Recently in my peregrinations I rediscovered Redding, California. It’s a quiet, clean, pleasant spot not far from my old stomping grounds, the Shasta-Trinity National Forest.

I had forgotten that once a long time ago I drank scotch with Truman Capote at the Red Lion Motor Inn. That was 36 years ago.

Later that same night I rushed back to my cabin more than an hour’s drive away high up in the mountains and furiously wrote down everything in my journal before I could forget a single detail.

Please forgive the pompous writing style of a young brooding Existentialist rather too full of himself – and perhaps also with a bit too much J&B under his belt :)

AN EVENING WITH TRUMAN CAPOTE

1975

It is warm for an October evening in Redding, California. Behind the podium a young University Ph.D. – pin striped, neatly bearded, patches on his elbows – struggles to subdue a glowing introduction:

 . . . self educated, as every artist ultimately must be . . . hailed by his eminent contemporary, Norman Mailer, as the greatest living writer of our generation.

Truman CapoteThe curtain parts with a swish. Truman Capote, smiling, flows center stage. There he is greeted by a simple, elegant setting – a dainty little gold cushioned, oval backed mahogany dressing room chair flanked by a matching table. Drawing the chair backwards up under him, Truman returns the applause with a delicate, almost shy flick of the wrist. Squinting into the glare of the floodlights he adjusts his sunglasses, fiddles with the neck-mike, then he’s off, sliding gracefully into conversation.

We were driving up from San Francisco this afternoon talking generally about how a writer chooses a story . . .

Some have been apprehensive, fearing the outlandish ravings of a drag queen. To the unpracticed eye, however, there is little to substantiate that expectation.

Like most writers, I keep a rather extensive notebook. Of themes, of stories and anecdotes. I find that eventually a story chooses me.

Truman is superb. He speaks with precision, with impeccable timing, frequently tossing his head to punctuate a remark. Within seconds the audience is in the grasp of a Master.

Let me relate a couple of stories to you. Both are true. One I chose to write. The other, after much deliberation over a period of several years, I decided not to write. Listen to it and perhaps you will see why.

It’s a cute little story. A young, socially oriented New York attorney attends a prominent party, spies and immediately falls in love with a beautiful woman. He is not able to make her introduction the night of the party, but through a mutual friend the young man extracts her phone number, calls and obtains a date with her for the following week.

He is beside himself in anticipation, ordering flowers, making dinner and theatre reservations and the like. Every minute of the day the young man is thinking of his upcoming date. She is not only beautiful but also of good breeding, from a family with money and connections. This is a once in a lifetime opportunity for our ambitious young attorney; he is determined to make a fine impression.

The evening finally arrives. In his new suit and tie the young man punctually presents himself at the door of his date’s fourteenth floor apartment. She is still fussing with some last minute preparations but invites him in to mix a drink, saying that she will be ready very shortly.

The young man takes a seat, eagerly anticipating the evening he has so carefully rehearsed in his mind. It’s hot and muggy this July evening in New York; the windows are open to catch what little summer breeze is available. Suddenly from across the room the girl’s Great Dane saunters up to the attorney and expectantly deposits a well chewed tennis ball at his feet. Not being devoid of imagination, the young man begins tossing the ball for the dog to retrieve. It’s a game the Great Dane is fond of; he repeatedly scampers after the bounding ball and returns it to be thrown again. Unfortunately, one ill aimed toss takes a bad hop and bounces through the open window. To the utmost horror of the young man, his date’s Great Dane plunges through in swift pursuit of the fatal tennis ball.

It is fourteen stories to the sidewalk below!

Of course, the young attorney is horrified. He is so shaken that he is tongue tied, unable to mention the incident to his date when she emerges and they depart for the evening. And, naturally, on the way to dinner she speaks of her fondness for her faithful friend, how he loves to chase a tennis ball around the room. But our young man is completely unnerved. He is unable to make conversation with his date, barely able to even order dinner for the two of them. Finally, before dinner arrives, this most important first date ends in disaster as the attorney rushes home professing to be sick.

