Truman Capote on 'Answered Prayers' and Real-Life Swans

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Truman Capote Interviews HimselfJack Mitchell - Getty Images

Content warning: This story, which was originally published in the July 1978 issue of Cosmopolitan, discusses suicidal ideation.

Six years ago this month, Truman Capote treated Cosmo to a portrait of himself in which he posed and answered hard questions on the nature of love and friendship and other matters of heart and mind. Much has touched him deeply since then, not the least of which was the brouhaha raised by the publication in Esquire of four chapters of Answered Prayers, his current novel-in-progress.

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To find out how he has coped with the vitriol spewed forth by his so-called friends (many of whom thought themselves ruthlessly pricked by the Tiny Terror’s pen), to learn just how this giant among novelists feels today about the vagaries of life and death, the capriciousness of art and the spoken word, we persuaded Mr. Capote to write a second installment of his self-interview especially for us. Consummate stylist that he is, he picks up the threads of his Q&A tale precisely where he left off in 1972, with the words “But I’m not afraid, am I?”

What, if anything, frightens you?

Unknown shadows. Real toads in imaginary gardens.

No, but in real life—

I’m talking about real life.

Well, let me put it another way. What, of your own experiences, have been the most frightening?

Betrayals—in terms of friendship and love.

But you want something more specific? Well, my very earliest childhood memory was on the scary side. I was probably three years old, perhaps a little younger, and I was on a visit to the St. Louis Zoo, accompanied by a large Black woman my mother had hired to take me there. Suddenly, there was pandemonium. Children, women, grown men were shouting and hurrying in every direction. Two lions had escaped from their cages! Two bloodthirsty beasts were on the prowl in the park. My nurse panicked. She simply turned and ran, leaving me alone on the path. That’s all I remember about it.

When I was nine years old, I was bitten by a cotton-mouth water moccasin. Together with some cousins, I’d gone exploring in a lonesome forest about six miles from the rural Alabama town where we lived. There was a narrow, shallow crystal river that ran through this forest. There was a huge fallen log that lay across it from bank to bank like a bridge. My cousins, balancing themselves, ran across the log, but I decided to wade the little river. Just as I was about to reach the farther bank, I saw an enormous cottonmouth moccasin swimming, slithering on the water’s shadowy surface. My own mouth went dry as cotton; I was paralyzed, numb, as though my whole body had been needled with Novocain. The snake kept sliding, winding toward me. When it was within inches of me, I spun around, slipped on a bed of slippery creek pebbles. The cottonmouth bit me on the knee. Turmoil. My cousins took turns carrying me piggyback until we reached a farmhouse. While the farmer hitched up his mule-drawn wagon, his only vehicle, his wife caught a number of chickens, ripped them apart alive, and applied the hot bleeding birds to my knee. “It draws out the poison,” she said, and indeed the flesh of the chickens turned green.

All the way into town, my cousins kept killing chickens and applying them to the wound. Once we were home, my family telephoned a hospital in Montgomery, a hundred miles away, and five hours later a doctor arrived with a snake serum. I was one sick boy, and the only good thing about it was I missed two months of school.

Once, on my way to Japan, I stayed overnight in Hawaii with Doris Duke in the extraordinary, somewhat Persian palace she had built on a cliff at Diamond Head. It was scarcely daylight when I woke up and decided to go exploring. The room in which I slept had French doors leading into a garden overlooking the ocean. I had been strolling in the garden perhaps half a minute when a terrifying herd of German shepherds appeared, seemingly out of nowhere; they surrounded and kept me captive within the snarling circle they made. No one had warned me that, each night after Miss Duke and her guests had retired, this crowd of homicidal canines was let loose to deter, and possibly punish, unwelcome intruders.

The dogs did not attempt to touch me; they just stood there, coldly staring at me and quivering in controlled rage. I was afraid to breathe; I felt if I moved my foot one scintilla, the beasts would spring forward to rip me apart. My hands were trembling; my legs, too. My hair was as wet as if I’d just stepped out of the ocean. There is nothing more exhausting than standing perfectly still, yet I managed to do it for over an hour. Rescue arrived in the form of a gardener who, when he saw what was happening, merely whistled and clapped his hands, and all the demon dogs rushed to greet him with friendly wagging tails. Those are tales of specific terror. Still, our real fears are the sounds of footsteps walking in the corridors of our minds.

