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9781400066612

Portraits and Observations: The Essays of Truman Capote

Capote, Truman Author

9781400066612: Portraits and Observations: The Essays of Truman Capote

Perhaps no twentieth century writer was so observant and elegant a chronicler of his times as Truman Capote. Whether he was profiling the rich and famous or creating indelible word-pictures of events and places near and far, Capote’s eye for detail and dazzling style made his reportage and commentary undeniable triumphs of the form.

Portraits and Observations is the first volume devoted solely to all the essays ever published by this most beloved of writers. From his travel sketches of Brooklyn, New Orleans, and Hollywood, written when he was twenty-two, to meditations about fame, fortune, and the writer’s art at the peak of his career, to the brief works penned during the isolated denouement of his life, these essays provide an essential window into mid-twentieth-century America as offered by one of its canniest observers. Included are such celebrated masterpieces of narrative nonfiction as “The Muses Are Heard” and the short nonfiction novel “Handcarved Coffins,” as well as many long-out-of-print essays, including portraits of Isak Dinesen, Mae West, Marcel Duchamp, Humphrey Bogart, and Marilyn Monroe.

Among the highlights are “Ghosts in Sunlight: The Filming of In Cold Blood, “Preface to Music for Chameleons, in which Capote candidly recounts the highs and lows of his long career, and a playful self-portrait in the form of an imaginary self-interview. The book concludes with the author’s last written words, composed the day before his death in 1984, the recently discovered
“Remembering Willa Cather,” Capote’s touching recollection of his encounter with the author when he was a young man at the dawn of his career.

Portraits and Observations puts on display the full spectrum of Truman Capote’s brilliance. Certainly, Capote was, as Somerset Maugham famously called him, “a stylist of the first quality.” But as the pieces gathered here remind us, he was also an artist of remarkable substance.

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About the Author:

Truman Capote was born in New Orleans on September 30, 1924. He rose to international prominence in 1948 with the publication of his debut novel, Other Voices, Other Rooms. His other works of fiction include Breakfast at Tiffany’s, A Tree of Night, The Grass Harp, and Summer Crossing, the author’s long-lost first novel, which was rediscovered in 2004 and published by Random House in 2005. His nonfiction novel In Cold Blood is widely considered one of the greatest books of the twentieth century. Capote twice won the O. Henry Memorial Short Story Prize and was a member of the National Institute of Arts and Letters. He died on August 25, 1984, shortly before his sixtieth birthday.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Chapter 1
NEW ORLEANS (1946)

