In Cold Blood | Study Guide

Truman Capote

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Truman Capote | Biography


Truman Streckfus Persons was born in New Orleans on September 30, 1924. His parents divorced when he was four, and he spent much of his childhood with his mother's relatives in Monroeville, Alabama. His mother remarried but didn't bring Truman to live with her and his stepfather, Joseph Garcia Capote, in New York until Truman was nine. He continued to spend summers in Monroeville, where he met and befriended a young Harper Lee, the future author of To Kill a Mockingbird. Otherwise, he spent a lot of time alone, trying to avoid being bullied, and he did not do well at school despite being highly intelligent.

Capote was a precocious writer and an increasingly notorious storyteller, which charmed socialites in New York and got him a job at The New Yorker magazine at age 18. His first two stories were published in national magazines. In 1948 his first novel, Other Voices, Other Rooms, was published and sold well despite mixed reviews. Several years and novels later, Capote became a literary star with the novel Breakfast at Tiffany's (1958), which became a successful movie starring Audrey Hepburn in 1961.

In Cold Blood was inspired by a brief story in the New York Times in November 1959 about the mysterious murder of a family on a farm in western Kansas. Capote and Harper Lee, who agreed to go along as Capote's researcher, went to Kansas to interview people about the murders. While they were there the killers were caught in Las Vegas, which added a new facet to the story. Capote and Lee were allowed to interview Smith and Hickock before leaving Kansas. Capote continued to correspond with both of the accused. Capote and Lee returned to Kansas to attend the trial in March 1960. After Smith's and Hickock's convictions, the murderers spent five years on death row while appeals were filed. Capote ultimately attended their 1965 executions because Smith and Hickock wanted him there. Although writing In Cold Blood—which took six years to complete—drained Capote personally, the book, an unusual combination of fact and fiction, was a huge success. It was first released in four parts in The New Yorker and then published in 1966 as a complete novel, instantly becoming a hit and bringing Capote success, money, and fame.

Capote's nerves were rattled after writing the novel, and his already heavy use of alcohol and drugs worsened. He did write another novel and a collection of short pieces, but his alcoholism destroyed his 35-year relationship with his companion, Jack Dunphy. It also marred his judgment to the point that he used friends' secrets in his fiction, losing his place in the world of the Manhattan elite. Eventually, he succumbed to health problems related to his addiction and died on August 25, 1984.

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