Trumpeting Truman
A conversation with George Plimpton about Truman Capote
By Tanya Stanciu and Amy Nickell
From Gadfly June 1998

In his recently published "oral biography," Truman Capote: In Which Various Friends, Enemies, Acquaintances, and Detractors Recall His Turbulent Career, George Plimpton invites us to listen in on the voices of those who knew Truman Capote—Norman Mailer, Gore Vidal, Kurt Vonnegut, Katharine Graham and dozens of others—as they describe this truly original man. Hailing from the tiny town of Monroeville, Alabama, Capote rose to become a powerful player in the worlds of politics, fashion, Hollywood, the arts and high society. Writer, society lion and eventually television celebrity, the ever-entertaining Capote is probably best known for his "true-crime" nonfiction novel In Cold Blood, his creation of Holly Golightly in the short tale of Breakfast at Tiffany's, and his dismissal of Jack Kerouac's work with the famous remark: "It isn't writing at all. It's typing." And, as this interview attests, with a long and respected New York writing and editing career, George Plimpton is no stranger to high society or the arts himself, making him the perfect person to assemble such an extensive account of Capote and his work.

Why did you decide to do a book about Truman Capote?

He struck me as a very interesting subject for what's called oral biography. Oral biography means you go out and talk to 200 people and arrange their transcripts in chronological order. It's like eavesdropping on a huge cocktail party. To make this thing work, you've got to find somebody who has rather an astonishing arc to his life.

Truman was born in this tiny town in Monroeville, Alabama, total population 1,600, and rose to become this great social arbiter in New York—surprisingly enough because he was 5'1" and had a high, lisping voice and effeminate manner. Yet he became this social lion. Then after [the publication of] In Cold Blood, the great crime nonfiction novel, he slowly descended to Studio 54 and Andy Warhol's Factory, and finally died out on the West coast. He knew hundreds of interesting people all along the way, a lot of them writers and artists. He struck me as being a perfect subject for an oral biography. I'd done two oral biographies before—one on Robert Kennedy, called American Journey, and one called Edie, about Edie Sedgwick, both of these with Jean Stein.

What are some of the advantages and disadvantages to the oral biography?

The advantage is you get all the voices first hand, as if you were actually speaking to the people, whereas in regular biography it gets sifted through the mind of the biographer and the raw transcripts are only used sparingly.

The disadvantages of the oral biography are, as you might guess, the reader is not led through the biography. The biographer is not there to give opinions, to say, “This voice is wrong,” or “This voice is right.” I think those are the main problems. But I think they're small problems because I think you can lead the reader with oral biography. You can certainly suggest who was right and who was wrong on a specific point.

Capote was both a social and a literary figure. Which aspect do you think was more important?

Literary people would say they don't give a hoot about the celebrity side, the social side. They admire Truman Capote for Other Voices, Other Rooms, Breakfast at Tiffany's, In Cold Blood, Hand-Carved Coffins, A Christmas Memory, and they think of Truman the Writer. There are other people who would like to think of Truman as this social beast, this man who came from this tiny town and managed to mesmerize most of New York and give one of the most famous balls ever given. I think both characterizations are valid, although I think the celebrity part probably did destroy the artistic part to a degree.

How would you assess Capote's impact as a writer?

He did this nonfiction novel, everybody calls it that—In Cold Blood. I don't know whether that's unique or not, but it was certainly followed right on its tail by The Executioner's Song, Norman Mailer's nonfiction novel. Today John Berendt's Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil is something like that, except Berendt's is not truthful. He plays with his own fiction and makes up his own characters. In Truman's case, everything supposedly is just as it happened. He uses the techniques of fiction, but he doesn't do any fictionalizing.

I think people will always remember Truman as a great stylist. He took a great deal of time and trouble trying to write the perfect sentence. You very rarely find a bad sentence in Truman.

Do you think we would be talking about him now if it weren't for In Cold Blood?

I think he'll always be talked about. He was quite an astonishing figure of his era. I've been asked so many times about where you put Truman on some sort of literary ladder, and it's always seemed to me that the answer is probably the top of the second tier. The first tier would be taken up by the people who deal with grand themes. In Truman's time it would be people like William Styron and Saul Bellow and maybe John Updike.

When you think about it, Truman's work is pretty lighthearted. Breakfast at Tiffany's is a lighthearted novelette, really. But in terms of nonfiction, I think you would have to rate In Cold Blood at the very, very top of the list.

Your oral biography includes interviews with over 200 people who knew Truman. You yourself appear in the book as one of its many characters. You even went to the black and white ball. Can you tell us about your personal encounters with Truman?

He lived about a quarter mile away from us in Sagaponack, on Long Island. I used to see him at the General Store. He'd also come 'round to the house. He was very fond of my wife. We used to go over there to dinner once in a while. We saw him in Florida. We saw him at cocktail parties. He was very much a person who got around. It's in the book, I think—where he invites me to what he thinks is a particularly risqué place and it turns out not to be so at all.

What were your impressions of him as a person?

He was a great entertainer. Very, very funny. A great quipster. Always came loaded with stories. He always seemed to have at least seven or eight stories that he'd sort of refresh and say, Well, I'll try these out tonight. It made him a great raconteur. I remember him with fondness.

