At his death in 1984, just shy of 60, in the Bel Air home of one of Johnny Carson’s ex-wives, Truman Capote was conspicuous less for his literary output than for his ubiquitous guest spots on late-night talk shows. Wallowing in performative agony, he was intoxicated by his own celebrity—to say nothing of alcohol and drugs—as he confided to the likes of Carson and Dick Cavett, in his trademark simpering squeal, how his apparently never-finished novel-length sendup of Manhattan high society, Answered Prayers, prompted his closest confidantes, the rich and elegant ladies he called “my swans,” to cut and shun him forever.
Capote was devastated most of all by his banishment by top swan Babe Paley, his closest friend in New York and the wife of CBS mogul William Paley.
The nadir of his public appearances—an enduring image of late-stage Capote—occurred in July 1978, when the fact that he could barely speak, word-slurring and glassy-eyed after 48 hours of vodka- and chemical-addled carousing, didn’t dissuade the diminutive storyteller from appearing live on New York’s The Stanley Siegel Show.
“What’s going to happen unless you lick this problem of drugs and alcohol?” the local television host asked him. “The obvious answer,” Capote replied in a rare moment of clarity, “is that eventually, I mean, I’ll kill myself, without meaning to.”
A new documentary, The Capote Tapes—which premiered at the Toronto Film Festival two years ago and is finally getting a United States theatrical release Sept. 10 after several COVID-caused delays—seeks to dispel that drunken-fame-whore caricature.
Based largely on recorded interviews conducted by the late George Plimpton for his 1997 oral biography, Truman Capote: In Which Various Friends, Enemies, Acquaintances and Detractors Recall His Turbulent Career, it accords due credit to Capote’s writerly brilliance as the author of such classics as Breakfast at Tiffany’s and his groundbreaking non-fiction crime novel In Cold Blood. And the film humanizes a gay man who triumphed over soul-crushing struggles as a lonely boy in rural Alabama farmed out to relatives after being abandoned by his father and rejected by his mother, who ultimately realized her own social ambitions in a second marriage on Park Avenue before succumbing to pills, alcohol, and suicide.
Capote insisted—at a time when it was professionally damaging and physically dangerous—on being his authentic self.
For Plimpton’s tape recorder, Norman Mailer recounted a day in the early 1950s when he and Capote—who dressed and carried himself, Mailer said, like “a beautiful little faggot prince”—decided to have a drink at an Irish bar in Brooklyn. The regular patrons in this lair of “sour masculine virtue” stared menacingly at Capote; Mailer’s adrenaline spiked “and I was getting all ready for a fight.” Capote, used to such reactions, took it in stride.
“I was very impressed with what it cost him to live like that,” Mailer recalled. (One can only imagine how Mailer, who was a massively celebrated novelist and controversialist when he died in 2007, might react on learning that Capote’s pop-culture presence and literary legacy far exceed his own in 2021. Capote’s works continue to be widely read and to attract eager interest from Hollywood; to date, he has been the central character of several documentaries and two feature films, 2005’s Oscar-winning Capote and 2006’s Infamous.)
Capote Tapes director Ebs (pronounced “eebs”) Burnough, a native of Tallahassee, Florida, came to his subject serendipitously, it seems—trying his hand as a first-time filmmaker after a career in corporate branding, public relations (working with, among others, Daily Beast founding editor Tina Brown), and Democratic Party politics (serving as Michelle Obama’s political director during the 2008 campaign and then as deputy chief of protocol in the Obama White House).
Burnough, who majored in acting at Northwestern University (although he also studied political science there under Rahm Emanuel and David Axelrod), has a knack for befriending prominent, accomplished, and famous people. Or maybe it’s just fantastic luck that allowed him to be pals over the years with Marvin Hamlisch, Mike Nichols, and Plimpton’s widow Sarah (who gifted him the cache of Capote tapes from her husband’s archives), and to meet and marry the fabulously wealthy hedge fund manager Pierre Lagrange, an executive producer on The Capote Tapes with whom Burnough lives in London and shares four children.
