In Search of the Real Truman Capote

Thirty-five years after it was published, Music for Chameleons is the author’s best, most personal work.

By the late 1970s, Truman Capote’s life had turned into the kind of gossipy drama he relished. He was stuck in a strained, celibate relationship. His pill-popping, binge-drinking, coke-snorting ways had soared to new heights, leading not only to a number of stints in rehab, but also to a series of embarrassing episodes on television, including one talk-show appearance when he raised the possibility of killing himself. Esquire’s publication of chapters from his long-awaited novel Answered Prayers, with its insider’s view into high society, cost him his standing among his fellow elites. His anxiety—or as Holly Golightly referred to it, “the mean reds”—was through the roof. And still worse, he wasn’t writing.

But you wouldn’t know any of this from reading his preface to the last book he published in his lifetime, Music for Chameleons, which celebrates its 35th anniversary this year. The Capote presented in the first pages of his final work, published 15 years after In Cold Blood, is starkly different from the real one—the case of a writer actively reinventing himself through his own writing. He’s tremendously confident and cool, blaming the gap between his major works on philosophical and aesthetic quandaries, and concluding that in the past he was “never working with more than half, sometimes only a third, of the powers at [his] command.” After much consideration, his plan for Music for Chameleons is deceptively simple: “I set myself center stage.”

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.

This quietly tragic piece of unrealized selfhood is immediately followed by the book’s second part, “Handcarved Coffins,” a novella-length “Nonfiction Account of an American Crime,” as the subtitle has it. If part one speaks to Capote’s earlier fiction, “Handcarved Coffins” functions as a companion piece to the true-crime story In Cold Blood—it’s a fascinating yarn filled with mysteries and human detail. Set in what’s only described as a “small western state,” Capote plays assistant to Jake Pepper, a detective investigating a serial killer who sends his victims little wooden coffins before he kills them. But where In Cold Blood completely left Capote out of the narrative, “Handcarved Coffins” places the author at the fore, and since whole sections of it are presented as transcripts, it reads as if the reader is right there in the room with him.

The story, despite its connections to In Cold Blood, has one major difference: A lot of it is fictional. Yes, the murders at the center of the piece really happened, but Jake Pepper didn’t exist, being instead a composite of many officers Capote had known, and Capote didn’t function as an assistant to any detective. So the voice in the transcripts isn’t the real Capote but another fictitious counterpart, a character of his own devising. From the first part of Music for Chameleons to the second, a fictional version of Capote emerges to become the book’s protagonist. Capote is performing here, presenting himself as a calm and collected sleuth, as if researching and writing In Cold Blood had made him an expert on crime.

That he wanted to position the spotlight on himself but chose to do so in a fictitious way is actually quite fitting. A charming guest at parties, Capote was a wild confabulator, but like Other Voices, Other Rooms, “Handcarved Coffins” doesn’t need to be factually true to be honest. In the story he describes a traumatic experience: When he was 5 his family’s cook, Lucy Joy, took him to get baptized, to little Truman’s surprise. So disturbing was the incident that, years later, when he meets the man suspected of committing the murders, Capote is instantly reminded of the preacher.

In part three, the real project of the book becomes clear: It’s an elaborate self-portrait, told through autobiographical fiction, fictionalized journalism, and the lenses of other characters. Here, the author is even more in the forefront, even though the section is titled “Conversational Portraits.” They’re actually just indirect ways to get to the heart of Capote—a means of showing us a writer in his element, reflected back through the people he’s ostensibly describing. Take his essay “A Day’s Work,” in which he trails a cleaning woman in Manhattan for a day. Mary Sanchez, he writes, “works approximately nine hours a day, and visits on the average twenty-four different domiciles between Monday and Saturday.” She also likes to get high while she works, and she and Capote smoke a roach together:

MARY: How you feel?

TC: I feel good.

MARY: How good?

TC: Real good.

MARY: Tell me exactly how you feel.

TC: I’m in Australia.

MARY: Even been to Austria?

TC: Not Austria. Australia. No, but that’s where I am right now. And everybody always said what a dull place it is. Shows what they know! Greatest surfing in the world. I’m out in the ocean on a surfboard riding a wave high as a, as a––

MARY: High as you. Ha-ha.

TC: It’s made of melting emeralds. The wave. The sun is hot on my back, and the spray is salting my face, and there are hungry sharks all around me.

Here’s an author who regularly travels the world dreaming of a place he’s never been and believing it could bring him comfort. But even when he fantasizes, even when he feels “real good,” hungry sharks still encircle him.

The rest of the last section is filled with wonderful stories, too: “A Beautiful Child,” his brilliant and demystifying profile of Marilyn Monroe; “Derring-do,” his account of escaping an arrest warrant with the help of the actress Pearl Bailey and her “gaudily dressed chorus boys”; and “Then It All Came Down,” an interview with the Manson Family-linked murderer Robert Beausoleil. It’s some of Capote’s very best writing, and encapsulates the spirit of Oscar Wilde’s epigram: “Every portrait painted with feeling is a portrait of the artist, not of the sitter.”

But the most revealing piece here is the last one, “Nocturnal Turnings, or How Siamese Twins Have Sex.” Capote imagines himself as the titular twins—Truman Capote attached to another Truman Capote. They bicker in a playful way, like two old friends, before one Capote sits down to write a self-interview. He answers a number of questions, such as “What frightens you?” to which he responds, “Betrayals. Abandonments.” He discusses acting in Neil Simon’s Murder by Death (“I’m not an actor,” he says), as well as fame and sex and suicide. But after he’s finished, he asks his twin what he thinks of the interview. The other Capote objects to his answer to “Do you believe in God?” saying, “I’ve heard you, cool as a cucumber, confess things that would make a baboon blush blue, and yet you won’t admit that you believe in God.”

The first Capote objects, saying that it isn’t so simple, and he tells the story of Gustave Flaubert’s Saint Julien, l’Hospitalier, about a bloodthirsty man who seeks forgiveness in old age and becomes a saint. The other Capote then asks if God has helped him, and his twin says, “Yes. More and more. But I’m not a saint yet. I’m an alcoholic. I’m a drug addict. I’m homosexual. I’m a genius. Of course, I could be all four of these dubious things and still be a saint. But I shonuf ain’t no saint yet, nawsuh.”

Here’s Capote being as frank about himself as he ever was, with his assessment of himself more closely mirroring the actual figure described in Clarke’s biography. He had become a pathetic figure in the years following the publication of In Cold Blood, and as his misery compounded, he sought to channel it by putting himself into his writing. Only in such a position—that is, writing himself into a narrative that was obviously fictional, somehow both inside the story and out of it—could Capote thrive and confront himself in a way he couldn’t seem to in reality.

Music for Chameleons begins with the cocky Capote of the preface, moves to the eloquent storyteller with uncommon style, then onto the more active portrait of “Handcarved Coffins,” before finally landing on this lonely figure, arguing with himself on the page. Capote didn’t just place himself at “center stage,” he fully entered his own writing, his own mind, and seemed to stay there until his death in 1984.

Music for Chameleons is Capote’s most idiosyncratic book, his flat-out weirdest, but it’s also his most honest, and, in many ways, his best. It’s a shaky testament to a complex figure, and the battle with himself that he would never quite win. It captures Capote’s vast range, his uncanny ear for speech, his fascination with crime and process, his unprecedented access to celebrities and criminals alike—but most of all, Music for Chameleons captures his heart, hidden just below the pages. He wasn’t a saint, but he needn’t have been. Capote was a true artist—his blood was ink—and artists are more beautiful than saints, anyway.