Your book also paints him as a tragic figure.

Yes, sure. He was, for a number of reasons. Aristotle talks about the tragic flaw. And Truman committed one, an act of hubris. He wrote that famous story "La Côte Basque" in which he described all these infidelities and so forth of his great friends—the tycoons and their wives—and he thought they would be amused by it. They weren't, and they tossed him out. And that happened right at the top of his success. Although he continued to write, I think that had a lot to do with the downward turn of his arc.

Part of his story seems to be the story of celebrity worship. How important do you think fame and celebrity are in American culture?

I'm not sure about the whole culture, but in terms of Truman I think it really was very destructive. People advised him not to go on television, because he was such a grotesque figure in a way. They were convinced that his high little voice and his mannerisms would turn an audience off. But he went on anyway—on The Johnny Carson Show—and was a huge hit. And as a result he became terribly famous. In fact, probably the most famous writer in the country. And he was worthy of it. He was funny, and you never quite knew what he was going to say. I remember he gave this long dissertation on the orgasm and the sneeze. He was irreverent. A great hit. But I think it also kept him from writing. If you can amuse that many people just by sitting there on a chair and not having to go home and work, which are you going to do? I think fame was intoxicating for him. As it would be for a kid who comes out of Monroeville, Alabama, total population 1,600.

Let's talk about your own career. You're known for "participatory journalism"—the idea that a reporter should go out and experience the things he or she is writing about. It's led you to some pretty interesting places.

Participatory journalism means you actually become your story. If you're writing about baseball, you become a baseball player. Or if you're writing about football, you become a football player. You participate, then you write about the experience. And your participation becomes the bulk of your story. I did it writing for Sports Illustrated. I went around and asked if I could play out these daydreams which all men seem to have. I don't know what women daydream about, but men usually daydream about great feats in sports, striking out the batting order of the New York Yankees—you know, boring things like that.

What influenced you to pursue this?

I suppose innate curiosity. It also was done before by a man named Paul Gallico who wrote in the thirties. He thought you should see how devastating a Major League curve ball was before you began criticizing people for striking out in the bottom of the ninth in the World Series. He did all sorts of things. He caught Herb Pennock's curve ball, he got in the ring with Jack Dempsey, he played tennis with Vinnie Richards, and then he wrote about it. He was my inspiration.

You also founded The Paris Review in 1953.

Yes. It's not all that healthy because no literary magazine is, but I think it's been of great value to writers. I think the Art of Fiction series has been of great value to people learning how to write. And I think poets have been given a leg up by being published, as have short story writers and novelists. It's where the early work of Philip Roth appeared and Rick Moody, Rick Bass, T. Coraghessan Boyle, Richard Ford, Terry Southern. . . . A whole barrel of people first published their works there, and I think that's performing a very valuable function.

How has the literary scene changed since you founded the Review?

Not very much. I think probably writers have become a bit more introspective. You find less plot in stories, but that could change in a minute.

Do you think it's harder for good writers to succeed today?

I think it depends on the sort of writing you want to do. Just to make a living by writing seems to be much easier now than it was. You see thousands of magazines on the newsstand. Literally thousands. And they're all focus magazines, not general ones. There used to be a lot of general magazines, like Life and Look and so forth; those have sort of gone by the wayside.

But if you wanted to be a serious writer, or particularly a poet, I think things are probably very difficult and always have been. There was a time when—and it still goes on now—poets were paid to read. That never happened when we were all starting up. I went out the other night to a nightclub and there was a poetry slam. So it seems pretty healthy to me. A lot of literary magazines and a lot of energy. I don't think things have changed all that much. For the better, I think, if you really pushed me to it.

How long did it take you to write the book on Capote?

About seven or eight years. I kept putting it away to do other things, but it took a long time. And that was fortunate, because a number of interviewees came along that I wouldn't have gotten had I not procrastinated.

If someone's not familiar with Capote, which of his books do you recommend they read?

You'd want to read In Cold Blood, and then a couple of the nonfiction pieces. You'd also want to read A Christmas Memory. Then, of course, maybe the easiest and most fun is Breakfast at Tiffany's. The Muses Have Heard is a wonderful story about following the Porgy & Bess troupe to Russia. And you'd want to read Other Voices, Other Rooms to see how he started off as a writer. He also did travel sketches which are quite wonderful. There's a Capote Reader which is terrific. Some of his interviews are in there and some of the stuff he wrote for Interview—also his portrait of Marilyn Monroe which some people think is the best thing ever written about her.

What do you think of his skills as a social observer of what was going on at the time?

I think "La Côte Basque," which is the story that destroyed him, is a wonderfully accurate portrait of how people gossip about each other in a fancy restaurant. He had a very good ear. And that great ear combined with his great ability as a stylist makes it very readable, titillating stuff—and accurate, too.

George Plimpton has authored over a dozen books, including Paper Lion, his account of his non-professional stint as a quarterback for the Detroit Lions. A sampling of his work can be found in The Best of Plimpton (Atlantic Monthly Press).