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spacer Truman Capote, New York City, 1983
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Truman Capote, New York City, 1983

“Truman always loved tales with surprise endings,” his former colleague at The New Yorker, Brendan Gill, said to me one day at lunch. “Sometimes it seems he wants his own life to be an O. Henry short story, except that he’s always casting about for some way to change the ending.” I was doing the reporting for a profile of Truman that had been assigned by the late Lee Lescaze, then my editor at The Post, a huge fan of the man who had written “In Cold Blood,” one of my own favorite books. Truman was then supposedly finishing a long-overdue novel called “Answered Prayers,” which had begun as a piece in Esquire, “La Cote Basque,” the name of a much celebrated restaurant on West Fifty Fifth Street. The dining room there is appointed as a quiet dockside café looking out on St.-Jean-De-Luz. Sloops are moored in the harbor, but in Truman’s telling they became boats beating against the current: many of the whispered stories and innuendos he had heard over the years were now reduced, either factually or thinly veiled, onto the pages of a magazine. It was as if he was metaphorically recreating what Perry Smith had said in “In Cold Blood” about the murder of Herbert Clutter: “I thought he was a very nice gentleman. Soft-spoken. I thought so right up to the moment I cut his throat.” In “La Cote Basque,” the lap dog of society’s luncheon matrons was now shitting in the dining room. This amused Lee, himself raised in New York society, the son of a famous architect, although Lee’s cynical view of that world seemed quite closely aligned with Truman’s. Lee was adamant that I get Truman to show me the book, and perhaps convince him to let The Post run some juicy excerpt with my piece. On many occasions Truman would wave in front of me what he purported to be the manuscript, but he never let me read a word. Of the Cote Basque tempest, he said, “Where they all made their mistake is that they thought I was their friend. I set out to do this book the same way I set out to do ‘In Cold Blood.’ I lived with murderers, I lived with these society people.” Brendan Gill told me a story he considered the quintessential glimpse into the man who had started working in The New Yorker’s art department at the age of seventeen. One of Truman's tasks was to keep track of the artist James Thurber, who had grown blind by the time Truman had joined the staff. Thurber and his wife lived in the Algonquin Hotel across the street from the magazine's offices. The proximity of his wife, however, did little to restrict Thurber's amorous adventures. And one day, a troubled call came into the art department: Thurber had been abandoned in a strange hotel room by one of his liaisons, and couldn't find his clothes. Truman was dispatched forthwith to rescue the blind artist, dress him and return him to the office. And Truman was roundly congratulated by colleagues on the completion of this seemingly merciful act. But, Gill recalled, each time he was praised, Truman would whisper to his admirers: “I put his socks on inside out so his wife would know.” Truman lived in the same apartment building in Manhattan as Katharine Graham, the late publisher of The Washington Post. One night we sat in his apartment as he popped pills and drank enough vodka to kill most mortals. Then he grabbed a box of crayons, took the elevator to Mrs. Graham’s apartment, and proceeded to scribble all over her door. “Why don’t you sign your name,” he suggested. I declined. “If I tell her I made you do it, she won’t be at all mad with you,” he said. Truman called the next day to summon me for lunch, asking that I bring my camera. “The snow is starting to melt and I feel like having my picture taken,” he said, like a boy happy to get out of the house after a storm. And here he is, just outside the entrance to his UN Plaza apartment. He was dead the next year. No one ever found the manuscript to “Answered Prayers.”

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