What are some of the things you can do?

I can ice-skate. I can ski. I can read upside down. I can ride a skateboard. I can hit a tossed can with a.38 revolver. I have driven a Maserati (at dawn, on a flat, lonely Texas road) at 170 mph. I can make a souffle Furstenberg (this is quite a stunt: It is a cheese-and-spinach concoction that involves sinking six poached eggs into the batter before cooking; the trick is to have the egg yolks remain soft and runny when the souffle is served). I can tap dance. I can tell fortunes. I can type sixty words a minute.

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Capote in Palm Springs, 1970.Slim Aarons - Getty Images

And what are some of the things you can’t do?

I can’t recite the alphabet, at least not correctly or all the way through (not even under hypnosis; it’s an impediment that has fascinated several psychotherapists). I am a mathematical imbecile—I can add, more or less, but I can’t subtract, and I failed first-year algebra three times, even with the help of a private tutor. I can read without glasses, but I can’t drive without them. I can’t speak Italian, even though I lived in Italy a total of nine years. I can’t make a prepared speech—it has to be spontaneous, “on the wing,” as it were (and last year I lectured at thirty-two colleges!). I can’t drink, though from an early age—fourteen—I have hoisted a heavy glass, and with remarkably small effect. But suddenly, my favorite Bordeaux turned on me, so I’ve had to give them up. I find sobriety an entirely new world, and a more pleasurable one: Everything quietens, sounds soften, colors pale to restful pastels. But then, after I relinquished vodka and wine, I started, after an abstinence of fifteen years, smoking again: a pack and a half, two packs a day. It seems as though I can’t function without at least one vice, or shall we say two?

Do you have a “motto?”

Sort of. I jotted it down in a schoolboy diary: I Aspire. I don’t know why I chose those particular words; odd they are, and I like the ambiguity—do I aspire to heaven or hell? Whatever the case, they have an undeniably noble ring. Last winter, I was wandering in a seacoast cemetery near Mendocino—a New England village in far northern California, a rough place where the water is too cold to swim and where the whales go piping past. It was a lovely little cemetery, and the dates on the sea-gray-green tombstones were mostly nineteenth century; almost all of them had an inscription of some sort, something that revealed the tenant’s philosophy. One read: NO COMMENT. So I began to think what I would have inscribed on my Tombstone—except that I shall never have one, because two very gifted fortunetellers, one Haitian, the other an Indian revolutionary who lives in Moscow, have told me I will be lost at sea, though I don’t know whether by accident or by choice (comme ça Hart Crane). Anyway, the first inscription I thought of was: AGAINST MY BETTER JUDGMENT.

Then I thought of something far more characteristic. For instance, when I set off on that depleting cross-country university tour, many of my friends said, “But why are you doing this?” And I would answer, “I don’t know. I tried to get out of it, but I couldn’t.” This is an excuse, a phrase I use about almost any commitment. So, if by chance I do have a tombstone, that is what I shall have inscribed: I TRIED TO GET OUT OF IT, BUT I COULDN’T.

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Capote leaving The Four Seasons with one of his swans, Lee Radziwill, 1969. Bettmann - Getty Images

About that university tour—it definitely does sound like something you would have preferred not to do.

Indeed. Indeed. And if I had known what it entailed, I would have claimed illness and put myself in a hospital. As it was, I did end up in a hospital. (Incidentally, it was the same type of tour that Dylan Thomas took—and, aided by a lot of liquor, it did kill him.) The endless travel, constant change of climate, those huge auditoriums, and those thousands of faces, and those two long hours on stage trying to keep the whole thing together.

Now, having undergone the experience, I’m asked by many people what I think of the current American collegiate crop. On the whole, I think the average older citizen would be surprised, perhaps amazed, at how polite they are, very informed and serious. Also, the legend that the younger generation is entirely visual-minded, interested only in films and television, is false. They do read. They read a hell of a lot. As far as contemporary authors go, I consider myself au courant, but quite often students asked me about writers I’d never heard of. One surprise: J.D. Salinger [the reclusive author whose Catcher in the Rye was long the bible for rebellious collegians] seems to have been totally forgotten; Herman Hesse [author of such pop-cult books as Steppenwolf and Siddhartha] is the present campus favorite.

