Photo of Truman Capote 1978, Globe Photos_Mediapunch_Shutterstock & Tennessee WIlliams Courtesy of the Cecil Beaton Studio Archive at Sotheby's

Truman and Tennessee: an unlikely friendship

Michael Collins maps the relationship between two of the greatest writers of the American south

Artillery Row

There’s a line in Harold Brodkey’s short story The State of Grace that sums up the outlook of his marginalised protagonist, and all adolescent outsiders that have ambitions to rise above their tormentors and triumph: “If dreams came true, then I would have my childhood in one form or another, one day.” It’s a line that seems applicable to Truman Capote and Tennessee Williams. These two were cast as queer outsiders in infancy; each of them recalling they didn’t want to be girls, while suggesting it might have been the better option as they failed to measure up to the standard masculinity of their fathers and their peers.

Making the lengthy friendship between Capote and Williams the central theme is a masterstroke

This is just one experience that these southern-born writers shared, as relayed in the new documentary Truman & Tennessee: An Intimate Conversation. The film’s director, Lisa Immordino Vreeland (Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has To Travel, 2012. Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict, 2015) planned a project solely about Capote before hearing that a film of The Capote Tapes, based on the George Plimpton recordings, was in the offing. The latter focuses on recently-discovered interviews with Capote’s “swans”, those pedigreed hostesses from New York’s high society who befriended the author and then ostracised him for betraying their confidences with unflattering portrayals, in the unfinished novel Answered Prayers. Capote’s defence was that all material is up for grabs for a writer, and that literature is essentially gossip anyway. Vreeland’s documentary manages to be the more intimate and revealing of the two films. Making the lengthy friendship between Capote and Williams the central theme is a masterstroke.

It’s not a friendship many will be familiar with, and one that each of the men harboured a regular ambivalence towards. Competitiveness, underlying jealousies and caustic remarks caused cracks to appear frequently. Its survival and longevity may be attributable to Williams belief that friends are God’s way of apologising to us for our families. Inevitably Capote was the main culprit when it came to airing slights and slurs in public. He described Williams as a great writer without a great intellect, and cast him as a tragic figure in Answered Prayers with little attempt at concealment. Yet in the wake of Williams death in 1983, the year before Capote’s demise at 59 – he was thirteen years younger than the playwright – he fondly recalls their final meeting in the essay Remembering Tennessee: “He said he had no friends anymore, that I was one of the few people in his life who really knew him. He wished we could be close the way we were in the old days.”

Truman & Tennessee – An Intimate Conversation. Photo of Tennessee Williams Courtesy by Clifford Coffin & Truman Capote, 1948 by Irving Penn © The Irving Penn Foundation.png

Vreeland’s film highlights the parallels between these men’s lives, beginning with the dysfunctional relationships with fathers, and concluding with the addiction that each one suffered in their later years. Williams died of an accidental drugs overdose; alcohol ultimately brought Capote’s life to a halt. The two men themselves are largely present in the talk shows they appeared on, hosted by Dick Cavett or David Frost. Here they are older, ravaged by experience and resigned to the knowledge that whatever they were pursuing has largely eluded them despite the celebrity, wealth and success. Their younger selves are revealed in their own words from the lips of actors, over archive footage and photographs. Zachary Quinto comes close to the southern drawl of Williams, but Jim Parsons – he of The Big Bang Theory – sounds more akin to David Sedaris; he struggles with the task of taking on Capote’s grating, childlike whine.

For Tennessee Williams, writing was a compulsion. For Truman Capote, it was a craft that needed to be constantly sharpened and honed until matchless and crystalline (‘clear as a country creek’). Capote claimed that from the off he had little option but to create himself, and then create a world to accommodate that creation. Williams wrote because he found life to be unsatisfactory. ‘I don’t want realism,’  Blanche Dubois declares in A Streetcar Named Desire. ‘I want magic!’

These two figures, these two friends, are often on the outside looking in, observing and recording, despite their towering triumphs

Success came to Capote with his debut novel Other Voices, Other Rooms in 1948. For Williams, it was the staging of  The Glass Menagerie four years earlier. Each masterwork largely autobiographical, and ostensibly an attempt to portray aspects of their formative experiences, freeing themselves of the memories, the figures that occupied them, and maybe the past and the South itself. But as Williams would one day point out when you lose your demons you loose your angels too. “Don’t look forward to the day you stop suffering,” he said, “because when it comes you’ll know you’re dead.”

If it was success that ultimately finished Capote, in the wake of In Cold Blood, his Black & White Ball, the ostracism from the rich and powerful, and the drugs, drink and dancing queen days at Studio 54, it was failure that brought about the decline of Williams. His later plays simply never received the rapturous reception of the earlier works. In Truman & Tennessee these two figures, these two friends, are often on the outside looking in, observing and recording, despite their towering triumphs. Their dreams gave them their childhood, but it seemed their answered prayers were the making of them and the undoing. Vreeland’s documentary perfectly captures the brilliance, the genius of these two writers, as well as their enduring relationships with the supportive, decent men each shared part of their lives with. The parallels in the lives of the two writers are uncanny, and their stories, rather than the stories they told, can perhaps best be summed up in a quote attributed to Capote: “Life is a moderately good play with a badly written third act.”

Truman & Tennessee: An Intimate Conversation is available in virtual cinemas and on Dogwoof on Demand now. 

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