(nb: I received an advance review copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss)
After he published “In Cold Blood,” Truman Capote was the most famous writer in America, if not the world. Its novelesque telling of a true story received widespread critical acclaim, intrigued the countless readers who bought the book, and was turned into a successful Hollywood film.
This was also the apex of Truman Capote’s life. He’d been successful as a writer, and he’d made friends with his “swans,” a group of incredibly wealthy and powerful women. “In Cold Blood” blew everything into the stratosphere. Capote had made it to the top of the mountain. All that was left was the incredible, ugly fall.
Gerald Clarke’s “Capote: A Biography” is widely considered the definitive story of the tiny acerbic writer who captivated readers.
Clarke spent well over a decade researching his biography, interviewing dozens of Capote’s friends and enemies, and becoming a friend and confidante of Truman himself. That was one thing Truman insisted on: he didn’t want to read anything Clarke wrote, nor did he want any limits on his story.
It is a fascinating story, to be sure. Clarke takes us back to Capote’s dreadful childhood, where poor Truman was frequently abandoned and shuffled between relatives. We follow Truman through different schools, and into his first job, as a copyboy at The New Yorker.
His first success was as a short story writer. He moved into novels. Then the novella “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” took him to another level. His work on “In Cold Blood” exacted a huge toll on Capote, who couldn’t finish his book until the two criminals he’d befriended hanged.
From then on, Capote became famous essentially for being famous. He was a frequent guest on talk show couches, and he rubbed shoulders with the glitterati.
Soon after, Truman Capote’s life began falling apart, and Gerald Clarke was there for the final years.
Again, this is the foremost biography on Truman Capote—it’s the one the Oscar-winning film “Capote” was based.
The beauty of “Capote: A Biography” is that Gerald Clarke pulled no punches with his subject. Yes, he was Truman’s friend, but he never shied away from showing the famous man at his worst.
Despite the amazing amount of research and material Clarke accumulated, he manages to keep his narrative taut. It’s still a long story—the version I read was around 600 pages—but it never bogs down in any one period.
Truman Capote’s life was anything but simple. He was flamboyant, hugely talented, and larger-than-life. To write a thin, cursory biography would be doing a great disservice, both to the subject and the reader.
Gerald Clarke nails it, capturing a life filled with the highest highs and the deepest depths. His work casts Truman in the bright spotlight, showing his triumphs and failures alike. Truman would have it no other way.