Speaking of films, are there any of today’s performers who appeal to you especially?

Yes. Isabelle Adjani—fine, subtle, a beautiful young actress. And then my particular favorite—Jodie Foster, who played the twelve-year-old prostitute in Taxi Driver (a bad movie, but she was marvelous). I would like to do a remake of Breakfast at Tiffany’s, an honest version with Jodie Foster as Holly Golightly. I can understand why the first film version was a success; it had a slick, commercial charm. But Audrey Hepburn, much as I like her personally, was far too elegant and delicate for Holly. Yet Jodie Foster, who is only fifteen, could easily play a girl of twenty. She has the qualities to be a true film star in the old tradition—an interesting combination of Carole Lombard and Margaret Sullivan and somebody very much her original own self.

On the other hand, who displeases you particularly?

I don’t, and never will, understand the elevated status of squint-eyed Jack Nicholson, or, indeed, that whole cult of deeply unattractive leading men: Dustin Hoffman, Richard Benjamin, Richard Dreyfuss, et al. Except for his arrogance, ignorance, and egomania, Marlon Brando has lost everything: looks, talent, the whole enchilada.

Not long ago, you made your own debut as a film actor (in Murder by Death). And?

I’m not an actor; I have no desire to be one. I did it as a lark; I thought it would be amusing, and it was fun, more or less, but it was also hard work: up at six and never out of the studio before seven or eight. For the most part, the critics gave me a bouquet of garlic. But I expected that; everyone did—it was what you might call an obligatory reaction. Actually, I was quite adequate in the part.

As for reactions, what is your opinion of all the infuriated comments that have been made about the chapters from your new novel (Answered Prayers) which have been appearing in Esquire magazine?

To begin with, the majority of the haut monde folk who have been raising the hue and cry haven’t really read these chapters (nor much of anything else, either)—they’ve just been told about them, and told what to think. To them, it is dinner-chatter fodder. To me, it is a serious matter, and the book a work of art. As for my more literate—supposedly literate—detractors: One cannot judge a book until one has seen it as a whole.

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Tuckered out from too much partying, Capote is flanked by his protégée Kate Harrington (l) and movie star Gloria Swanson at Studio 54, 1978.Ron Galella - Getty Images

How do you handle "the recognition factor?"

Ah, the recognition factor, as some media personalities so quaintly term it. Well, I’m accustomed to being recognized, and have been for thirty years. It doesn’t bother me a bit, and it’s very useful when you want to cash a check in some strange locale. Also, it can occasionally have amusing consequences. For instance, one night I was sitting with friends at a table in a crowded Key West bar. At a nearby table, there was a mildly drunk woman with a very drunk husband. Presently, the woman approached me and asked me to sign a paper napkin. All this seemed to anger her husband; he staggered over to the table and, after unzipping his trousers and hauling out his equipment, said, “Since you’re autographing things, why don’t you autograph this?” The tables surrounding us had grown silent, so a great many people heard my reply, which was: “I don’t know if I can autograph it, but perhaps I can initial it.”

Ordinarily, I don’t mind giving autographs (though God knows why people want them or what they do with them), but there is one thing that rather gets my goat: Without exception, every grown man who has ever asked me for an autograph in a restaurant or on an airplane has always been careful to say that he wanted it for his wife or his daughter or his girlfriend, but never, never just for himself.

I have a friend with whom I often take long walks on city streets. Frequently, some fellow stroller will pass us, hesitate, frown a sort of is-it-or-isn’t-it frown, then stop me and ask, “Are you Truman Capote?” And I’ll say, “Yes, I’m Truman Capote.” Whereupon my friend will scowl and shake me and shout, “For Christ’s sake, George—when are you going to stop this? Someday you’re going to get into serious trouble!”

Do you consider conversation an art?

A dying one, yes. Most of the renowned conversationalists—Samuel Johnson, Oscar Wilde, Whistler, Jean Cocteau, Lady Astor, Lady Cunard, Alice Roosevelt Longworth—are monologists, not conversationalists. A conversation is a dialogue, not a monologue. That is why there are so few good conversations: Two intelligent talkers, due to scarcity, seldom meet. Of the list just provided, the only two I’ve known personally are Cocteau and Mrs. Longworth (as for her, I take it back—she is not a solo performer; she lets you share the air).

