Understanding Capote’s Swan Dive

The Article: Capote’s Swan Dive by Sam Kashner in Vanity Fair.

The Text: Have you seen Esquire?! Call me as soon as you’re finished,” New York society doyenne Babe Paley asked her friend Slim Keith over the telephone when the November 1975 issue hit the stands. Keith, then living at the Pierre hotel, sent the maid downstairs for a copy. “I read it, and I was absolutely horrified,” she later confided to the writer George Plimpton. “The story about the sheets, the story about Ann Woodward . . . There was no question in anybody’s mind who it was.”

The story they were reading in Esquire was “La Côte Basque 1965,” but it wasn’t so much a story as an atomic bomb that Truman Capote built all by himself in his U.N. Plaza apartment and at his beach house in Sagaponack, Long Island. It was the first installment of Answered Prayers, the novel that Truman believed would be his masterpiece.

He had boasted to his friend Marella Agnelli, wife of Gianni Agnelli, chairman of the board at Fiat, that Answered Prayers was “going to do to America what Proust did to France.” He couldn’t stop talking about his planned roman à clef. He told People magazine that he was constructing his book like a gun: “There’s the handle, the trigger, the barrel, and, finally, the bullet. And when that bullet is fired from the gun, it’s going to come out with a speed and power like you’ve never seen—wham!”

But he had unwittingly turned the gun on himself: exposing the secrets of Manhattan’s rich and powerful was nothing short of social suicide.

He had been a literary darling since the age of 23, when his first novel, Other Voices, Other Rooms, was published. Seventeen years later, in 1965, In Cold Blood, his extraordinary “nonfiction novel” about the brutal murder of the Clutters, a Kansas farm family, brought him international fame, sudden wealth, and literary accolades beyond anything he’d experienced before.

But trying to write Answered Prayers, and its eventual fallout, destroyed him. By 1984, after several unsuccessful stays at dry-out centers such as Hazelden and Smithers, Capote seemed to have given up not only on the book but on life. Abandoned by most of his society friends, locked in a brutal, self-destructive relationship with a middle-aged, married, former bank manager from Long Island, Truman was worn out. Or heartbroken.

After “La Côte Basque 1965,” only two more of its chapters were published, both in Esquire: “Unspoiled Monsters” (May 1976) and “Kate McCloud” (December 1976). (“Mojave,” which had appeared in Esquire in June 1975, was initially intended to be part of Answered Prayers, but Truman changed his mind about its inclusion.)

Truman had recorded in his journals the outline for the entire book, which would comprise seven chapters. The remaining four were titled “Yachts and Things,” “And Audrey Wilder Sang,” “A Severe Insult to the Brain” (which according to urban legend was the cause of death on Dylan Thomas’s death certificate), and “Father Flanagan’s All-Night Nigger Queen Kosher Café,” the provocative title for the teeth-rattling concluding chapter. Truman claimed in his journals he had actually written it first.

But was the novel ever completed? A number of Truman’s friends, including Joanne Carson (the second wife of television host Johnny Carson), say that he had read various unpublished chapters to them. “I saw them,” Joanne recalls. “He had a writing room in my house—he spent a lot of time here because it was a safe place and nobody could get to him—and he had many, many pages of manuscript, and he started to read them. They were very, very good. He read one chapter, but then someone called, and when I went back he just put them aside and said, ‘I’ll read them after dinner.’ But he never did—you know how that happens.”

After Capote’s death, on August 25, 1984, just a month shy of his 60th birthday, Alan Schwartz (his lawyer and literary executor), Gerald Clarke (his friend and biographer), and Joe Fox (his Random House editor) searched for the manuscript of the unfinished novel. Random House wanted to recoup something of the advances it had paid Truman—even if that involved publishing an incomplete manuscript. (In 1966, Truman and Random House had signed a contract for Answered Prayers for an advance of $25,000, with a delivery date of January 1, 1968. Three years later, they renegotiated to a three-book contract for an advance of $750,000, with delivery by September 1973. The contract was amended three more times, with a final agreement of $1 million for delivery by March 1, 1981. That deadline passed like all the others with no manuscript being delivered.)

Following Capote’s death, Schwartz, Clarke, and Fox searched Truman’s apartment, on the 22nd floor of the U.N. Plaza, with its panoramic view of Manhattan and the United Nations. It had been bought by Truman in 1965 for $62,000 with his royalties from In Cold Blood. (A friend, the set designer Oliver Smith, noted that the U.N. Plaza building was “glamorous, the place to live in Manhattan” in the 1960s.) The three men looked among the stacks of art and fashion books in Capote’s cluttered Victorian sitting room and pored over his bookshelf, which contained various translations and editions of his works. They poked among the Tiffany lamps, his collection of paperweights (including the white rose paperweight given to him by Colette in 1948), and the dying geraniums that lined one window (“bachelor’s plants,” as writer Edmund White described them). They looked through drawers and closets and desks, avoiding the three taxidermic snakes Truman kept in the apartment, one of them, a cobra, rearing to strike.

The men scoured the guest bedroom, at the end of the hallway—a tiny, peach-colored room with a daybed, a desk, a phone, and lavender taffeta curtains. Then they descended 15 floors to the former maid’s studio, where Truman had often written by hand on yellow legal pads.

“We found nothing,” Schwartz told Vanity Fair. Joanne Carson claims that Truman had confided to her that the manuscript was tucked away in a safe-deposit box in a bank in California—maybe Wells Fargo—and that he had handed her a key to it the morning before his death. But he declined to tell her which bank held the box. “The novel will be found when it wants to be found,” he told her cryptically.

The three men then traveled to Truman’s rustic beach house, tucked away behind scrub pine, privet hedges, and hydrangea, on six acres, in Sagaponack. They enlisted the help of two of Truman’s closest friends in later years, Joe Petrocik and Myron Clement, who ran a small P.R. firm and had a house in nearby Sag Harbor.

“He was just a wonderful person to us, a great friend,” Clement recalls. “Truman would talk to us about all these things that were going into Answered Prayers,” says Petrocik. “I remember I was at the other end of his couch, and he’s reading all this from a manuscript. Then he’d take a break, get up, and pour himself a Stoli. But the thing is, at that time, I never saw the actual manuscript. And then it occurred to me, later, just before I nodded off to sleep, maybe he had made the whole thing up. He was such a wonderful, wonderful actor.”

Later on, though, Petrocik remembers, he was traveling with Truman from Manhattan to Long Island when “Truman handed me the manuscript to read on the way. I actually had it in my hands.”

But after a thorough search of the beach house, no manuscript was found. Now, nearly 30 years later, the questions remain: What happened to the rest of Answered Prayers? Had Truman destroyed it, simply lost it, or hidden it, or had he never written it at all? And why on earth did he publish “La Côte Basque 1965” so early, considering the inevitable backlash?

Gerald Clarke, author of the masterful Capote: The Biography, recalls Truman telling him, in 1972, “I always planned this book as being my principal work. . . . I’m going to call it a novel, but in actual fact it’s a roman à clef. Almost everything in it is true, and it has . . . every sort of person I’ve ever had any dealings with. I have a cast of thousands.”


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