Truman Streckfus Persons was born on September 24, 1924, in New Orleans, Louisiana. His parents, Archulus Persons and Lillie Mae Faulk, were divorced when he was four years old. He lived with relatives in Monroeville, Alabama, while his mother and her second husband, Cuban businessman Joseph Capote, lived in New York.
His closest friends at this time were an elderly cousin, Miss Sook Faulk, and a neighboring tomboy, Harper Lee (1926–). She later became an award-winning author herself, writing To Kill a Mockingbird. Both friends appear as characters in Capote’s early fiction.
When Truman was nine years old, his mother brought her son to live in Manhattan, New York. He then took on his adopted last name, Capote. He continued to spend summers in the South. He did poorly in school, even though psychological tests proved that his IQ was above genius level. Truman developed an outgoing personality to hide his loneliness and unhappiness.
Truman began secretly writing at an early age. When he completed high school, he worked for The New Yorker. There he wrote articles and short stories. He also made important social contacts and later became a frequent guest on television talk shows. When he was seventeen, several magazines published his short stories. That exposure eventually led to a contract to write his first book, Other Voices, Other Rooms. Set in the South, the novel centers on a young man’s search for his father and his loss of innocence as he passes into manhood. Many critics and readers believed that the novel was autobiographical.
Many of Capote’s early stories were written when he was in his teens and early twenties. Collected in A Tree of Night and Other Stories, these stories show the influence of Gothic writers such as Edgar Allan Poe (1809–1849), Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804– 1864), and William Faulkner (1897–1962). Many of the stories are filled with bizarre incidents and characters suffering from mental and physical disorders. Yet some of the tales have a humorous tone. Critics often place his early fiction into two categories: light stories or bizarre stories. In later years Capote commented that many of those stories reflected the anxiety and feelings of insecurity he experienced as a child.
In some of Capote’s works of the 1950s, his attention is turned away from traditional fiction. In Local Color he wrote a collection of pieces retelling his impressions and experiences while in Europe. In The Muses Are Heard: An Account he wrote essays about his travels in Russia with a touring theater company that presented the play Porgy and Bess.
Before Capote found his main subject, he published one more traditional novel, Breakfast at Tiffany’s. It was an engaging story of Manhattan playgirl Holly Golightly. In 1952 the novel was adapted as a Broadway drama. Critics believe Breakfast at Tiffany’s is a good example of a maturity lacking in Capote’s early fiction. Though Capote conceived his story as fiction, he was already drawing heavily from real life incidents. Capote saw the second phase of his development as a writer come to a close with Breakfast at Tiffany’s. He turned his efforts toward writing as an art form.
From these projects Capote developed the idea of creating work that would combine fact and fiction. The result was In Cold Blood. Originally, chapters of the book appeared in several issues of The New Yorker and the work was later published in book form. This book describes the murder of Kansas farmer Herbert W. Clutter and his family in November 1959. Capote and Harper Lee, his childhood friend, went to Holcomb, Kansas, to research the case. The town residents were not only emotionally shocked and upset about the murders, but they were also deeply suspicious of Capote and his motives. He retraced the killers’ flight to Miami, Florida, and Acapulco, Mexico. He did months of research on the criminal mind and interviewed a number of death row killers. Before he began writing, Capote had gathered over six thousand pages of notes. All told, the project, which Capote regarded as the third phase of his writing development, took almost six years. In Cold Blood, published in 1965, became a bestseller. Capote received an Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America.
In the late 1960s Capote began suffering from writer’s block. He spent most of his time revising or throwing out his works in progress. During the mid-1970s he published several chapters of Answered Prayers in Esquire magazine. It was a gossip-filled chronicle of society’s jet set. The stories revealed intimate details about his society friends. Most critics found the chapters disappointing. His friends felt betrayed and refused to have contact with him.
During his youth, Capote developed a flashy and humorous style. He often became a frequent guest on television shows. He admitted that he was obsessed with fame. He constantly sought social privilege and public celebrity, objectives he achieved back in 1948 with the appearance of his first novel, Other Voices, Other Rooms. Throughout his life Capote made friends with the rich and famous, observing their weaknesses with a watchful eye and developing trust and close friendships he would later betray.
In 1983, Music for Chameleons, a final collection of short prose pieces, was published. Capote approached his writing by setting himself at “center stage.” It included using dialogue, stage direction, narrative, and a variety of literary techniques. Critics gave less than warm reviews of Music for Chameleons.
Afterward, Capote took to alcohol, drug addiction, and suffered poor health. He died in Los Angeles, California, on August 24, 1984, shortly before his sixtieth birthday. According to his friends and editors, the only portions of Answered Prayers he had managed to complete were those that had appeared in Esquire several years before.
Critical assessment of Capote’s career is highly divided, both in terms of individual works and his overall contribution to literature. Though the nonfiction novel was his most original contribution to the literary world, Capote also produced short stories, plays, straight reportage, television adaptations from books or plays, and film scripts. His main faults were overwriting and creating strange plots. Most praise his storytelling abilities and the quality of his prose.