Individual style is what distinguishes one author from another; this consideration — naturally applied to text — at times is true of the writer as well. There is Joan Didion, the author of Play It as It Lays (1970) and The Year of Magical Thinking (2005), photographed by Julian Wasser in 1968 wearing a maxi dress, leaning against her Corvette Stingray, smoking a cigarette — cool, chic and, as her hair, untamed. There is Joan Didion photographed by Juergen Teller in 2015, the star of the Céline advertisement campaign, still as aloof as half a century ago.
There is Tom Wolfe (The Bonfire of the Vanities, 1980) in his impeccable white suits, and Donna Tartt (The Secret History, 1992) in her impeccable black suits, with a haircut to rival Anna Wintour’s signature bob. There is Zadie Smith (White Teeth, 2000), recognisable by her colourful headwraps and graphic tops, and David Foster Wallace (Infinite Jest, 1996), looking like a member of Guns N’ Roses, in his checkered shirts and bandanas.
Then there have been authors who made their personal fashion choices a part of their public persona, a selling point, and the talk of the town. Zelda and Scott Fitzgerald half-invented jazz age, and their wardrobe of tweed suits with waistcoats, of above-the-knee dresses, pearls and furs accompanied the glamorous and modern lifestyle of the pair. The original cover of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Beautiful and Damned (1922) presented a couple drawn after the Fitzgeralds; who they were, what they looked like, and what they wrote were matters intimately conjoined.
Similarly, the aesthetic approach Oscar Wilde exhibited in his writing (‘It is only shallow people who do not judge by appearances,’ as said by Lord Henry in The Picture of Dorian Gray, 1890) was not limited to literary work. The photographs of the British playwright presented him in velvet suits, silk cravats, with carefully picked buttonholes poking through lapels.
Wilde cultivated his image with precision and flair, becoming a prominent member of London society, and using his observations about the aristocracy as fuel for his work, especially comedies (The Ideal Husband, 1895; The Importance of Being Earnest, 1895). A different author would try a very similar approach in New York decades later; then, the society would be able to accept his homosexuality, but not his mockery of them. I am talking, of course, about Truman Capote.
Born in New Orleans in 1924, Truman Streckfus Persons was the only child of a short-lived marriage between Lillie Mae Faulk, a 17-year-old beauty queen, and Archulus Persons, a son of a prominent Alabama family by birth and a salesman turned con man by occupation.
With neither of his parents interested in bringing him up, in 1927 Truman was sent to live with four elderly unmarried cousins in Monroeville, Alabama. Photographs of that period show him as an angelic-looking child in sharp white suits, a tiny ‘Southern gentleman’ with a soft smile and chubby cheeks. (His nickname at the time was Bulldog.)
A precocious and lonely boy, Truman started writing fiction as young as 11, and his Southern background formed the basis of many of his short stories and of the debut novel Other Rooms, Other Voices (1947). When the novel was published, the author’s photograph on the back cover showed Truman Capote reclining on a sofa and gazing into the camera with assumed familiarity. The sofa was an old-fashioned baroque piece, and the author on top of it was clad in a long-sleeved white shirt, a gingham vest, and a bowtie. There was an air of dandyism and decadence about that portrait, which went well with the risque content of the text: set at a former plantation mansion, Other Rooms, Other Voices was full of fraying velvet, eccentric relatives, mirrors, reflections, foppish gestures, and suggestions of homosexuality.
Harold Hama, the photographer who produced the infamous likeness, liked retelling the following anecdote:
Walking down the Fifth Avenue, Hama noticed two women discussing a blow-up image of Capote’s portrait, put up by Random House as part of the book’s promotion. One of the women said, ‘I’m telling you, he’s just young.’ And her companion replied, ‘And I’m telling you, if he’s not young, he’s dangerous!’
Truman Capote as a child (ca. 1932, author unknown) and as photographed by Richard Avedon in 1958, after the publication of Breakfast at Tiffany’s
Truman became a citizen of New York in 1933, when he moved there to live with his mother and her second husband, Joe Capote. Having now taken his stepfather’s surname, he attended a number of private New York schools, including St. Joseph Military Academy that was supposed to cure him of his effeminate eccentricities, lest he become an embarrassment to his mother. That didn’t quite work.
