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Who Was Truman Capote? The Author’s Rise to NYC’s High Society, Scandalous Downfall and ‘Feud’ Revival

Truman Capote’s controversial life is taking center stage in “Feud: Capote vs. The Swans,” the second season of the anthology series “Feud,” created by Ryan Murphy, Jaffe Cohen and Michael Zam, which will premiere on FX and Hulu on Wednesday.

Based on Laurence Leamer’s bestselling book “Capote’s Women: A True Story of Love, Betrayal and a Swan Song for an Era,” the series will focus on Capote’s relationship with a group of high society New York City socialites, with whom he became close friends and later betrayed them. Naomi Watts, Diane Lane, Chloë Sevigny, Calista Flockhart, Demi Moore and Molly Ringwald play the “Swans” — how Capote used to refer to his socialite friends — and Tom Hollander plays the late author.

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Tom Hollander as Truman Capote in “Feud: Capote vs. The Swans.”

One of the 20th century’s most well-known authors, Capote is credited for having transformed the nonfiction novel into a respected genre with “In Cold Blood,” in 1966, and for writing one of the most beloved characters in pop culture’s history, Holly Golightly, which was played by Audrey Hepburn in 1961’s “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.”

Capote’s contributions to American literature, journalism and dramaturgy are still the subject of fascination for many — and so is his public persona.

A lonely child

Born Truman Streckfus Persons in 1924, he changed his name to Truman Garcia Capote, assuming his stepfather’s last name, Joseph Capote, in 1935. In many interviews and through his work, Capote talked about being a lonely child who started writing at the age of 11.

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Truman Capote in 1950.

Capote was raised by elderly relatives in rural towns in Alabama and Louisiana during the Great Depression. He and Harper Lee, author of “To Kill a Mockingbird” (1960), were childhood friends who met each other in Monroeville, Ala., and became neighbors in New York. Their friendship was portrayed in the movies “Capote” (2005) and “Infamous” (2006).

Toby Jones, Truman Capote, Sandra Bullock, Harper Lee, Infamous
Toby Jones as Truman Capote and Sandra Bullock as Harper Lee in “Infamous.” (2006.)

Capote completed his secondary education at Greenwich High School in Connecticut. In 1945, his first short story, “Miriam,” was published in Mademoiselle magazine. In 1948, he published “Shut a Final Door” in The Atlantic Monthly, for which he won his first O. Henry Memorial Award.

His first novel, “Other Voices, Other Rooms” (1948), which also included biographical facts from his childhood, was praised by the critics upon its release and made it to The New York Times bestseller list.

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Truman Capote in Palm Springs, 1970.

“‘Other Voices, Other Rooms’ was an attempt to exorcise demons, an unconscious, altogether intuitive attempt, for I was not aware, except for a few incidents and descriptions, of its being in any serious degree autobiographical. Rereading it now, I find such self-deception unpardonable,” Capote wrote in “The Dogs Bark,” a collection of travel articles and personal sketches published in 1973.

“Breakfast at Tiffany’s”

Capote achieved success writing for different medias, including Broadway musicals and journalistic pieces. In 1954, he wrote the musical “House of Flowers.” In 1956, he explored his childhood in the autobiographical short story “A Christmas Memory,” which was adapted for television a decade later by ABC Stage 67. In 1957, he wrote a profile of Marlon Brando, titled “The Duke in His Domain,” for The New Yorker.

Then, in 1958, Capote released one of his most famous novels, “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.”

Inspired by Capote’s early days in New York City, “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” tells the story of Golightly, who was reportedly inspired by his former neighbor and her relationship with wealthy men from the Upper East Side. In 1961, the book was adapted into a film by director Blake Edwards, who chose Audrey Hepburn to play the main character.

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Audrey Hepburn as Holly Golightly in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.”

Hepburn worked with designer Hubert de Givenchy to create Golightly’s wardrobe, including the iconic black dress. However, Capote reportedly didn’t like Hepburn in the movie as he wanted Marilyn Monroe to play the main character.

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Truman Capote and Marilyn Monroe in 1955.

“In Cold Blood”

In 1965, Capote released what came to be known as his true crime masterpiece, the novel “In Cold Blood.” The book was based on the 1959 murders of four members of the Clutter family in Holcomb, Kan.

Truman Capote, The Philadelphia Story premiere, Truman Capote, old pictures of  Truman Capote, Truman Capote photos, who was Truman Capote,
Truman Capote at the premiere of “The Philadelphia Story” in 1967.

Capote’s “In Cold Blood” is credited as the first piece of what was described later by author Tom Wolfe as New Journalism, a genre and style of writing that combines elements of fiction with real facts.