In the courtyard there was an angel of black stone, and its angel head rose above giant elephant leaves; the stark glass angel eyes, bright as the bleached blue of sailor eyes, stared upward. One observed the angel from an intricate green balcony—mine, this balcony, for I lived beyond in three old white rooms, rooms with elaborate wedding-cake ceilings, wide sliding doors, tall French windows. On warm evenings, with these windows open, conversation was pleasant there, tuneful, for wind rustled the interior like fan-breeze made by ancient ladies. And on such warm evenings the town is quiet. Only voices: family talk weaving on an ivy-curtained porch; a barefoot woman humming as she rocks a sidewalk chair, lulling to sleep a baby she nurses quite publicly; the complaining foreign tongue of an irritated lady who, sitting on her balcony, plucks a fryer, the loosened feathers floating from her hands, slipping into air, sliding lazily downward. One morning—it was December, I think, a cold Sunday with a sad gray sun—I went up through the Quarter to the old market, where at that time of year there are exquisite winter fruits, sweet satsumas, twenty cents a dozen, and winter flowers, Christmas poinsettia and snow japonica. New Orleans streets have long, lonesome perspectives; in empty hours their atmosphere is like Chirico, and things innocent, ordinarily (a face behind the slanted light of shutters, nuns moving in the distance, a fat dark arm lolling lopsidedly out some window, a lonely black boy squatting in an alley, blowing soap bubbles and watching sadly as they rise to burst), acquire qualities of violence. Now, on that morning, I stopped still in the middle of a block, for I’d caught out of the corner of my eye a tunnel-passage, an overgrown courtyard. A crazy-looking white hound stood stiffly in the green fern light shining at the tunnel’s end, and compulsively I went toward it. Inside there was a fountain; water spilled delicately from a monkey-statue’s bronze mouth and made on pool pebbles desolate bell-like sounds. He was hanging from a willow, a bandit-faced man with kinky platinum hair; he hung so limply, like the willow itself. There was terror in that silent suffocated garden. Closed windows looked on blindly; snail tracks glittered silver on elephant ears, nothing moved except his shadow. It swung a little, back and forth, yet there was no wind. A rhinestone ring he wore winked in the sun, and on his arm was tattooed a name, “Francy.” The hound lowered its head to drink in the fountain, and I ran. Francy—was it for her he’d killed himself? I do not know. N.O. is a secret place. My rock angel’s glass eyes were like sundials, for they told, by the amount of light focused on them, time: white at noon, they grew gradually dimmer, dark at dusk, black—nightfall eyes in a nightfall head. The torn lips of golden-haired girls leer luridly on faded leaning house fronts: Drink Dr. Nutt, Dr. Pepper, Nehi, Grapeade, 7-Up, Koke, Coca-Cola. N.O., like every Southern town, is a city of soft-drink signs; the streets of forlorn neighborhoods are paved with Coca-Cola caps, and after rain, they glint in the dust like lost dimes. Posters peel away, lie mangled until storm wind blows them along the street, like desert sage—and there are those who think them beautiful; there are those who paper their walls with Dr. Nutt and Dr. Pepper, with Coca-Cola beauties who, smiling above tenement beds, are night guardians and saints of the morning. Signs everywhere, chalked, printed, painted: Madame Ortega—Readings, Love-potions, Magic Literature, C Me; If You Haven’t Anything To Do . . . Don’t Do It Here; Are You Ready To Meet Your Maker?; B Ware, Bad Dog; Pity The Poor Little Orphans; I Am A Deaf & Dumb Widow With 2 Mouths To Feed; Attention; Blue Wing Singers At Our Church Tonight (signed) The Reverend. There was once this notice on a door in the Irish Channel district, “Come In And See Where Jesus Stood.” “And so?” said a woman who answered when I rang the bell. “I’d like to see where Jesus stood,” I told her, and for a moment she looked blank; her face, cut in razorlike lines, was marshmallow-white; she had no eyebrows, no lashes, and she wore a calico kimono. “You too little, honey,” she said, a jerky laugh bouncing her breasts, “you too damn little for to see where Jesus stood.” In my neighborhood there was a certain café no fun whatever, for it was the emptiest café around N.O., a regular funeral place. The proprietress, Mrs. Morris Otto Kunze, did not, however, seem to mind; she sat all day behind her bar, cooling herself with a palmetto fan, and seldom stirred except to swat flies. Now glued over an old cracked mirror backing the bar were seven little signs all alike: Don’t Worry About Life . . . You’ll Never Get Out Of It Alive. July 3. An “at home” card last week from Miss Y., so I made a call this afternoon. She is delightful in her archaic way, amusing, too, though not by intent. The first time we met, I thought: Edna May Oliver; and there is a resemblance most certainly. Miss Y. speaks in premediated tones but what she says is haphazard, and her sherry-colored eyes are forever searching the surroundings. Her posture is military, and she carries a man’s Malacca cane, one of her legs being shorter than the other, a condition which gives her walk a penguinlike lilt. “It made me unhappy when I was your age; yes, I must say it did, for Papa had to squire me to all the balls, and there we sat on such pretty little gold chairs, and there we sat. None of the gentlemen ever asked Miss Y. to dance, indeed no, though a young man from Baltimore, a Mr. Jones, came here one winter, and gracious!—poor Mr. Jones—fell off a ladder, you know—broke his neck—died instantly.” My interest in Miss Y. is rather clinical, and I am not, I embarrassedly confess, quite the friend she believes, for one cannot feel close to Miss Y.: she is too much a fairy tale, someone real—and improbable. She is like the piano in her parlor—elegant, but a little out of tune. Her house, old even for N.O., is guarded by a black broken iron fence; it is a poor neighborhood she lives in, one sprayed with room-for-rent signs, gasoline stations, jukebox cafés. And yet, in the days when her family first lived here—that, of course, was long ago—there was in all N.O. no finer place. The house, smothered by slanting trees, has a graying exterior; but inside, the fantasy of Miss Y.’s heritage is everywhere visible: the tapping of her cane as she descends birdwing stairs trembles crystal; her face, a heart of wrinkled silk, reflects fumelike on ceiling-high mirrors; she lowers herself (notice, as this happens, how carefully she preserves the comfort of her bones) into father’s father’s father’s chair, a wickedly severe receptacle with lion-head hand-rests. She is beautiful here in the cool dark of her house, and safe. These are the walls, the fence, the furniture of her childhood. “Some people are born to be old; I, for instance, was an atrocious child lacking any quality whatever. But I like being old. It makes me feel somehow more”—she paused, indicated with a gesture the dim parlor—“more suitable.” Miss Y. does not believe in the world beyond N.O.; at times her insularity results, as it did today, in rather chilling remarks. I had mentioned a recent trip to New York, whereupon she, arching an eyebrow, replied gently, “Oh? And how are things in the country?” 1. Why is it, I wonder, that all N.O. cabdrivers sound as though they were imported from Brooklyn? 2. One hears so much about food here, and it is probably true that such restaurants as Arnaud’s and Kolb’s are the best in America. There is an attractive, lazy atmosphere about these restaurants: the slow-wheeling fans, the enormous tables and lack of crowding, the silence, the casual but expert waiters who all look as though they were sons of the management. A friend of mine, discussing N.O. and New York, once pointed out that comparable meals in the East, aside from being considerably more expensive, would arrive elaborate with some chef’s mannerisms, with all kinds of froufrou and false accessories. Like most good things, the quality of N.O. cookery derived, he thought, from its essential simplicity. 3. I am more or less disgusted by that persistent phrase “old charm.” You will find it, I suppose, in the architecture here, and in the antique shops (where it rightly belongs), or in the minglings of dialect one hears around the French Market. But N.O. is no more charming than any other Southern city—less so, in fact, for it is the largest. The main portion of this city is made up of spiritual bottomland, streets and sections rather outside the tourist belt. (From a letter to R.R.) There are new people in the apartment below, the third tenants in the last year; a transient place, this Quarter, hello and good-bye. A real bona-fide scoundrel lived there when I first came. He was unscrupulous, unclean and crooked—a kind of dissipated satyr. Mr. Buddy, the one-man band. More than likely you have seen him—not here of course, but in some other city, for he keeps on the move, he and his old banjo, drum, harmonica. I used to come across him banging away on various street corners, a gang of loafers gathered round. Realizing he was my neighbor, these meetings always gave me rather a turn. Now, to tell the truth, he was not a bad musician—an extraordinary one, in fact, when, late of an afternoon, and for his own pleasure, he sang to his guitar, sang ghostly ballads in a grieving whiskey voice: how terrible it was for those in love. “Hey, boy, you! You up there . . .” I was you, for he never knew my name, and never showed much interest in finding it out. “Come on down and help me kill a couple.” His balcony, smaller t...

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