Like his literary hero Gustave Flaubert, Truman Capote was passionately dedicated to his art. He wrote: ‘Flaubert’s attitude towards writing, his sense of perfectionism, is what I would like mine to be.’ Capote began writing at the age of eight and by the time he was 10 realised he wanted to be a writer. Every day he played with his pens and paper, like a musician practising an instrument, and through this rigorous, self-imposed training he developed one of the most exquisite, true writing styles in the English language. Capote’s mastery of the art of writing is everywhere manifest in his second novel, The Grass Harp, published in 1951. His childhood friend Harper Lee—who based the character Dill in To Kill a Mockingbird on Capote—aptly described him as ‘a pocket Merlin’, and such wonder did this mini magician weave into The Grass Harp that after reading the first five chapters his publisher Robert Linscott wrote to him that he adored every word ‘and had to stop every few paragraphs to hug myself with pleasure. If the last chapter is as good as the preceding ones, this is really going to be a masterpiece.’
Following the commercial and critical success of his first novel, the haunted Other Voices, Other Rooms (1948), Capote was feted across America—as much for the photograph on the novel’s back cover of a delicately beautiful Capote reclining seductively gazing up through a fringe of blond hair, as for his precocious talent and the stylish precision of his prose. Capote, who had long dreamt of fame and fortune, relished his new-found notoriety; but in April 1950, seeking the sun and a quiet place to work, he escaped America to travel to Sicily with his lover, writer Jack Dunphy. They rented an old stone farmhouse in Taormina with views over Mount Etna and the Ionian Sea (the house in which D.H. Lawrence had spent two productive years from March 1920) and here Capote devoted himself to writing each morning with a fierce discipline, ‘as calculating as an accountant checking receipts’. He soon tore up the novel he’d been working on for some years (Summer Crossings, a social comedy set in New York’s high society) and turned instead to his early childhood in Monroeville, Alabama, a small town surrounded by fields of corn and cotton where, in the summer of 1930, his parents had abandoned him aged 5 with his mother’s cousins: three elderly sisters and a brother.
The story Capote conjured from his Sicilian memories of his childhood in southern USA was The Grass Harp. Dedicated ‘In memory of affections deep and true’ to Miss Sook Faulk, one of the three elderly Monroeville sisters, the novel shimmers with the fragile power of Capote’s childhood memories, of those affections deep and true. The Grass Harp, narrated by Collin Fenwick, opens with a question:
When was it that first I heard of the grass harp? Long before the autumn we lived in the China tree; an earlier autumn, then; and of course it was Dolly who told me, no one else would have known to call it that, a grass harp.
At the age of 11 Collin is sent to live with his father’s unmarried old cousins, Dolly and Verena Talbo, following his mother’s death (his father, who had run naked into the yard mad with grief, is unable to care for his son). Unexpectedly, the noisy prying boy finds a place in the reclusive Talbo sisters’ large rambling house, in the warm, sweet-smelling kitchen run by Dolly and her friend Catherine Creek: ‘Though no honours came my way, those were the lovely years.’ The central drama of the story is sparked when the severe, business-minded Verena betrays Dolly’s trust, and Dolly, Catherine and Collin take refuge in the only other house they know, a tree house in a China tree. Capote’s novel, as gentle as the grass harp that whispers the stories of all the people who ever lived, is remarkable for its beautifully drawn characters, lilting Southern rhythms and lucid prose, more remarkable perhaps because of the explosive personality that produced it.
Capote once said of himself: ‘I’m about as tall as a shotgun—and just as noisy.’ That is, a shotgun possessed by an extraordinary gift for writing prose of delicate precision and subtle depths. At its best, his prose has a sublime simplicity: ‘I prefer to underwrite. Simple, clear as a country creek.’ And yet Capote himself was prone to excess and boisterous high spirits; he was a social butterfly who knew everyone, from Tennessee Williams and W.H. Auden to Lee Radziwill, from European princesses and multimillionaires to Cecil Beaton and Andy Warhol.
Born Truman Streckfus Persons in New Orleans in 1924, Capote was an unwanted child from his conception. His mother was a Southern belle whose dreams of success were dashed soon after her marriage to Archie Persons, a big-talking adventurer who never made good, and she divorced him when Capote was seven and still living with her relatives in Monroeville. In 1932 she married a successful businessman, Joseph Gracia Capote, and decided to have her son back, so young Capote was sent from Monroeville to live with them in New York that same year, which was when he took his stepfather’s surname. His mother, now Nina Capote, drank heavily and accused her son of being a ‘sissy’. Tormented by Truman’s diminutive size (as an adult he was 5 feet 4 inches) and feminine appearance, Nina sent him to two psychiatrists in the hope they’d make him a man. In 1939, when the Capotes moved to Greenwich, Capote’s English teacher at Greenwich High School, Catherine Wood, recognised her new pupil’s extraordinary talent and valued his difference, which she tried to explain to Nina Capote, telling her that unlike the regular boys who would continue doing regular things all their lives, Truman would be famous.
When Capote left school at 17, he found a small job on The New Yorker, which he left abruptly in 1944 following a perceived insult to the poet Robert Frost. In 1945 after several attempts to get his stories published in The New Yorker, Capote finally went to the office of Mademoiselle with his story ‘Miriam’; and so began a series of lucky meetings, a chain of good fortune that would characterise his life, leading one friend to call him ‘a darling of the gods’. ‘Miriam’, initially read by Rita Smith, was published in 1945 and won the O. Henry Memorial Award the following year. Enchanted by Capote, Rita Smith introduced him to her sister, the writer Carson McCullers, who recommended Capote to Robert Linscott, a senior editor at Random House. In October 1945 Linscott signed a contract for Capote’s unfinished novel Other Voices, Other Rooms, telling him: ‘Now you’re going to be a writer and an artist, we’re going to support you, take care of you. You’re like a racehorse.’ Success and two further novels followed, with the publication of The Grass Harp in 1951 and Breakfast at Tiffany’s in 1958.
Capote then began to consider a new approach to writing a novel, ‘something on a large scale that would have the credibility of fact, the immediacy of film, the depth and freedom of prose, and the precision of poetry’. In 1959 he found his subject: an obscure murder in Kansas. For six years he immersed himself in the story, published in 1965 as In Cold Blood, which became an international bestseller. This revolutionary journalistic novel was to be the high point of Capote’s writing career. His last work, Answered Prayers, a non-fiction novel about his rich and famous friends (most of whom saw the few published chapters as an act of betrayal and dropped him), remained unfinished on his death in 1984 from drugs and alcohol.
A film version of The Grass Harp starring Piper Laurie, Sissy Spacek and Walter Matthau was released in 1995. The producer and director, Charles Matthau, first heard about Capote’s novel from the book agent Melanie Ray, who told him it was the best thing she’d read that had not been made into a film. Matthau read the book and agreed. But, like the unsuccessful stage adaptation of The Grass Harp written by Capote which premiered in 1952, film cannot capture the truth of this novel, for its essence is contained in Capote’s prose, as breathtaking and clear-cut as a diamond. As Capote himself said of The Grass Harp: ‘It is very real to me, more real than anything I’ve ever written, probably ever will.’ He told his editor while writing it that:
it keeps me in a painful emotional state: memories are always breaking my heart, I cry—it is very odd, I seem to have no control over myself or what I am doing. But my vision is clear, and if I can half execute that vision it will be a beautiful book.