Truman Capote was nothing like what I imagined he would be. I met him when he came to speak at my alma mater. The university organization that sponsored his visit invited me to sketch him for the two days that he was on campus. As a freelance illustrator, I took a black ink pen and a large pad of paper to the airport where three of us students picked up Capote.
My friends were worried that I would imitate Capote’s distinctive voice. I had a knack for being able to sound exactly like the author of Breakfast at Tiffany’s and In Cold Blood, but I refrained from impersonating him. I had no desire to be rude to such a famous writer.
Capote was a regular on television talk shows and late-night programs, and I always listened carefully to his insights into writing. I admired his having built a towering career on the rocky foundation of his lonely, troubled upbringing. I should have felt so in awe of him as to make me too shy to say anything to him, but I had the bravado of youth on my side. At the terminal, I strode up to Capote, shook hands, and said hi. “I’m pleased to meet you,” he said with a grace that I still recall vividly.
|One of My Sketches of Capote|
I sat across from Capote for the ride to the university and made a sketch. He was wearing sunglasses. He asked if there were popular authors from the area, and I mentioned Kurt Vonnegut. Capote appeared surprised, saying something like “Oh, is he from here?”
During the hour in the car, Capote talked about his friends. He spoke of “Jackie” Kennedy Onassis in terms of deepest respect. He said he admired her intelligence. He wanted us to understand that she was much more three-dimensional than the media portrayed her.
I soon developed the lasting impression that Capote was far kinder than he came across as being when he was entertaining fans from his perch in a chair across from Johnny Carson.
Biographers have reported that it was during this time that Capote’s alcoholism was gaining the upper hand. Soon after I met him, Capote published “La Côte Basque 1965,” which instigated the backlash that contributed to his eventual demise. For whatever it may be worth this long after Capote’s death in 1984, I can say that he did not appear to be an alcoholic for the two days that I spoke with him. I was told he had a drink at dinner to settle his nerves before he spoke to a packed auditorium.
|My Drawing of Capote Reading|
A front-row seat was reserved for me, so that I could draw a picture of Capote during his reading. I stood beside him in the wings until it was time for him to go on. At the last minute, he looked around and asked if I could find him a chair. A stage manager’s hairpin café chair stood in the corner. I handed it to Capote, and he thanked me.
He had a book of short stories in his hand. I felt pleased by Capote’s next question: “Have you a favorite story you’d like me to read?”
“Do you have ‘A Christmas Memory’?”
Capote replied, “Yes, I think it’s here.” He turned to the page, stuck a finger in the book, lifted the chair with his free hand, smiled, and strode beneath the lights to thunderous applause.
I ran down the side stairway and out into the auditorium. I ducked into my seat just as Capote began repeating his thanks to quiet the crowd. He swung the chair before him, straddled it, propped the book on the back, and said without fanfare, “I want to read for you my short story ‘A Christmas Memory.’”
What ensued was breathtaking: a heart-wrenching story written incomparably well and pronounced with quiet passion. I have heard many authors read from their work. Capote’s reading was one of the two best readings I have ever heard. When Capote reached the final word and gradually closed his book, the hush was extraordinary. From somewhere in the darkness of the vast hall came a muffled sob. The clapping began. It grew and grew until everyone was standing and applauding with no intention of quitting.
Capote, too, stood. He bowed politely again and again. I could tell he was genuinely moved by the outpouring of appreciation from the assembly. He waved his hand to permit the audience to be seated, and he took questions. A professor asked, “What authors do you read?”
“I read many authors, but Kurt Vonnegut comes to mind.” Capote’s answer drew immediate applause.
Capote graciously replied to numerous questions. He then thanked the audience, which resumed the standing ovation while he walked humbly offstage.
The next morning, we students took Capote back to the airport. He shook our hands and said goodbye, then he asked me, “Could I see your drawings?” I handed him my pad of paper. He paged through the sketches. When he arrived at the one depicting him reading from the café chair, he said excitedly, “I must have this one for my apartment in New York. May I have it?”
|Capote's Signature on One of My Sketches|
“Yes, if I can make a photocopy first,” I said. I inquired at the ticket counter if someone could copy my portrait of Truman Capote, and an agent took my drawing into a back room. He soon emerged with two of the slick gray photocopies that obviously came from one of the first generation of photocopiers. While the pages were not the best, I gladly accepted them. When I handed the original art to Capote, he was grateful. He carefully placed the drawing in his bag. I felt honored when he volunteered to sign the likeness I had drawn on the trip to the university.
When he walked down the aisle to the waiting plane, I began to realize just how fortunate I had been to have shared most of two days with a genius.