Capote ultimately put together a collection of essays and stories that effectively captured all of his interests as a writer, and, more importantly, revealed more about him as a person than anything else he ever wrote. Though less remembered than the popular Breakfast at Tiffany’s or the stunning In Cold Blood, Music for Chameleons is a richer experience, not least because of its startling candor. In its pages, Capote emerges as a complex figure wrestling with many, many demons, a man who mocks his own saintly aspirations without quite giving them up.
The preface for Music for Chameleons hints at how the book, down to its structure, reflects Capote’s career. “My whole life—as a writer, least,” he says in the preface, “can be charted as precisely as a fever: the highs and lows, the very definite cycles.” He goes on to describe all of his cycles—Other Voices, Other Rooms ended the first, Breakfast at Tiffany’s the second, and In Cold Blood the third—before concluding that, at the time he was writing, he was “moving into my fourth, and what I expect will be my final, cycle.” As such, Music for Chameleons is organized according to these cycles—the earlier chapters reflect the author as a younger writer, the later chapters a more mature Capote. But the preface in no way prepares the reader for what follows—a hero who, as the pages turn, becomes less mythic and increasingly tragic.
The first part, eponymously titled, features the kind of smooth-as-butter prose for which Capote first became famous. The story “Mojave” contains lines like, “He had not been of much help as an analyst, and as a lover—well, once she had watched him running to catch a bus, two hundred and twenty pounds of shortish, fiftyish, frizzly-haired, hip-heavy, myopic Manhattan Intellectual, and she had laughed: how was it possible that she could love a man so ill-humored, so ill-favored as Ezra Bensten?” It’s a reminder that Capote still retained the consummate skills of a stylist whose earlier stories in Mademoiselle and Harper’s Bazaar had won over the literary world decades earlier.
But part one goes deeper than the beauty of language. In earlier works like Other Voices, Other Rooms, the autobiographical elements are detectable but, as Gerald Clarke puts it in Capote: A Biography, “subterranean.” That book’s young protagonist, Joel Harrison Knox, emerges by the end into manhood, accepting his identity as a homosexual. The parting image of Other Voices, Other Rooms is of Joel peering back at “the boy he had left behind.”
But if Capote’s first novel metaphorically tracked his coming of age, Music for Chameleons contains more explicit self-portraits. In “Dazzle,” a young Capote goes to visit Mrs. Ferguson, a woman said to have “magical powers,” to ask her for help with a secret. “I don’t want to be a boy. I want to be a girl,” he says. When Mrs. Ferguson laughs at him, he pleads, “Mrs. Ferguson, you don’t understand. I’m very worried. I’m worried all the time. There’s something wrong.” Mrs. Ferguson had made the boy give her his grandmother’s necklace in exchange for the meeting, and when, 44 years later, his grandmother dies, Capote can’t even bring himself to go to her funeral because she reminded him only of Mrs. Ferguson. Young Capote dealt with not only his sexual identity but also his gender identity, and his one attempt to express his “secret” was met with cackling malice. The incident haunted him for the rest of his life.