On “Summer Crossing” by Truman Capote

Summer_Crossing_SmallMy relationship with Truman Capote and his work has always been harried. There is no doubt that he is one of America’s finest writers; Other Voices, Other Rooms and the delightful Breakfast at Tiffany’s remain staples of our canon. Even the hotly contested In Cold Blood is considered a masterpiece of the “creative non-fiction” genre. But, as Melanie Benjamin explored in her novel The Swans of Fifth Avenue, Capote had a nasty tendency toward exploitation and excess. The infamous “La Cote Basque 1965” is enough to explain just how far he would go for fame and attention if he felt like he was falling into obscurity.

The 2005 Bennett Miller film, Capote, explores the personal tumult the author went through while writing In Cold Blood. It shows a man who tells his subjects what they want to hear in order to get information at the great cost of his self-respect and what would be a huge blow to his friendship with Nelle Harper Lee. The film pays especial attention to Capote’s relationship with Perry Smith, which was deeply empathetic. In one scene, he tells Nelle Lee, “It’s as if Perry and I grew up in the same house. And one day he stood up and went out the back door, while I went out the front.”

Later on, he turns to Nelle again for reassurance after Smith and Hickock are hanged. He asks, “And there wasn’t anything I could have done to save them.” She responds, “Maybe not. But the fact is, you didn’t want to.”

This is who Truman Capote is in my mind–the man who does whatever he must for the sake of a story–for good or evil. He left behind masterpieces but died a lonely, creatively-stunted alcoholic. A bleak ending for the once shiny, gregarious Southern author.

Like a moth attracted to flame, I picked up Truman Capote’s unpublished first novel, Summer Crossing in the hopes of getting a glimpse into the author’s origins. Before he sold his soul for fame and notoriety. The manuscript–believed to have been thrown away–was rescued by one of Capote’s former landlords and eventually sold at auction. The slim text, which was published by Random House in 2005, is a fascinating display of the young Truman Capote’s keen instincts.

The story concerns Grady O’Neil–the bohemian daughter of a wealthy Manhattan family who decides to stay home while her parents go on a “summer crossing” to Europe. It seems that she has found love with a 23-year-old Jewish man from Brooklyn named Clyde Manzer–a condition of secrecy for both parties.

Capote builds their narrative from a series of psychologically adroit sketches: Grady making breakfast for Clyde, burning waffles in the process; the push and pull relationship she has with her childhood best friend, Peter Boyd, who has fallen in love with her; the oppressive, sizzling heat of Manhattan at night–the only time Capote’s characters will safely venture out.

So many of these interactions are marked by Capote’s trademark wit and the dissection of human experience that he wields in his later work. The observations are there even if his sentences show the uncertainty with which he lays out the story. Reading his passages can be exhausting, to the point where I had to imagine myself reading out loud to make sense of some of his more circuitous descriptions. I am happy to note that, in his later work, Capote dropped his incessant use of semi-colons.

The only peculiar element to this story is its abrupt ending. Unlike his other pieces of fiction, Summer Crossing pokes at the surface of dread until the novel’s very last paragraph at which time he plunges his characters right into it. It seems, in that moment, that something in Grady snaps. She is pregnant with Clyde’s child, and they have eloped. What should he a happy time is marred by apprehension and distrust. They go for what would be a normal night out until a moment of tension between Clyde and Peter unnerves her to the point where she speeds her Buick along the Queensboro Bridge with the intention of going off the edge and killing everyone.

Clyde’s friend Gump says something along the lines of, “Slow down! You’ll kill us all.” To which she replies, “I know.”

Summer Crossing could be a commentary on any number of things: the unbridgeable gap between classes; the gentle malaise of the bohemian elite; or, the Great Gatsby-like trope of summer addling the minds of those who have everything to lose.

Or–it could be none of those things.

In my estimation, Capote used this story as an exercise, flexing his muscles for future narratives. The paint strokes of Summer Crossing are apparent in his later work, showing the author as someone who is constantly hyper-aware of nuance in behavior and speech.

