July 30, 2010

Music For Chameleons-

Truman Capote died a month and six days before his sixtieth birthday. At the time of his death, he had been on a long decline of notoriety, alcoholism, and drug use. The Beautiful People and jet set who sought him out and coddled him for decades; who had vied for his company and an invitation to his Party of the Century – the famous Black and White Ball, had long turned away and ostracized him. Even worse, his talent, which had taken him to great heights, had finally eluded and escaped him. He had had a good ride, even a great one, but his ending obscured his talent.

I was first aware of Capote as a teenager when I read his “Other Voices”, followed by “Breakfast at Tiffany”. Every girl imagined herself to be another Holly Golightly. Followed by the movie with Audrey Hepburn, which spoke to a whole generation of even non-readers idealizing grown up life in the big city.

In the mid-1960s appeared “In Cold Blood”, serialized in four parts in the New Yorker. The first sentence: “The village of Holcomb stands on the high wheat plains of western Kansas, a lonesome area that other Kansans call “out there.” A terrible murder of an upstanding, plain, and simple family by two aimless screwed up thugs from the underside of the same America.
I discovered it accidentally, thumbing through a new (for that week) issue of the magazine and seeing Capote’s byline at the end of the piece. (In those days, the New Yorker had no table of contents and bylines were always at the end of a story or article.) I began to read and soon found I could not stop. For the next three weeks, I lived with religious anticipation from week to week, when I could devour the next segment.

“In Cold Blood” was the most exciting, most horrifying, most compelling read of the moment and the intense public interest that it created lifted Truman Capote’s image into the stratosphere. He became one of those public characters who seemed to be blessed with wit, wisdom, glamour, and more than a touch of the offbeat.

The persona that later became a kind of mid-20th century version of Oscar Wilde, was a good a looking youthful man in a grey flannel suit. Blonde hair, high smooth brow and a very boyish face, and then there was the sashay. Despite the conventional style of dress, there was already something quite far-out (although not quite in-your-face) about him, at least for those pre-Liberation times. Then, of course, there was the voice, which on first hearing, came as a shock.

It was a whiny squeak, a drawling, lips-pursed, tongue slipping sibilance. Like some hipped up Baby Huey. No one in public life talked, or sounded like that, let alone would have wanted to. No one dared, it was so outrageously effeminate. So “Out There” with all the markings of a serious put-on. Despite the distracting timbre and mannered-ness of the man’s voice that seemed almost something of a joke, he was listened to very carefully, and taken very seriously. Far more seriously, in retrospect, and on certain matters than he deserved to be.

The talk show hosts would ask him about Jackie Kennedy. Taking a deep breath, looking up at the ceiling, then languidly looking around himself, as if to see who was listening, finally, he would say: “Waaaaal, all right, if you really want to know about Jackie,” and her name rolled quietly off his tongue. Then he’d let out a few pearls of dish. He was never a man of bon mots, or a man of letters. He was a gadfly, who could talk up a storm.

He was one of the most talked about men in America, lionized and worshipped by the press and the television interviewers who took his every word (mainly gossip and fantasy) as gospel; and was, as well, adored by his fans while envied by many of his peers for his brilliant success. He was also a genius it was often said and written, at publicizing himself.

Although it was never discussed (as far as I know) in his interviews, he was also one of the first openly gay celebrities. This was quite an accomplishment for the times, although they were “a-changing’.” There were others whose sexuality came into question (Liberace, for example, who always denied it right up to his dying day). Capote matter-of-factly let it be known to anyone who wanted to know, that his longtime companion was a man named Jack Dunphy – a man who had been married when Capote met him, and who had left his wife for him, and remained his partner for the rest of his life.

Then in 1966 came The Party, The Black and White Ball. Ostensibly for Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham, although no one paid much attention to that fact. Exercising his “genius” for PR, Capote titillated the public and his legions of friends and acquaintances with so much advance notice that by the night of the event, practically the whole country knew what was going on at the Plaza. The following morning, the New York Times published the guest list; and the celebrity magazines oohed and ahhed over it for months. Now he was glorified by, and glorying in it all.

Of course, after the incredible success of “In Cold Blood”, and the ballyhoo of the Black and White Ball, the insatiable maw of the star-making machinery wanted to know what was next. How was he going to top himself? What would the book be, and who would star in the movie?

In 1975, he published two short stories in Esquire magazine: “Mojave” and “La Cote Basque 1965.” By now, he was known more as a social gadfly. “La Cote Basque,” however, was reported to be a “chapter” in his upcoming novel. “Answered Prayers”, chronicled the conversations at various tables in the once socially fashionable restaurant. It caused a sensation, and the subsequent suicide of a socialite, Ann Woodward. A long-time-ago showgirl who married the blueblood heir to a banking fortune who had shot her husband to death in their house in Locust Valley, Long Island twenty years before. Whether or not Capote’s version of the story was true, Ann Woodward did indeed kill herself with an overdose after having read the galleys to the story.

