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Truman Capote | Biography

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Early Life and Influences

Truman Capote was born Truman Streckfus Persons in New Orleans on September 30, 1924 (the same birthday as the narrator in the novella). When Truman was four, his parents divorced and he spent much of his childhood with his mother's relatives in Monroeville, Alabama. His mother remarried but left Truman with relatives until he was nine, then brought him to live with her and his stepfather, Joséph Garcia Capote, in New York. His stepfather was a stable influence in Truman's life and formally adopted him in February 1935, when his name was changed to Truman Garcia Capote. He continued to spend summers in Monroeville, where he met and befriended a young Harper Lee, the future author of To Kill a Mockingbird. Lee was one of Capote's few friends, as he spent a great deal of time alone, trying to avoid being bullied. Despite being highly intelligent, he did not do well in school and remained an outcast from all the other boys.

Writing Career

Though he was a poor student, Capote was a precocious writer. His first job out of high school at age 17 was as a copyboy for The New Yorker, but his attempts to have his work published in the magazine were unsuccessful. His first two stories were published in 1945 by the magazines Mademoiselle and Harper's Bazaar. His first novel, Other Voices, Other Rooms, came out in 1948 and sold well in spite of mixed reviews. In the spring of 1958 Capote completed Breakfast at Tiffany's, a novella he sold to Harper's Bazaar. Finding the language and subject matter too controversial, the magazine's editors declined to publish the story. Capote then sold it to Esquire, where it debuted in serial form in the magazine's November 1958 issue. Harper's Bazaar's loss was Esquire's gain—magazine sales soared as everyone in New York tried to figure out who served as the real-life inspiration for the scandalous Holly Golightly.

Known already for basing his fiction on fact, Capote once admitted Holly was inspired by a girl he knew in New York, but he never divulged her name. That was to his advantage. The ensuing publicity storm, which he christened "the Holly Golightly Sweepstakes," had Manhattan socialites staking their claim to Holly's origin. Very few guessed Holly was based partly on Capote's mother, Lillie Mae Faulk, who—like the story's Lulamae Barnes—changed her name to a more sophisticated alternative. Capote also based Holly partly on himself—as he had completely reinvented himself to fit into the New York social scene.

Breakfast at Tiffany's made Capote a bonafide literary star. His popularity only increased after the successful movie version was released in 1961, though he disliked it immensely. He had envisioned his friend Marilyn Monroe, not Audrey Hepburn, when he was writing the character of Holly. However, acting coach Lee Strasberg convinced Monroe that portraying Holly would be bad for her image. In addition to the film's casting and overall romanticizing, Capote was unhappy with the romantic storybook ending the producers tacked onto the film. The only good part about the movie, he felt, was that his share of the proceeds gave him the financial security to work on his next project, the famous crime narrative In Cold Blood—which took him six years to complete.

Fame, Stress, and a Downward Spiral

Although writing In Cold Blood drained Capote personally, the book, an unusual combination of fact and fiction, was a huge success. Dubbed by Capote as a new genre—a nonfiction novel—the story debuted as a four-part series in the September 1965 issue of The New Yorker. Random House then published the complete narrative in January 1966. Although In Cold Blood brought Capote success, money, and fame, no amount of praise or publicity could calm his rattled nerves or bring him peace. His already heavy use of alcohol and drugs worsened. Capote eventually wrote another novel and a collection of short pieces, but his alcoholism all but destroyed his 35-year relationship with his companion, American novelist and playwright Jack Dunphy. It also marred his judgment to the point that he betrayed friends' secrets in his fiction, thus losing his place in the world of the Manhattan elite. Eventually, he succumbed to health problems related to his addiction and died in Los Angeles on August 25, 1984.
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