After the book was released, different journalists and people involved with the real case accused Capote of embellishing the story to serve his narrative. In 2019, Gary McAvoy and Ronald R. Nye, the son of Kansas Bureau of Investigation Director Harold R. Nye, released “And Every Word Is True,” bringing another perspective to the case.

The Black and White Ball

Capote was a repeated figure in television talk shows and was always surrounded by members of New York City’s elite. His fame transcended his literary status.

After the success of “In Cold Blood,” the author used his influence to host the Black and White Ball at the Plaza Hotel in 1966. The event was hosted in honor of Washington Post editor Katharine Graham.

Truman Capote, Black and White Ball, plaza hotel in 1966
A couple in masks arriving at Truman Capote’s Black and White Ball at the Plaza Hotel in 1966.

The guest list included 540 invitees, including Frank Sinatra, Fred Astaire, Mia Farrow, Gloria Vanderbilt, fashion icon Babe Paley, Jacqueline Kennedy’s youngest sister Lee Radziwill, and designers Halston and James Galanos. The event made headlines as one of the first major celebrity parties in the U.S. with guests from different spheres.

The Black and White Ball was also one of Capote’s last parties before the author entered an era of negative publicity.

Capote’s downfall and “Answered Prayers”

After “In Cold Blood,” Capote failed to receive the same praise and recognition from critics with his following projects. In 1975, he released a short story titled “La Côte Basque 1965” in Esquire magazine, in which he exposed stories and secrets from his high-society friends; it marked the downfall of Capote in New York City’s high society.

The story was part of his last book “Answered Prayers,” which was released after his death in 1985 as an unfinished project.

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Truman Capote and C.Z. Guest in 1976.

Paley, Radziwill, Ann Woodward, Slim Keith, C.Z. Guest, Gloria Guinness, Marella Agnelli and Pamela Harriman, the women who felt exposed and betrayed by Capote’s work, isolated him.

In his last years, Capote fought against alcoholism and addiction, giving interviews on talk shows while appearing to be intoxicated. He also frequented drug rehabilitation clinics.

Capote traveled to Los Angeles to stay with friend Joanne Carson, Johnny Carson’s ex-wife. He died at her home on Aug. 25, 1984, from liver disease complicated by phlebitis and multiple drug intoxication.

Capote’s partner

Capote was openly gay at a time when homosexuality wasn’t accepted by the majority of society.

“But I’m not a saint yet. I’m an alcoholic. I’m a drug addict. I’m homosexual. I’m a genius,” he said in “Music for Chameleons,” released in 1980.

Capote had a long relationship with partner and fellow author Jack Dunphy, who wrote about him in “Dear Genius: A Memoir of My Life with Truman Capote” released in 1987. Dunphy died in 1992.

Truman Capote Literary Trust

The author set a lifetime annuity for his partner, Jack Dunphy, who received royalties from Capote’s books until the end of his life.

In 1994, Alan U. Schwartz, Capote’s literary executor, founded the Truman Capote Literary Trust, a charitable trust that supports scholarships for creative writing. The trust also created the annual Truman Capote Award for Literary Criticism in Memory of Newton Arvin — Newton Arvin was an American literature professor who lost his job after his homosexuality was exposed.

Books by Truman Capote

  • “Other Voices, Other Rooms” (1948)

  • “A Tree of Night and Other Stories” (1949)

  • “The Grass Harp” (1951)

  • “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” (1958)

  • “Observations” (1959)

  • “In Cold Blood” (1966)

  • “A Christmas Memory” (1966)

  • “The Thanksgiving Visitor” (1968)

  • “Music for Chameleons” (1980)

  • “Answered Prayers” (Unfinished, published in 1986)

Truman Capote’s Style Through the Years

(From left) Truman Capote, Lee Radziwell and Rachel Lambert Lloyd arriving at an event at the Asia House hosted by Jacqueline Kennedy for John K. Galbraith in New York
(From left) Truman Capote, Lee Radziwell and Rachel Lambert Lloyd arriving at an event at the Asia House hosted by Jacqueline Kennedy for John K. Galbraith in New York
Washington Post publisher Katherine Graham and writer Truman Capote arriving at Truman Capote's Black and White Ball in the Grand Ballroom at the Plaza Hotel in New York City
Washington Post publisher Katherine Graham and writer Truman Capote arriving at Truman Capote's Black and White Ball in the Grand Ballroom at the Plaza Hotel in New York City
Truman Capote arriving for a party in his honor
Truman Capote arriving for a party in his honor

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Launch Gallery: Truman Capote's Style Through the Years

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