t seen a single review that said what it was really about.

(Inside Don the Beachcomber’s)

JW: Do you see Norman Mailer much?

TC: Norman’s a very good friend of mine and always has been. I never had any trouble with him at all because he said, “There’s only one person in New York I’m afraid to tangle with, and that’s Truman Capote.” Somebody asked Norman, “What do you think of Truman Capote?” He said, “Truman’s the ballsiest guy I know, and I mean that 100%.”

The first time I ever met Norman, we did a television program together in the pioneer days – me and Norman and Dorothy Parker – and Dorothy Parker was scared out of her wits, ’cause, this was live television, and she was just afraid to open her mouth, and Norman – I kept tripping him up all the time.

JW: What do you mean tripping him up?

TC: Well, every time he would get led towards some point and then completely – it was like setting an animal trap, leading a person down and then he goes whack. And he really couldn’t believe this was happening to him.

A couple of days later he came and rang my doorbell. There was Norman Mailer and he said, “Would you come out and have a drink with me?” And I said all right, sure. So it was late afternoon, and he said, “I just couldn’t understand how that happened. I just couldn’t figure how you did that.” “Did what?” “Well, turn me inside out. I never felt so totally manipulated by anybody. How did you do it?” I said, “I wasn’t doing anything. I was just listening. You were listening to yourself, and I was listening to you.”

JW: What do you think Mailer’s major work was?

TC: I consider his major work, in my own eyes, the work he’s done in the last few years in reportage.

JW: The astronaut thing?

TC: No, no, that I didn’t like. Armies of the Night was very, very good, and I think he’s a marvelous critic. And there are portions alwavs in his novels that are good.

JW: Why did you want to trip him up on that TV show?

TC: I didn’t. It was just irresistible. If somebody sort of sets himself up for it over and over, what can you do? He was going on about Jack Kerouac, and suddenly I just said, “Oh, Jack Kerouac – that isn’t writing, it’s typing.” And Norman didn’t have anything further to say about that, and then somebody asked me who did I think was the finest living writer writing in English. And I said E.M. Forster. And so Norman said, “But you write better than E.M. Forster.” Well, of course that was ridiculous. I did not write better that him. I came to write quite differently in my own way, and, in my own opinion, as well. But that wasn’t the same thing. Really, mostly Norman falls into it because he’s such a good sort of guy, really. Everybody thinks he’s rambunctious, looking for a fight, and I suppose in a way he is, but he’s always been a very gentlemanly guy in my presence.

JW: He seems to have that quality of talking too much and not listening enough, and sometimes missing … but his own reactions are usually quite valid.

TC: I thought your Robert Mitchum interview was very good. The part about the dog was hilarious, the dog who attacked Robert Mitchum’s balls. There’s a little trick in there that I find all young reporters are doing, and I find it quite despicable. I’ve seen it over and over in New York Magazine, but it’s everywhere. And the trick is – as in this Mitchum story – the guy standing there says, “I’ll tell you something: One day I walked into the room and I banged this chick and suddenly her dog jumped up on the bed and grabbed my balls – but, listen, don’t put that in your story. I mean, Jesus Christ, after all, think of his wife.” They quote the person saying, “Don’t put this in the story.” I think it’s a sleazy trick.

If I was going to do it, I’d just put it in, but I would leave that remark out. “Don’t put that in your story.” That’s where the sleazy trick comes in, not that you put it in. That’s your own judgment. If a person wants to tell you something, OK, that’s at their own peril, right?

JW: You think that’s cheap sensationalism?

TC: Yes, it’s a little trick that all the young reporters follow, and they should stop it. They should be warned. It’ll become a real cliché of journalism. ‘Tain’t no style there.

JW: What was it like to come to New York and be a boy wonder. You had extraordinary, immediate success.

TC: It had been building up for a long time. I was quite ready for it when it finally happened. I was interested in a career, not a success.

I know that I have this one book to write. Everybody says they have one book in them? Well, I’ve written a lot of books, but basically, I’ve always had this one book – it was what I was really all about. And I just move slowly, slowly, slowly toward this book, and I honestly do think that when I finish it, I’m not going to write again any very, very, ambitious writing.

JW: When were you first cognizant of the idea that you were going to do this one book? Very young?

TC: It just gradually grew on me. I began to really think about it when I was about 17. Maybe earlier than that. I mean, I was completely totally convinced that I was going to be able to write when I was about eight years old, seven or eight years old. I really can remember just like Marjoe can remember his revelation of heaven. [laughs] I was just walking along one day down the road and suddenly this whole book just came into my head. From that point on, I was obsessed with writing, prose style and everything. I never deviated from it for one minute.