Eleanor Friede, a friend of Nina Capote — such was the acquired New York name and identity of Truman’s mother, once known as Lillie Mae Faulk — recalled the following comments regarding his wardrobe:
Truman came through in some kind of outfit, very chic, all dressed up in kind of a strange tie and things, and Nina said, ‘Where are you going?’ He said, ‘Well, I’m only going over to Bennett Cerf’s for dinner.’ She said, ‘Well, what about that gray suit we just bought at Brook’s Brothers, you go back in there and put on the gray suit.’ …Anyway, he did traipse back into the room. He came back in the gray flannel suit, looking wonderful, but he had on patent pumps. She said, ‘Oh, go ahead.’ Afterward, Truman said, ‘Oh, my crazy mother!’
Jennifer Wright, ‘Shelved Dolls: Lillie Mae Faulk — The Real Holly Golightly’
Whether Nina Capote agreed with her son’s sartorial choices or not, he knew what he was doing. Although never attending a college or university, Truman embraced the fashion side of formal education, parading around Manhattan the way Chuck Bass would many years later. Capote loved bowties and pinstripe suits, as well as clothes with Ivy League flavour: cricket jumpers, pastel-coloured shirts, duffle coats, and patterned scarves. In the summer he preferred the classic white linen suit with a matching hat, an outfit previously favoured by his fellow Southern author Mark Twain.
Portraits of middle-aged Capote taken by Henry Diltz (on the left, year unknown) and Horst P. Horst (on the right, ca. 1965)
Eccentric and flamboyant, Capote was openly and unapologetically gay — that was a part of his writing, his wardrobe, his private and public personas. Having joined the exclusive club of celebrities at the age of 24, Capote spent most of his life consciously surrounding himself with the rich, the famous, and the beautiful. That applied to his friendship circle and to his environment. Following the success of his first novel, Truman Capote went to live in France, Sicily, Switzerland, and Greece, working on future projects and sharing his quarters with author Jack Dunphy, Capote’s long-term partner. The decade is immortalised in photos of Capote in swimming trunks or shirts tied at the navel.
After In Cold Blood (1965), his third novel and undisputed masterpiece, became an instant bestseller, Capote invested in an apartment at 860 United Nations Plaza. That was the fashionable place to live in the 1960s New York, and that was where Arnold Newman took the photograph that mocked the 1947 portrait of the young author, the one that helped propel him to fame. Named Louche Potato, the new picture showed Capote lying on another ornate sofa, smiling from under a white fedora hat, surrounded by an eclectic collection of art — with a painting of young Capote most prominent.
Standing at 160 cm (5’3”), Truman Capote was fond of hats, especially fedoras, as they added height and gravitas to his diminutive self. As he aged, he used accessories more: tinted glasses, headwear, high collars that left nothing of his neck, customary bowties all created a recognisable costume. When Capote appeared in a cameo in Woody Allen’s Annie Hall (1977), his part was credited as ‘The Winner of the Truman Capote Lookalike Contest’.
Truman Capote loved parties. It was something he easily inherited from his mother — Nina Capote used to throw marvelous dinner parties at the family apartment in Park Avenue, occasions where one could meet ‘everybody from Marlene Dietrich to Walter Winchell’. That wonderful lifestyle was hardly sustainable, and Truman Capote’s stepfather ended up in Sing Sing for embezzlement. Yet, dinner jackets remained a staple of Capote Jr.’s wardrobe, as he created his reputation of the café society darling.
On November 28th, 1966 Truman Capote threw a party of a lifetime: the Black and White Ball at the Plaza Hotel. 540 of the ‘nearest and dearest friends’ of the author arrived in fabulous dresses, suits, diamonds, and masks. Frank Sinatra and Gloria Vanderbilt, Andy Warhol and Lauren Bacall, Broadway and Hollywood, European nobility and New York tycoons, novelists and poets, Capote’s friends from Kansas and Alabama, guests with no claim to fame and those who were symbols of the nation came together on the night. That kind of mingling had not been done before, and Capote enjoyed the success of his celebration at the criss-cross of all class and strata Venn diagrammes.
A decade later he would lose most of his friends by publishing a chapter from his never-to-be-finished book Answered Prayers: full of unflattering remarks, it would reveal intimate secrets of New York socialites, the revelations ranging from petty to criminal. In 1966 though, Capote was the king of his world, successfully pairing off a tailored tuxedo and a mask that cost 39 cents.
One of the most famous sayings by Oscar Wilde is ‘There is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.’ One of the most famous sayings by Truman Capote is ‘Life is a moderately good play with a badly written third act.’ Funny, how those words apply to them both.
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Current book: Truman Capote, Breakfast at Tiffany’s
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