Tribute: 30 Years Ago, Truman Capote Died
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Tribute: 30 Years Ago, Truman Capote Died


capoteNobody ever questioned the brilliance of Truman Capote. Hired straight out of high school by The New Yorker at age 17 and winning the prestigious O’Henry award at 21 for his short story “Miriam,” Capote was on the fast track to literary celebrity. Then came the iconic Breakfast At Tiffany’s and his masterpiece, In Cold Blood. Yet Capote’s downfall was as rapid and dramatic as his ascent. Like the actor who would later win an Oscar for playing him, Capote ended up another casualty of addiction and celebrity.

Capote’s flamboyant persona and quirky appearance were as memorable as his literary output. By turns bubbly and acerbic, he charmed his way into New York high society as his success mounted. Openly homosexual long before the gay rights movement had gained a toehold, he cultivated a reputation as a provocateur. But Capote’s love of fame and controversy ultimately fueled the descent into alcoholism and drug abuse that would ultimately claim his life.

Many believe the harrowing research he did for In Cold Blood catalyzed Capote’s addiction. By all accounts, after four years delving into the grisly Kansas murder case and corresponding with the killers themselves, Capote was irrevocably changed. He began to drink more heavily and take tranquilizers to calm his nerves.

But if his immersion in the dark world of true crime was the beginning of Capote’s downward spiral, the real tipping point came with the fallout from the publication of “La Côte Basque 1965.” One manifestation of his addiction was his obsession with the glamour of high society. And just like his fondness for substances, his fascination with the rich and famous spun out of control. In the late 60s, Capote had positioned himself as a darling of the jet set. He befriended Jackie Onassis and Gloria Vanderbilt and even hosted a star-studded Black and White Ball at the Plaza Hotel.

“La Côte Basque 1965” changed all that. The piece, published in Esquire in 1975, presented a mordant portrait of Capote’s beloved socialites, including thinly-veiled accounts of infidelity and even murder. Capote intended the story to be the beginning of a novel called Answered Prayers, for which he had ambitions of Proustian proportions. But it was roundly perceived as a betrayal. Capote didn’t anticipate the backlash, which peaked when Ann Woodward committed suicide after the story insinuated she had knowingly rather than accidentally shot her husband. In the wake of the scandal, the writer’s former friends turned against him, which fueled his escalating alcoholism and drug use.

The late 70s marked the onset of Capote’s social, artistic and physical decline. Outcast by the high society he adored, he fled to the Studio 54 scene where he indulged liberally in cocaine. His drinking and drugging often left him incapacitated and strained his 35-year relationship with Jack Dunphy. Despite multiple trips to rehab, including stints at Hazelden and Smithers, nothing seemed to stick. Before long his lifestyle had rendered him almost unrecognizable.

“Long before Truman died,” Capote’s acquaintance John Richardson recounted to Vanity Fair, “I saw a sort of bag lady with two enormous bags wandering around the corner of Lexington and 73rd, where I lived then. And suddenly, I realized, Christ! It’s Truman!” Richardson then invited Capote up to his apartment, where the author put away half a bottle of liquor in the time it took his host to make tea. “I had to take him outside and gently put him into a cab.”

Ironically, Capote’s public struggles with addiction had made him a celebrity scandal in his own right. He made headlines in 1978 when he appeared under the influence on a local morning talk show. After he admitted to host Stanley Siegel that he’d been up for 48 hours straight, Siegel asked him candidly, “What’s going to happen unless you lick this problem of drugs and alcohol?” Never one to sugar-coat, Capote replied, “The obvious answer is that eventually I’ll kill myself…without meaning to.”

Indeed, his health was disintegrating so rapidly it alarmed his friends. He suffered several bad falls and was hospitalized in 1980 after a hallucinatory seizure. Years of alcoholism had ravaged his liver, and phlebitis had left him with a clot in his lung. Between his failing health and the loss of his driver’s license—revoked when he was speeding on Long Island—Capote began to withdraw from the world. While he claimed to be working on Answered Prayers, his writing eventually slowed to a trickle.

Perhaps Capote knew he was doomed when he bought a one-way plane ticket to Los Angeles on August 23, 1984. The 59-year-old spent his last days with longtime friend Joanne Carson, ex-wife of Johnny, who had frequently hosted him in California. On August 25, Carson found Capote gasping for breath in the guest bedroom. He died of liver disease complicated by phlebitis and multiple drug intoxication before the paramedics could arrive.

Truman Capote’s literary legacy will endure, but it’s hard not to wonder what other works he might have left us with had he not spiraled into self-destruction. The tragedy of his fall from grace is a classic tale of celebrity gone toxic—one he surely would have appreciated.

Photo courtesy of By MOSCOT ( [CC BY-SA 4.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

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About Author

Erica Larsen AKA Eren Harris blogs at Whitney Calls and Clean Bright Day. Their writing has also been published on Salon, Selfish, Violet Rising and YourTango. They live in Los Angeles with their husband and their enormous cat.