“I’m a Black gay man that’s 41 years old,” Burnough told The Daily Beast. “Truman Capote was who he was. That doesn’t mean that if Truman were alive today, he would be holding a Pride flag at a gay pride parade. But I do believe he talked about the challenges of love and he was pretty openly gay—theatrically so. He knew what he was doing. And I thought, here’s a person who’s actually been overlooked”—in part, Burnough argued, because Capote was a publicity hound and a wicked, even malicious, gossip who was never a member of the literary establishment.
“When we talk about gay pride, when we talk about leaders, and people who came before us, Truman Capote’s name doesn’t come up,” Burnough added. “And for me, as a gay Black boy raised in the American South, there’s something kind of—pardon my language—fucked up about that. Because he actually was out there. He pushed the envelope, he was who he was, he did it. His words aside, I think he deserves a stronger place in our LGBTQ-plus canon than he occupies.
“Yes, Truman had his faults, and I’m not trying to downplay those faults. He was a drug addict, and mean, in many ways. [Indeed, the documentary features audio from one of Plimpton’s interviews describing Capote as “a candied tarantula.” A clip from The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson features Capote remarking to the blankly nodding host: “Marlon Brando is an absolutely marvelous actor. But he’s so dumb it makes your skin crawl.”] But I want people to understand that he did further our cause when so many people weren’t even looking at it.”
Burnough said he began reading Capote as a teenager after a high school librarian in Tallahassee introduced him to such short stories as Miriam. That’s an intense, goose bump-inducing yarn about an aging, Upper East Side widow, Miriam Miller, who is terrorized, or so it seems, by an impertinent, demanding, destructive little girl—also named Miriam—after a chance encounter at a movie house.
He then devoured Capote’s works, especially the thinly veiled bestselling gay coming-of-age novel Other Voices, Other Rooms. Yet, as he researched the writer’s life and times in preparation for the documentary—including Capote’s militant snobbism, which reached full expression in the famous Black & White Ball he threw in 1966 for Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham and 500-odd mask-wearing celebrities and plutocrats, plus Capote’s razor wit that frequently drew blood—Burnough decided that he didn’t much like him.
That is, until he learned the story of Kate Harrington, whose father, a rough-hewn Bronx Irishman who was a bank vice president on Long Island, had a tumultuous affair with the writer. In the documentary, playwright Dotson Rader—an especially hilarious anecdotist and one of several surviving Capote friends who talked for Burnough’s camera—claims that during a meeting in the banker’s office, the banker asked the writer if he wanted to make a deposit, and Capote said no, but he took deposits, and then proceeded to fellate him.
The famous writer came to dinner with the banker’s family in their modest suburban house, riding in a big black limo that fascinated the neighborhood kids; Kate had to stifle her laughter with a tea towel when she first heard Capote’s high-pitched snuffle. After Kate’s dad left his wife and children with zero financial support, Capote took her under his wing, inviting her to live with him at his UN Plaza apartment, jump-starting her career as a model with a visit to Richard Avedon’s studio, encouraging her to write, and introducing her to all of his well-connected celebrity friends, such as Andy Warhol and Diana Vreeland (for both of whom she later worked).
Burnough said Harrington is “the heart and soul of this story,” because her relationship with Capote showed that he was capable of nurturing another human being with loving kindness. Harrington has been largely under the radar concerning her relationship with Capote. She granted only a brief interview to Plimpton, a friend of hers, but said “something about Ebs” persuaded her to share her memories of Capote at length on camera.
“I am happy with the documentary. I was so nervous. I was afraid it was going to be mean. The tail-end of his life was so terrible—let’s just say what it was, and I didn’t want to talk about that,” Harrington, now 60, told The Daily Beast, adding that she helped care for the writer during his waning days.
Harrington, who decided during the pandemic to start work on a memoir of her life with Capote, named her 20-year-old daughter after him.
“I want people to remember Truman as a serious, great writer—not about his alcoholism and drug addiction and his fall from grace.”