What happened to the scathing roman a clef skewering Manhattan high society that Truman Capote may or may not have finished before his untimely death in 1984? After the US premiere of The Truman Tapes at the Hamptons International Film Festival on Saturday, director Ebs Burnough said he was of two minds.
“One part of me thinks that he really could’ve put it in some safe deposit box, because I think he’s just that cheeky,” said Burnough at the Regal theater in Southampton, a stone’s throw from Capote’s former home in Sagaponack. “The other part of me says he burned it. Because I think he felt burned.”
The case of Answered Prayers is one of literature’s great mysteries. After chapters of the novel were published in Esquire in 1975 and 1976, Capote became persona non grata among his longtime socialite friends, the “swans.” Slim Keith, Gloria Vanderbilt, and other wealthy, fashionable jet-setters never forgave him for stealing their gossip for a thinly veiled portrayal of their vanity, vacuousness, and marital turmoil.
Capote once reportedly told a friend that his swans would be “too dumb” to know the book was about them. But Babe Paley, wife of CBS head William S. Paley, socially exiled him for exposing her husband’s affairs. Another friend, who had shot her husband after supposedly mistaking him for a burglar, committed suicide after she was portrayed intentionally murdering him.
It’s uncertain how much of Answered Prayers was truth and how much was fiction, given that Capote famously adopted the motto “never let truth get in the way of a good story.” In perhaps the novel’s most infamous excerpt, a character based on William S. Paley is horrified by his mistress’s menstrual blood during a tryst. Norman Mailer found the passage bombastic; as horrifying as menstrual blood might be for a gay man like Capote, it was “not that big a deal” for the average heterosexual male.
The Mailer quote appears in George Plimpton’s 1997 oral history Truman Capote: In Which Various Friends, Enemies, Acquaintances and Detractors Recall His Turbulent Career. But it’s fun to actually hear it here, thanks to the film’s extensive use of Plimpton’s interview tapes, handed over by his widow Sarah Whitehead Dudley.
The recordings allow us to hear directly from some of the “swans,” who are no longer alive. Fashion icon Slim Keith, for instance, describes Capote as “dangerous” and tells Plimpton she’ll never forgive her onetime friend for putting words in her mouth. But she also shows some sympathy toward Capote. He once told her that his over-the-top, always-on persona was merely an effort to put (homophobic) gawkers at ease. “People don’t love me,” he said, denying that he was publicly adored. “I’m a freak.”
It’s debatable whether Capote was master or servant (as art historian John Richardson put it) to his “swans,” and who used whom. He liked to say, “I’m a writer, and I use everything. Did all those people think I was there just to entertain them?”
Despite that outwardly cavalier attitude and Capote’s professed hatred of the wealthy, Burnough and many others believe that the loss of the swans— along with the suicide of his mother and the heartbreaking 1965 execution of his In Cold Blood subject, murderer Perry Smith— sent Capote into a downward spiral. In speaking about Answered Prayers with Dick Cavett, who appears in the documentary, Capote famously said “either I’m going to kill it, or it’s going to kill me.” Sure enough, after a period of heavy drinking and pill-popping at Studio 54 and other corners of unfettered hedonism, he died of liver disease at the age of 59.
“It wasn’t like he was friends with these people for a year or two,” Burnough noted of the swans. “It was 20-plus years of friendship that he literally blew up. So I think he just felt like he couldn’t go back, he was done.” As a result, Burnough said, “I think he probably burned the manuscript.”
Burnough isn’t the first to speculate that Capote destroyed the remainder of Answered Prayers. Much to the chagrin of Random House, which had paid Capote a $1 million advance, the rest of the novel failed to turn up during posthumous searches of Capote’s homes in Manhattan and Long Island. But others believe the chapters he outlined are out there somewhere. Shortly before his death, Capote gave Johnny Carson’s ex-wife, Joanne Carson, a key to a safety deposit box but declined to say where in the world the box was located. The missing chapters “will be found when they want to be found,” he reportedly told her.
At one point, Capote sued his ex-lover, John O’Shea, for allegedly stealing a chapter of the novel, but the suit was dropped after they reconciled.
The Capote Tapes features some of the writer’s well-known literary friends and acquaintances. (Jay McInerney, who attended the premiere, jovially recalls being groped by Capote when he was first introduced to him at one of Plimpton’s parties.) But it’s a less famous interviewee who proves to be the most compelling. O’Shea’s daughter, Kate Harrington, was initially “super worried that [the film] was going to paint Truman in a way that he had always been painted,” Burnough said. But she agreed to participate after the director convinced her that “my whole goal was to tell the most well-rounded story I could tell.”
Harrington, who as a teenager was essentially adopted by Capote as a daughter, reveals the sweeter and more sentimental side of the “shit-stirrer,” as Slim Keith called him. After she was abandoned by her alcoholic father (Capote’s tempestuous, on-again, off-again lover), Capote used his connections to help her find modeling gigs and let her stay at his apartment, where the fridge was stocked with little more than “canned soup, raw shrimp, and Tab soda. And a lot of vodka in the freezer.” Harrington says he wept over the loss of Babe Paley’s friendship and never got over it. She also rejects the theory that he never finished Answered Prayers, since she saw him writing for hours at a time.
Burnough, who originally thought the film would focus on Capote’s relationship with the swans but was dissuaded by a lack of archival video footage of them, ultimately found Harrington to be one of the movie’s most fascinating elements. Her relationship with her surrogate father, he said, challenged the idea that Capote was “this one-dimensional, tiny terror, mean queen,” since it showed that he had “the capacity to be a parent and raise the type of adult that she is.”
While Capote’s reputation as a back-stabber caused most of Burnough’s collaborators to dislike the author when they started working on the film, he said they eventually softened on him. In the film, Norman Mailer tells Plimpton how nerve-wracking it was to simply walk into an Irish bar with such a visibly gay man, and Burnough came to appreciate the way Capote carved out a life in the deeply homophobic, conformist pre-Stonewall era. “He was an openly gay man who was out with his partners, who basically adopted a daughter,” the director noted. “He created the family that he wanted to have in a time when that was a virtual impossibility. I think that was pretty extraordinary.”
And let’s not forget that his skewering of what is now called “the 1%” remains especially relevant— a fact that was not lost on the Porsche-driving Hamptons crowd as they laughed knowingly at his bon mots about the jaded, status-obsessed wealthy. Burnough noted that Capote “would be a beast on social media” if he were still around today. “I mean, Truman Capote responding to Kim Kardashian on social media, are you kidding me?”
”The Capote Tapes” will play at DOC NYC on Nov. 14.