There are lots of nasty little names for a man like Truman Capote. His friends, the liter- and glitterati, knew them all and probably spent their quiet hours remunerating on new and sadistic bon mots over brandy.
He was “an effete, elfin little southern boy,” said writer Jay McInerney, who recalls being groped by the “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” and “In Cold Blood” author on a couch. “He was playing the aging queen.”
“Truman was lazy,” said Italian heiress Marella Agnelli, one of the circle of socialites known as Capote’s “swans” — including Babe Paley, Slim Keith, Lee Radziwill, C.Z. Guest and Gloria Guinness — who ruled fashionable New York in their time.
“He was bitchy,” said journalist Sally Quinn. “The word ‘pansy’ was flying around Park Avenue.”
Even Capote had choice words for Capote: “I’m a freak,” he told Keith. “People are amused by me. People are fascinated by me. But people do not love me.”
All of those cat scratches, and plenty more, can be heard on “The Capote Tapes,” a new documentary premiering Friday at the Quad Cinema on West 13th Street. It features never-before-heard recordings with Capote’s closest confidantes (listen closely and you can hear the ice tinkling in their glasses), recorded by literary tastemaker and Paris Review founder George Plimpton, as well as new interviews with living contemporaries.
The film — an adept PBS-style bio by first-time director Ebs Burnough — does its documentary duty of telling Capote’s life story: his hick upbringing in Monroeville, Ala.; the suffering he experienced as a palpably gay man with a squeaky, cartoon baby voice; his rise to literary stardom; and his ultimate self-inflicted downfall.
But more than a straightforward history, the film is preoccupied with the dark tension between Capote as a self-made outsider and his high-class clique who would never truly accept him — and the revenge he sought to inflict on them in return.
Despite having written several of the 20th century’s great novels — pioneering the now commonplace “nonfiction novel” – by the 1960s, Capote was reduced to an outrageous lunchtime date, a flamboyant drunk, a walker of women, a talk-show ham — a performing monkey for cocktail hour.
“They had him as the entertainment,” said Kate Harrington, Capote’s “surrogate daughter,” who ran away from home to live with him at age 13.
“Truman had thought of himself as a master,” added editor Lewis Lapham. “Then it becomes clear to him that they think of him as a servant.”
Boiling beneath it all was the suicide of his mother, Lillie Mae Faulk, in 1954. Although she had abandoned Capote as a child, they had reunited in New York, where his mother struggled to climb the social ladder as a budding Park Avenue hostess.
“Truman felt that what had killed his mother was her aspirations to be in high society,” Plimpton said. “He felt that his mother should be avenged in some way.”
For Capote, vengeance took the form of gossip.
“Truman started his day [by] getting a cup of coffee and talking to gossip columnists,” Harrington recalled. “He would trade all the gossip. They would discuss all the happenings, the secrets.”
He hoped to one day compile all of that tittle-tattle into a great Proustian novel, titled “Answered Prayers,” a tell-all satire of his swans, their charmed lives and dirty laundry, veiled in lace.
“Truman was always very honest,” Burnough told The Post. “He told them he was writing a book. They knew he was writing a book and that he was doing what he had always done — with ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’ and ‘In Cold Blood’ — which was to take the truth and lay it out bare. But because he was so steeped in drugs and alcohol, it came out spiteful and mean, rather than a literary expose of social mores.”
The unfinished book, four chapters of which were published in Esquire starting in 1975, was social suicide. It named names and revealed gory affairs — even accusing one well-made hostess of being a murderess. Pearls from Sutton Place to Fifth Avenue were clutched and Capote was 86’d from the aristocracy. When Capote died in 1984 of liver disease and “drug intoxication,” Gore Vidal called it “a wise career move.”
“What Truman thought he was doing, and felt justified in doing, was taking the lid off a bowl of shit,” said friend and art historian John Richardson.
But while “Answered Prayers” was a failure, “The Capote Tapes” argues that he did ultimately turn the tables on his cafe society keepers and get his revenge — although in a far less venomous way.
In 1966, Capote put on the most legendary party of the second half of the 20th century: his masked Black and White Ball at the Plaza hotel, whose obsessively curated guest list included Andy Warhol, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Frank Sinatra and the Italian Princess Luciana Pignatelli (dressed in a 60-carat Harry Winston sparkler), to name a random few.
“No one was to take their masks off until after midnight,” said Burnough. “At that point, very possibly Lauren Bacall or Rose Kennedy could have had a dance with Truman’s doorman or an investigator from Kansas. He was toying with everybody and there was a manipulative quality to the whole thing. Truman was a voyeur and I think he was taking a moment to put everybody onstage and to do it his way.”