JW: What did you do?

TC: Hmm? I just stuck to one thing and I wouldn’t do anything else at all. So I got out of school as soon as I could ’cause they had nothing to offer me.

JW: What other books have you got coming out before Answered Prayers?

TC: One’s called The Dog’s Bark. It’s sort of a geography of my life. It’s about places I’ve lived and people, mostly taken from journals of my own. Diaries and things like that. It’s coming out this September. Some of it’s been published, but most of it hasn’t

JW: Is there a complete time span” covered in the book?

TC: Well, yes, 1948 – no, 1945 to 1970. The title comes from something that Andre Gide said to me when I was complaining about some review of a book of mine. He said, “Oh well, as the Arabs say, ‘Dogs bark, but the caravan moves on.'”

The next book is called Then It All Came Down. It’s made up of all of the interviews of mine with various criminals and my own opinions of them. And it’s my own opinions about what I think makes them work. They’re different ones, different people that I’ve interviewed.

JW: I notice you talk back pretty smartly to a lot of killers and murderers….

TC: Yeah, I sure do. [laughs] For just a punk kid on the corner. [laughs]

JW: Do you think this is an extraordinary prolific pattern to have three books coming out in 18 months? They sound like major works, all of them.

TC: I think it’s just coincidence, really. It’s just I’ve been doing them all. Coincidence.

JW: When you write, how much do you write a day?

TC: Oh, I try to work four or five hours a day. Sometimes I’ll do it for a couple of months and then I won’t write for a month. You know?

JW: How much writing do you do in four or five hours?

TC: Oh, I’d say about – I write very slowly. I like longhand. I’d say I write about three pages of longhand.

JW: Where did the title for your last novel, Answered Prayers, come from?

TC: It came from St. Theresa, who said, “More tears are shed over answered prayers than unanswered ones,” and I do believe that’s true, because I think when you get what you want, and you’ve really got it, then by the sheer nature of things, something else has to be substituted for what it was that you wanted. So in some way we come to regret … And when St. Theresa said that “more tears were shed over answered prayers than unanswered ones,” well, it’s hell to get rid of an answered prayer. It can be a lover or a career or success of the kind that you’ve got, but it turned out to be not right. Because always there has to be something else that you want. Otherwise there’s really no reason to get up in the morning.

JW: Isn’t Answered Prayers an answered prayer?

TC: For me? You see, I’m never the least bit satisfied with – can I have some ice with…?

Waiter: Yes.

TC: Wait, wait, wait, wait, wait. We want two more double margaritas, and I want some ice in my drink, and I want a straight jigger of just pure tequila.

I guess it will be – if I finish it the way I want it to be, and just the sheer fact that it occupied my lifestyle for so long. But of course I basically don’t really want to finish it. It’s just that it’s become a way of life. It’s like suddenly taking some beautiful animal, say, or a child, some lovely child and you just took it out in the yard and shot it in the head. I mean, that’s what it means to me. The moment I give it up it’s just like I took it out in the yard and shot it in the head, because then it will never be mine again.

JW: When did you start on it?

TC: Well, I originally started writing it in 1956, and I worked on it for three years. Then I stopped to write In Cold Blood, got so trapped into that whole thing that I couldn’t really work on the other except to make notes for it. It took me five and a half years to do In Cold Blood. Then I was so knocked out from that, that I really couldn’t write anything except for little short pieces for about a year and a half. I mean, I was really knocked out. It was such a long difficult haul. So I actually didn’t start back writing on this book ’til about three and a half, four years ago. It’s a very, very, very long, complicated book, but I think that I’ll be ready with it – well, I’m planning to publish it a year from September.

JW: What’s the status of the book now?

TC: As a book I figure it’ll probably be over 800 printed pages. I’ve got about 480 pages that are really finished.

JW: What’s the status of the rest of it? Rough draft?

TC: I wrote the end of the book almost before I wrote the beginning. I always do that. I told Katherine Ann Porter about how I always wrote the last page of a story before I wrote the first page and she said, “You know, I’ve always done that my whole life.” And I said, “I bet you do it for the same reason that I do. The reason that I do is because if I write the last page of the story, I always know exactly where I’m going, and I want to know where I’m moving.” I wrote the whole end of Answered Prayers before I ever wrote the first part of it.

JW: Why do you want to publish it at long last?

TC: I don’t want to. I don’t want to. But, I mean, I guess there comes a point where you have to give up…

JW: Where you have to give up?