Among the best conversationalists I’ve conversed with are Gore Vidal (if you are not the victim of his couth, sometimes uncouth, wit), Cecil Beaton (who, not surprisingly, expresses himself almost entirely in visual images—some very beautiful and some sublimely wicked: When he hates somebody, he really hates). The late Danish genius the Baroness Blixen, who wrote under the pseudonym Isak Dinesen, was, despite her withered though distinguished appearance, a true seductress, a conversational seductress. Ah, how fascinating she was, sitting by the fire in her beautiful house in a Danish seaside village, chain-smoking black cigarettes with silver tips, cooling her lively tongue with draughts of champagne, and luring one from this topic to that—her years as a farmer in Africa (be certain to read—if you haven’t already—her autobiographical Out of Africa, one of this century’s finest books), life under the Nazis in occupied Denmark (“They adored me. We argued, but they didn’t care what I said; they didn’t care what any woman said—it was a completely masculine society. And besides, they had no idea I was hiding Jews in my cellar, along with winter apples and cases of champagne”).

Just skimming off the top of my head, other conversationalists I would rate highly are Christopher Isherwood (no one surpasses him for total but lightly expressed candor), the feline-like Colette. Marilyn Monroe was very amusing when she felt sufficiently relaxed and had had enough to drink. The same might be said of the lamented screen scenarist Harry Kurnitz, an exceedingly homely gentleman who conquered men and women and children of all classes with his verbal flights. Diana Vreeland, the eccentric Abbess of High Fashion and one-time, longtime editor of Vogue, is a charmer of a talker, a snake charmer.

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Capote with Marilyn Monroe dancing at El Morocco, 1955.Bettmann - Getty Images

When I was eighteen, I met the person whose conversation has impressed me the most, perhaps because the person in question is the one who has most impressed me. It happened as follows:

In New York, on East 79th Street, there is a very pleasant shelter known as the New York Society Library, and during 1942, I spent many afternoons there researching a book I intended writing but never did. Occasionally, I saw a woman there whose appearance rather mesmerized me—her eyes especially blue, the pale brilliant cloudless blue of prairie skies. But even without this singular feature, her face was interesting-firm-jawed, handsome, a bit androgynous. Pepper-salt hair parted in the middle. Sixty-five, thereabouts. A lesbian? Well, yes. One January day, I emerged from the library into the twilight to find a heavy snowfall in progress. The lady with the blue eyes, wearing a nicely cut black coat with a sable collar, was waiting at the curb. A gloved, taxi-summoning hand was poised in the air, but there were no taxis. She looked at me and smiled and said, “Do you think a cup of hot chocolate would help? There’s a Longchamps around the corner.”

She ordered hot chocolate, I asked for a “very” dry martini. Half-seriously, she said, “Are you old enough?”

“I’ve been drinking since I was fourteen. Smoking, too.”

“You don’t look more than fourteen now.”

“I’ll be nineteen next September.” Then I told her a few things: that I was from New Orleans, that I’d published several short stories, that I wanted to be a writer and was working on a novel. And she wanted to know what writers I liked. American. “Hawthorne, Henry James, Emily Dickinson... ” No, living. Ah, well, hmm, let’s see: How difficult, the rivalry factor being what it is, for one contemporary author, or would-be author, to confess admiration for another. At last, I said, “Not Hemingway—a really dishonest man, the closet, everything. Not Thomas Wolfe—all that purple upchuck; of course, he isn’t living. Faulkner, sometimes: Light in August. Fitzgerald, sometimes: Diamond as Big as the Ritz, Tender ls the Night. I really like Willa Cather. Have you read My Mortal Enemy?” With no particular expression, she said, “Actually, I wrote it.”

