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.
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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).