This 'n' That

Monday, February 20, 2006


Why Truman Capote and Harper Lee took different routes after achieving fame and fortune: Harry Mount of The Telegraph has a theory:

The goddess of fame is not for mocking
By Harry Mount
(Filed: 20/02/2006)

Of all the accolades for Philip Seymour Hoffman's role as Truman Capote in the new film, Capote, the greatest was the shortest. It came from Harper Lee, the author of To Kill A Mockingbird and Capote's childhood friend, played by Catherine Keener in an Oscar-nominated performance. Her message simply said that Seymour Hoffman had got Capote right.

By Lee's standards, this short note is an exceptional piece of self-exposure. After To Kill A Mockingbird came out in 1960, winning the Pulitzer Prize a year later, she went back to Monroeville, the little town in Alabama where she and Capote were brought up. She never left, and the woman who once said she wanted to be the Jane Austen of south Alabama has never written another book. Since 1960, she has written precisely four articles, none of them longer than eight pages.

She hasn't given a personal interview for 40 years and doesn't plan to ever again. I asked her for one to mark her 80th birthday in a few weeks' time and she refused. She did agree to talk to the New York Times last month about an Alabama high school contest for an essay based on her book, but she would talk only about the students and the contest; not about herself or To Kill A Mockingbird.

The only clue to her seclusion came in her last personal interview, in 1964. She said of her book: "I was hoping for a quick and merciful death at the hands of reviewers, but at the same time I sort of hoped that maybe someone would like it enough to give me encouragement - public encouragement. I hoped for a little, but I got rather a whole lot, and in some ways this was just about as frightening as the quick, merciful death I'd expected."

So her escape from death was an escape back to her childhood: she still shares a house in Monroeville with her 94-year-old sister, Alice, who, like their father, the role model for Atticus Finch in the book, is a lawyer.

The people of Monroeville regularly hold re-enactments of the To Kill A Mockingbird trial in the old town courtroom, where Harper Lee's father and sister appeared - and, in the case of the latter, appear: Alice is still a practising lawyer. Harper never attends the re-enactments.

Truman Capote, who loved fame and its trappings, was astonished by Lee's flight into obscurity. Just after To Kill A Mockingbird was published, he wrote about Lee to a friend, saying, "Poor thing - she is nearly demented: says she gave up trying to answer her 'fan mail' when she received 62 letters in one day. I wish she could relax and enjoy it more: in this profession, it's a long walk between drinks."

It turns out that it's better to walk than drink. Harper Lee was perfectly happy, fit and well, when last spotted at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, where the essay-writing prize in her name was handed out last month.

Truman Capote, meanwhile, gave up walks and stuck to the drinks - and the drugs. He died of an overdose in Los Angeles in 1984, a month shy of his 60th birthday, but what really killed him was his desire for fame and attention.

While Lee stayed quietly in Monroeville, he rushed round the world, singing for over-priced suppers in grander and grander palaces with grander and grander people.

The addresses at the top of his letters are straight out of the Condé Nast Traveller magazine, his hosts out of Tatler: Tangiers with Greta Garbo; Quinta da Commenda in Portugal with Lee Radziwill, Jackie Kennedy's sister, married to a Polish prince; lunch at Cecil Beaton's house in Pelham Place, in South Kensington, with Edith Sitwell and the Queen Mother.

Capote knew that all this was a trivial, silly world and complained about the dreadfulness of the jet set in his letters. But being excluded from the set killed him.

His last original work, La Côte Basque, written in 1975, was a barely disguised attack on all his rich friends. All he did was change the names, but otherwise he gave a pretty much verbatim transcript of the salacious tittle-tattle exchanged over endless lunches in the New York restaurant La Côte Basque, which still exists on the fringes of Central Park and Fifth Avenue.

In the most disgusting - and therefore most gripping - bit of gossip in the book, Capote tells the true story of a billionaire friend who hated his mistress, but wanted to go to bed with her all the same.

The mistress, knowing his true feelings and wanting revenge, agrees to go to bed with him but only in the pitch dark, on the night before his wife returns from holiday. The billionaire wakes up to find that it was the mistress's time of the month, that his wife is about to return and that there are no spare sheets in the house. He is reduced to scrubbing the sheets with his raw, bare hands to remove the evidence.

Not surprisingly, the billionaire never talked to Capote again, and nor did any of the rich set. A leper in the world he loved, Capote never wrote another book in the nine years before his death, turning to drink in earnest. His only further work was a dire film appearance in the Neil Simon comedy Murder by Death, and a collection of old fiction and non-fiction pieces.

What Tennessee Williams called "the Bitch Goddess of fame" did Capote in. How much better it would have been if he had fled the goddess with his old childhood friend and retired to Monroeville.

Philip Johnston is away

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