That same night he calls up their mutual friend from whom he had originally obtained the lady’s phone number. The young man recounts the terrible circumstances and begs for some advice on what to do. His friend listens thoughtfully, then says: “Wait a few days, then call her again. When she questions whether or not you saw her Great Dane, tell her you certainly did . . . And he seemed quite depressed!”

There is much applause. Truman beams with obvious delight.

Truman

That’s an interesting little story, with many possibilities. But, to me, writing is hard work, a tremendous investment of time and effort. And for me to devote my time to a story, it must contain some ultimate meaning, some highly personal significance.

He reaches for a book. It is hardbound yet small and somehow fragile in appearance. Truman slides the book deftly from its container. Softly, reverently he says:

Here is a story which I did choose to write. A Christmas Memory…

It’s a lovely story, marvelously recited. Truman’s simple and straightforward prose moves both reader and audience alike.

. . . May we have the house lights, please?

Several of us meet Truman in the lounge at the Red Lion Motor Inn. I, too, order J&B and water. Tossing his head back with only the slightest trace of irritation, Truman prepares to receive the routine onslaught of questions.

Red Lion Motor Inn

No, my rough draft is always in longhand. When I first started writing I sometimes worked directly from the typewriter. But I found a tendency to move too quickly. I rewrite extensively.”

“I work four to five hours a day, much of the time just twiddling my thumbs . . . I’ve done both. I have worked from midnight to five o’clock in the morning, other times from six or seven until noon. It doesn’t seem to make any difference.”

“I grew up in a very rural, Alabama community. With few friends. I learned to read at the age of four . . . I suppose writing grew logically out of my love of reading. And perhaps also out of the scarcity of friends to play with. One of my friends at that time, though, was Harper Lee.”

“If I could do anything else besides write, I would.

So it goes, the typical questions he surely must field day in and day out. Truman is drinking moderately. He is a small man, I notice, his height barely reaching to my shoulders. Tonight he is dressed casually yet meticulously: a navy blue cashmere pull over sweater wrapped in yet another sweater, a yellow cardigan; white shirt with solid blue tie, matching blue trousers and black, silver buckled loafers. Truman’s fingers twitch dexterously as he speaks, flashing neatly manicured nails and a gold band on the little finger of his right hand.

kurt vonnegutVonnegut? I like him.”

“My favorite living writer?”

Truman’s hands quickly form a halo over his own head, awaiting the obvious reaction.

“Katherine Anne Porter is marvelous, but she’s so old she can’t write any more. Actually, though, I guess I would still say that Katherine Porter is my favorite living American writer.”

katherine anne porter“No, no . . . I was misquoted. I simply said that actors are not overly bright. Marlon Brando and Sir John Gielgud are two of the greatest, for example. But neither are extremely intelligent. There is something in the nature of their endeavors that precludes their being so. They can’t have much ego, either else how could they put up with so much humiliation?”

“…You wicked devil, you! Yes, Monday I go to L.A. to star in a film . . . But I’ve got a good supporting cast.

His answers are quick and incisive; the questions are mine, now.

Why, I’ve never had a rejection slip.” Truman looks momentarily insulted, then continues: “I sent my first story to a magazine when I was sixteen, and they accepted it.

“Have you ever read Kosinski?” I ask.

jerzy kosinskiThere is a long silence. Truman looks away, then begins to stir his drink with his finger. Finally, Truman’s traveling companion leans over and whispers into his ear, “He means Jerry.”

More silence. Truman does not look up but very curtly replies: “Yes”.

It’s an awkward, uncomfortable situation. The name is Jerzy Kosinski, not Jerry. But I am determined to pursue my question.

“Do you have any comments?” I ask.

The Painted BirdWell . . . The Painted Bird, you know, is supposed to be autobiographical. But I don’t believe it. He’s just full of dark, seething imagery…

Suddenly Truman Capote walks out. Just like that, the evening is over.truman capote