For Capote fans, this novel is well worth a read. At a scant 130 pages, readers can digest the story in a matter of hours, though I would recommend reading with care. Capote is a tricky one when it comes to building those pristine sentences of his. One misstep and you could fall down the rabbit hole.

On Melanie Benjamin’s “The Swans of Fifth Avenue”

Image courtesy of Amazon.com

This review appears on paperbackparis.com:

The wise prophet Biggy Smalls once said: “I don’t know what they want from me/ It’s like the more money we come across/The more problems we see.”

More problems indeed.

Melanie Benjamin tells us a fairy tale in The Swans of Fifth Avenue. Barbara “Babe” Cushing Mortimer Paley, a beautiful, filthy rich socialite who leads a coterie of other beautiful, filthy rich women—our swans—falls in love with the overly ambitious, conniving, unapologetically fey literary upstart Truman Capote.

It isn’t a physical love; it can never be that. But they come to know each other in the most intimate ways imaginable. The perpetually lonely and insecure Babe feels beautiful only in Capote’s presence. Her philandering husband—CBS magnate, Bill Paley—can’t help but notice that his wife’s inhibitions fly away when she’s around the garrulous, gossipy young writer. And Capote finds his muse in her. She teaches him everything about life among the obscenely wealthy where everything is beautiful.

As in every ill-fated fairy tale, though, wealth and beauty come at a cost. Babe is expected to be perfect at all times; she is her mother’s daughter—the ultimate trophy wife. That’s all she ever was.

Reading her daily ritual is exhausting in and of itself. No one sees her without a fully made up face. She wakes up hours before her husband in order to perfect her look, to make sure every piece of her outfit is in place and casually trend setting. You see, the day Babe Paley tied her scarf around the handle of her purse on a hot day was the day it became a sensation. Women all over the world followed suit.

Capote salivates over this life he’s been welcomed into. Babe, Slim Keith, Gloria Guinness, Marella Agnelli, C.Z. Guest, and Pamela Churchill Harriman all let their guard down around him—this outrageous, hilarious man who can spin a tale out of half-truths.

That is their biggest mistake.

Capote skyrockets to fame (and infamy) upon the publication of his seminal non-fiction novel, In Cold Blood. The swans are slightly taken aback at the talent lying dormant in their friend–their True Heart, but they lavish him with praise, and he gains the notoriety he has always craved.

On November 28, 1966, he throws a Black and White Ball. Books have since been devoted to studying that night and its dynamics, but Benjamin’s astute judgment paints an image that encapsulates its essence.

That night changed him forever. Desperate to recapture the apex of his fame in 1966, Capote gathers all the secrets his beautiful friends have ever told him and publishes “La Cote Basque, 1965.” The world of the swans erupts, and Capote believes he’s done nothing wrong. They were the ones who opened their mouths, and he’s an artist. What did they expect?

Well. No one crosses the swans, so it’s a rapid fall from grace for Capote.

If I had encountered these people in any other context, I would have hated them outright. The true-blue working class in me screams, “Well what about the people who live paycheck to paycheck and raise their own babies. The people for whom Givenchy and Balenciaga are just Scrabble tiles thrown against a wall, for all they care.”

Wealth disgusts me, and I have little patience for it. But Benjamin is one hell of a good writer, and she got me to empathize with them…even sympathize with them on occasion. The level of scrutiny Babe faces is incomprehensible to me, but she faces it with admirable stoicism.

Capote, on the other hand, has always held a position in my mind that’s difficult to describe. His literary talent cannot be denied. In Cold Blood is a great piece of literature, but it always seemed to me that he used Dick Hickock and Percy Smith–manipulated their emotions and trust—to get exactly what he wanted: a book that would bring him fame. His relationship with Harper Lee was all but severed because of it.

My respect and loathing of him has always been a balance that shifts here and there, but this novel has left with me with more of a negative impression of the writer. Maybe it’s the journalist in me, but he violated the sacred covenant of minimizing harm in one’s work.

Nevertheless, Benjamin’s characterizations and examinations of conscience provide a layered analysis of this fateful point in history when Vietnam raged for years and came to an inauspicious end, racial barriers began to crumble, and Capote broke Babe Paley’s heart.