Truman Capote, True Crime, and TruthBreaking News
tags: Truman Capote, true crime
On october 21, 1970, truman capote went to jail. Considering he’d spent much of his life fascinated by crime, it nevertheless came as a shock, to him and others, when he was sentenced to three days on a contempt-of-court charge. “I've been in thirty or forty jails and prisons, but this is the first time I’ll ever be in one as a prisoner,” Capote told reporters at the time, his bravado a substitute, according to his biographer Gerald Clarke, for the “stark terror” he was actually feeling.
Every true-crime writer has to contend with Capote. In Cold Blood, his rapturously received “nonfiction novel” (as Capote termed it) about a Kansas family’s homicide in 1959, is embedded in the DNA of every book in the genre. As Justin St. Germain wrote in his critical reexamination, “Capote spiked a vein, and out came a stream of imitators, a whole bloody genre, one of the most popular forms of American nonfiction: true crime.” (I’m no exception, as Capote ended up a minor character in my own recent nonfiction book, Scoundrel.)
The sheer glut of recently released books and films about Capote—the past few years alone brought forth Capote’s Women, by Laurence Leamer; the documentary film The Capote Tapes; and, at the end of last year, Roseanne Montillo’s Deliberate Cruelty: Truman Capote, the Millionaire’s Wife, and the Murder of the Century—seem less interested in Capote’s relationship to true crime than in his obsessive social striving. The two parts of his identity were not completely separate—the smash success of his Black and White Ball at the Plaza Hotel in November 1966 was built, after all, on the back of In Cold Blood’s runaway popularity. But surely there must be something new to discover about Capote’s relationship to criminality? If so, uncovering how he came to spend time (however brief) among the incarcerated may yield some clues.
When he went to jail in 1970, Capote wasn’t far removed from his heights as one of America’s most celebrated writers. He had also, improbably, become a go-to pundit on criminal-justice matters, opining about criminal cases on popular programs such as The Tonight Show and Firing Line, and spending years interviewing death-row prisoners for various projects.
Perhaps it’s no accident that Capote’s career and personal free fall began in earnest after his time in jail, a surprisingly little-reported episode that raises larger questions about his own attraction to true crime, and the ethical compromises involved in doing this sort of writing. Understanding how and why this happened requires a look back at Capote’s troubled youth, which foreshadowed an adulthood marked by secrets and lies.