TC: Where you have to give something over. And I don’t want to. We’ll see. Anyway I have to bring out the other two books. At least it’s there, and now quite a number of people have read it. Not “quite a number,” half a dozen. My editor at Random House has read it. My friend Jack Dunphy has read it.

JW: You told me once about when Bennett Cerf read it.

TC: That was when he was in the hospital. I knew he was very ill. I first knew him when I was 17. Random House signed me when I was 17, and they published all but one of my books. And he had always been so interested and concerned about this book. I didn’t know he was precisely dying, but I wasn’t too sure’ of it one way or the other. So I let him read it.

JW: What did he say?

TC: Well, I won’t say what he really said about it, because it’s too immodest.

JW: When you first told me about Answered Prayers you said that it had a very complicated structure. And you said it begins right after the war and ends in 1965….

TC: It’s basically about a woman, and it has five different plots going at the same time, and I mean really plots – not these things that pass for plots – in a sense it’s almost medieval, [laughs] and it really has genuine plots.

The main character is a woman who meets a man when she’s 19 years old – and he is 42 – and she’s the roommate in college of this man’s daughter. She meets him at a lunch and the father is a highly over-developed swordsman type. He begins an affair with the girl. The girl is absolutely a great, great character, and through the years continues this affair with this man. And she has many, many, many other lovers and many powerful men. But this man won’t marry her because he’s married and he’s content and has a very good reason. He was going to be the next Republican President of the United States. He was convinced of this every four years over a period of 16 years, and each year it doesn’t happen, but each year there’s every reason to think it will. And there are these enormous wheels spinning around this central situation, which involve dozens and dozens and dozens of people and about 25 other stories all spinning at the same time. It’s really about six people who got what they wanted and what happened to them as a result.

I ain’t invented a person in the book. [laughs] Oh, a few minor characters, but not really.

JW: Don’t you foresee some problems with that? The character who is convinced that he was going to be the President – don’t you think that character will be immediately recognizable?

TC: No. I know who the person is, and it’s not somebody that anybody would automatically guess. Even playing 20 questions. And anyway, I took one physical-type person quite different from him and just grafted his career onto that other person.

JW: I take it it’s based on the people you’ve known in that period. of time especially the beautiful women of New York.

TC: Well, not so many of them as people think, although there’s a whole section of that that takes place in a restaurant in New York and I go through this whole subject quite thoroughly, what she really is, what she consisted of, what her ambitions were. It’s a very long section. If it was published by itself it would be considered a short novel.

JW: If everybody’s so recognizable in the book, what kind of reaction do you think that’s going to cause?

TC: My theory is the only people that are going to be angry are those that got left out. If they can’t find themselves in it then I better cross the street. One person who read it said, “It doesn’t matter whether anybody likes it or if they hate it, they’re going to love it.”

Oh, I’m sure it’ll get some of the supreme all-time flat-out attacks. Doesn’t bother me because – if something’s unmerited it doesn’t bother me. And in this case it will not be merited. [laughs]

JW: One of the things that is so intriguing is this idea that you premeditatedly know that this is your life’s work. Then what do you see for yourself? A life of ease? You’ve already got a life of ease.

TC: I don’t know.

JW: Are you scared?

TC: No.

JW: Confident?

TC: I’m neither. I guess it’s just like you’ve lived a long, long time in a house, and then for some reason you have to move out of that house.

JW: Can you think of any way in which it will change your life?

TC: My life’s already been so changed all the time. How in the world can it change? I know everything there is to know about success, so how can success change your life? I know everything there is to know about failure, too. So nothing can affect me on that score, I mean, professionally. Do you see how it can? If you haven’t experienced all of these things, then, of course. I’ve always been the same. I have been around an awfully long time and not exactly leading the life of obscurity.

JW: Why did you decide not to lead a life of obscurity?

TC: I don’t know that that’s so true. People say that all the time, but right from the beginning I always attracted a lot of attention, because – well, really – there really isn’t anybody else like me. And I’ve had that wide variety of interests and moved in so many different areas. These things roll along.

JW: Why do you choose to appear so frequently on talk shows?

TC: I can tell you why, and you can take it or leave it. The truth of the matter is that I have a lot of things that amuse and interest me that I like to talk about but I have no time or interest in writing about them. I just like to give my opinion on certain various things. I don’t write about it because it’s not worth writing about; I just want to talk about it. Really, honestly, that really is the reason. When I started talking with Johnny Carson and Dick Cavett – the first time I really didn’t want to. I was reluctant, but then I discovered that I found it sort of easy to get rid of a lot of the things, that I enjoyed doing it, and it didn’t make me the least bit nervous. I can talk about all kinds of things, my opinions about actors, films, books etc., which I wouldn’t do otherwise, and I thoroughly enjoy it.