I had seen photographs of Willa Cather. Long-ago ones, made perhaps in the early twenties. Softer, homelier, less elegant than my companion. And yet I knew instantly that she was Willa Cather, and it was one of the frissons of my life. I began to babble about her books like a schoolboy my favorites: A Lost Lady, The Professor’s House, My Antonia. It wasn’t that I had anything in common with her as a writer. I would never have chosen for myself her sort of subject matter, or tried to emulate her style. It was just that I considered her a great artist. As good as Flaubert. We became friends; she read my work and was always a fair and helpful judge. She was full of surprises. For one thing, she and her lifelong friend, Miss Lewis, lived in a spacious, furnished Park Avenue apartment—somehow, the notion of Miss Cather living in a lively apartment on Park Avenue seemed incongruous with her Nebraska upbringing, with the simple, rather elegiac nature of her novels. Secondly, her principal interest was not literature but music. She went to concerts constantly, and almost all her closest friends were musical personalities, particularly Yehudi Menuhin and his sister Hephzibah.

Like all authentic conversationalists, she was an excellent listener. And when it was her turn to talk, she was never garrulous but crisply pointed. Once, she told me I was overly sensitive to criticism. The truth was she was more sensitive to critical slights than I; any disparaging reference to her work caused a decline in spirits. When I pointed this out to her, she said, “Yes. But aren’t we all always seeking out our own vices in others and reprimanding them for such possessions? I’m alive. I have clay feet. Very definitely.”

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Capote with Betsy Bloomingdale at Bistro in Los Angeles, 1975. WWD - Getty Images

Do you have any favorite spectator sport?

Fireworks. Myriad-colored sprays of evanescent designs glittering night skies. The very best I’ve seen were in Japan. These Japanese masters can create fiery creatures in the air: slithering dragons, exploding cats, faces of pagan deities. Italians, Venetians especially, can explode masterworks in the night skies above the Grand Canal.

Do you have many sexual fantasies?

When I do have a sexual fantasy, usually I try to transfer it into reality, sometimes successfully. However, I do often find myself drifting into erotic daydreams that remain just that—daydreams.

I remember once having a conversation on this subject with the late E. M. Forster, to my mind the finest English novelist of this century. He said that as a schoolboy, sexual thoughts dominated his mind. He said, “I felt as I grew older, this fever would lessen, even leave me. But that was not the case; it raged on through my twenties, and I thought, Well, surely by the time I’m forty, I will receive some release from this torment, this constant search for the perfect love object. But it was not to be; all through my forties, lust was always lurking inside my head. And then I was fifty, and then I was sixty, and nothing changed: Sexual images continued to spin around my brain like figures on a carousel. Now here I am in my seventies, and I am still a prisoner of my sexual imagination. I’m stuck with it—just at an age when I can no longer do anything about it.”

Have you ever considered suicide?

Certainly. And so has everyone else, except possibly the village idiot. Soon after the suicide of the esteemed Japanese writer Yukio Mishima, whom I knew rather well, a biography about him was published, and, to my dismay, the author quotes him as saying: “Oh yes, I think of suicide a great deal. And I know a number of people I’m certain will kill themselves. Truman Capote, for instance.” I couldn’t imagine what had brought him to this conclusion. My visits with Mishima had always been jolly, very cordial. But Mishima was a sensitive, extremely intuitive man, not someone to be taken lightly. But in this matter, I think his intuition failed him; I would never have the courage to do what he did (he had a friend decapitate him with a sword). And anyway, as I’ve said somewhere before, most people who take their own lives do so because they really want to kill someone else—a philandering husband, an unfaithful lover, a treacherous friend—but they haven't the guts to do it, so they kill themselves instead. Not me; anyone who had worked me into that kind of a position would find himself looking down the barrel of a shotgun.

Do you believe in a God, or, at any rate, some higher power?

No. But I believe in an afterlife. That is to say, I’m sympathetic to the notion of reincarnation.

In your own afterlife, how would you like to be reincarnated?

As a bird, preferably a buzzard. A buzzard doesn’t have to bother about his appearance or ability to beguile and please; he doesn’t have to put on any phony airs. Nobody is going to like him anyway; he is ugly, unwanted, unwelcome everywhere. There is a lot to be said for that, the sort of freedom it allows. On the other hand, I wouldn’t mind being a sea turtle. Sea turtles can roam the land, and they know the secrets of the ocean’s depths. Also, they are long-lived, and their hooded eyes accumulate much wisdom.

If you could be granted one wish, what would it be?

To wake up one morning and feel that I was at last a grown-up person, emptied of resentment, vengeful thoughts, and other wasteful, childish emotions. To find myself, in other words, an adult.

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