Capote now, in the opinion of some people had blood on his hands. In another incident in “La Cote Basque”, which featured a restaurant full of well-known women gossiping about each other, the storyteller recounted a thinly disguised William Paley, well known to be a womanizer, having a fling with a thinly disguised Marie Harriman (first wife of Averell Harriman) in his hotel bedroom. The Paleys were, up to that moment, Truman Capote’s “Best Friends”. The knife of betrayal cut both ways. Capote’s sensational story ended his relationship, not only with the Paleys, but many of their famous friends.

He was a pariah overnight, although his celebrity social life became more famous through his friendships with Andy Warhol, Halston, Liza Minnelli and the whole “Studio 54” crowd. His drug-taking and his drinking became more prominent as well.

By 1980, he published, “Music for Chameleons,” a collection of short stories and writings including the “Mojave” chapter which was originally said to be part of the still anticipated novel “Answered Prayers.” One of the stories in the new collection, “Handcarved Coffins,” was a grisly murder case, purported to have actually occurred in some unnamed western state.

By this time, it was said that Truman Capote was something of a broken man, even in the eyes of the feasting celebrity media. There were incidents of drunkenness during his television appearances including one where he was so incoherent he had to be removed from the show. There was continued self-promotion about this novel-in-progress “Answered Prayers” although no hard evidence of it.

That same year, 1980, I was invited to a party that included Truman Capote. What was he really like? I was studying the room full of guests and had to strain to spot the man. I approached him and introduced myself. He paused, looking blankly up at me for a moment as if in the midst of a trance, and then said, “oh… yes …Rudolf,” with a wan smile of reverie. “We had some wild times ...”( I may not repeat what he told me) he guffawed, a remarkable, rolling, guttural laughter a couple of octaves below his famous speaking voice, with an energy in sharp contrast to his dazed comportment. I sat and Truman talked. It was all unsolicited, stream of consciousness. None of it was really for my benefit. He was on automatic pilot. He continued, dreamily gazing at me, “I’m going to tell the story of Studio 54.”
“Yup,” he replied with the confidential assuredness of a teller of tales.

In “Music For Chameleons”, he admitted that the spiritual beliefs that he had learned from Cousin Sook as a child, had fallen away as he grew older. However, in the latter years, he had begun to think about such things again. Although he was not the worst person he had ever known, he conceded to “some pretty serious sins.”

His writing, he always said, came before anything else. He regarded his talent as a “gift from God;” one that came with a whip. Everything he ever wrote was, for him, about real life. Much of it on the edge of sadness, like so much of his own real life. The whip had remained with him, as had the gift.

July 20, 2010

Lovin’ Las Vegas.

Despite a reputation for embracing (and encouraging) bad behavior, there remain many unexpected pleasures in sin city. You may enjoy your game at the high stakes tables, but Las Vegas is no place to gamble on love.  Going home broke is one thing, but broke and alone?  That just won't do.  So, here is a surefire romance inducer that will assure that you leave Las Vegas, with your partner.

A literary love note.

For me holding an autographed copy of a first edition evokes special feelings that are hard to reproduce on a Kindle or iPhone. No one captures the spirit of romance quite like the world’s great wordsmiths, there is something about the written word that enables it to convey great emotion-from passion to ecstasy and back again.

Should you be in a loving state of mind, consider a visit to Bauman Rare Books next time you are in Las Vegas. Carrying early, hard-to-find editions of famously romantic tomes like Emily Bronte’s “Wuthering Height,” John Keats’ “Endymion” and many of Jane Austen’s novels, Bauman Rare Books brings you closer to the classics than any of the chain stores could ever hope to. And what better gift for a significant other?

Countering the stereotypical image of a used book store (musty and muddled), Bauman is a large, bright and immaculately organized operation displaying the high spots in the humanities and science. You can find titles from all fields, including architecture and photography. Also printed and manuscript music, plus numerous autographed artifacts.

If your winnings from the gaming tables should be burning a hole in your pocket, and you are torn between a poker tournament buy-in and betting big on your team in the NBA Playoffs, consider this thought. How about spending that cache of cash on “An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations,” a first edition on the individual’s right to the free exercise of economic activity? Not interested? What if I told you that this 1776 first edition is exceptionally rare? Still no? I tried!

Bauman Rare Books in the Shoppes at The Palazzo is filled with rare antiquarian and collectible books all with a, hmmm, story to tell even after you'll leave Las Vegas.

I am reading...

  • scribble, scribble, scribble, Simon Schama
  • Julia's Cats, Patricia Barey and Therese Burson
  • London, Edward Rutherfurd
  • I'll Drink to That, Betty Halbreich