JW: One thing that seems to have happened is that everywhere I go with you we’re stopped by nearly everybody, all kinds of people – especially older people.

TC: Actually I think it’s about even.

JW: Young people, probably, in general, really love to talk about something you’ve said rather than stop you as a celebrity.

TC: They’ve always got something there that they want to grind the axe about. They don’t really stop you just because … they have some point to make. “I want to know what you really meant by that because I don’t agree.” That’s the big difference between the young people stopping me and the older people.

JW: When you met me at the airport today, you were opening the door for that woman and her husband was yakking away about the Merv Griffin show.

TC: I’ve never been on the Merv Griffin show. [laughs] She was just getting a little mixed up.

JW: They always approach you and you’re always so kind and responsive, no matter how presuming they are.

TC: I have these great kissers – people that come up and suddenly grab hold of you. I was sitting in 21 having dinner with two people, a man and his wife, and sitting next to us were a very conventional Middle-West couple. The man was a bit loaded, I mean more than a bit loaded. Suddenly he leaned over, grabbed hold of me and began kissing me. I just pushed him away. He said, “You don’t know. I just love you. I think you’re the greatest.” And so I said, “Well, if that’s the way you feel …”

Sure, I’m always polite and nice to them. What are you going to do. If you were unkind to people like that you’d really crush them, unbelievably. That’s the worst form of rejection. If you offer somebody your interest or affection and the person treats you like you were a madman … I despise rejection in all forms.

JW: I wonder why you feel so strongly about rejection?

TC: I do think rejection is the unkindest thing people do, and maybe it stems from my childhood when I was shoo’ed from one family to another for different reasons. I certainly didn’t feel as though I had any very sturdy foundation to stand on. I never exactly felt rejected, but maybe that’s what it stems from to some degree.

What could be crueler than to reject somebody? I think the only unforgivable sin is deliberate cruelty. When you sit down and really think up something deliberately cruel, I think that’s unforgivable. Everything else is forgivable. I mean, rejection of course is forgivable, under various circumstances, because there may be something inevitable about it, say a divorce or a love affair. It’s a very powerful trauma, rejection, or to be the recipient of any kind of deliberate cruelty.

JW: You go well beyond saying “thank you.” You give these people who you just don’t know really remarkable chunks of your time.

TC: I do do one thing that is rude, and I feel guilty about it all the time. I get an enormous amount of mail, and I simply can’t answer it. There is no way; it would take three-quarters of my day, every day just to answer them. I read them, even very, very intelligent and very wise letters, but I just can’t answer them – and the few times I did, I found myself in the incredible situation where the person writes another letter then another letter and you don’t answer, and the next thing you know they appear on your doorstep.

JW: At Trader Vic’s there was that one woman who sat right down and talked with you for 20 minutes. By looks, by mannerism and by voice, you’ve become so recognizable.

TC: Telephone operators always say, “Is this Truman Capote?” And I say, “Yes.” And they say, “I thought so!” [laughs] I’ve never understood really what it is, because all interviews – I can always tell when an interview is going to be just ordinary. They begin with some sort of thing about how small I am, you know, physically small, and there’s something edging into it that’s not particularly – I couldn’t care less about it, I’m perfectly delighted with my appearance – and it seems right away that they get into this thing about my voice. This terribly distinctive, strange voice that I have. “It sounds lisping, like, an adolescent child who never went through puberty,” etc. Now, I’ve made a lot of phonograph records for RCA and Collumbia and whatnot and I listen to them. Well, I know that I have an unusual voice in many ways, but I don’t – can’t for the life of me find anything in which the words aren’t very distinctly pronounced. I mean, I think it’s something that they get into their heads that they think should be there, a lisp, that ought to be there, though it isn’t. So they just put it there. Anyway, none of that bothers me.

JW: Do you like the idea of “Sunday” for the title? With that subtitle?

TC: I think it’s good. JW: It does imply the idea of a whole day in the life.

TC: How are you going to fit this part of it in?

JW: I thought I’d say that Jann Wenner hadn’t prepared very well, but came to finish up the missing parts. I especially wanted to know more about Answered Prayers.

TC: Well, I’ve got an idea how you can do it. Finish the one interview. Then have, Jann Wenner, unprepared, decided to visit Mister C. in Palm Springs, and do the whole thing and then, instead of Andy, it’ll be you. Like a coda. 

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