Literary giant, stunt-casted closet-case GEORGE PLIMPTON gets huffy while unthreading his stitched-together CAPOTE bio
By Daniel Kusner
A new work about gay author and gadfly Truman Capote hit the shelves recently, an “oral biography” edited by literary lion George Plimpton.
Like Plimpton’s first foray in this genre — a joint effort with Jean Stein on Edie Sedgwick, the ’60s superstar from Andy Warhol’s camp — the new Capote bio is cobbled together from interviews involving celebrities and other folks who knew the diminutive, squeaky-voiced Capote in some capacity or other.
The format of Truman Capote: In Which Various Friends, Enemies, Acquaintances and Detractors Recall His Turbulent Career is chatty, even gossipy.
The idea is to make the reader feel like a guest at a swanky cocktail party, overhearing various bitchy-to-tender-to-hilarious anecdotes assembled in chronological order from Capote’s anchorless childhood (his parents abandoned him and he was shunted about to various relatives) to his death as a lonely man whose friends had mostly deserted him.
Plimpton, something of a gadfly himself, is the 70-year-old editor of The Paris Review — which features works by and about the biggest names in 20th century culture, from Hemingway to Angelou — and one of the acknowledged literary giants working in the second half of this century.
A celebrity sports enthusiast, Plimpton is also well-known for his bit parts in certain movies.
There’s a cameo in Nixon, and he recounts memories of Muhammad Ali in the award-winning documentary When We Were Kings.
Most recently, he portrays a closet-case psychologist whose gayness is quickly perceived by the misunderstood but smartass genius played by Matt Damon in Good Will Hunting — one of the film’s quickest but most hilarious scenes.
But when it comes to discussing his latest book, Plimpton turns defensive, even combative. Perhaps he’s stung by the wave of criticism which met Truman Capote’s publication two months ago.
Several reviewers said Plimpton’s excursion into Capote’s life bears a distinct been-there-done-that flavor. For instance, The New York Times Book Review says the interviews “have the flat, regurgitated quality of people who have been talking about their subject for way too long. Capote knew better than anyone that for gossip to be good, it has to be fresh.”
The Austin Chronicle said the book “doesn’t add all that much to the dialogue that hasn’t been covered already.”
Plimpton began working on the book about seven years ago, he said during a telephone interview from his office in New York.
“It’s more like stitching that it is writing. It’s an interesting way of presenting a biography, I think,” Plimpton chirped in his otherworldly Northeast Establishment-via-Cambridge voice.
Despite Capote’s effeminacy, his frank acknowledgment of his homosexuality in his later years and his classic remark about the subject (“A faggot is the homosexual gentleman who just left the room”), Plimpton’s book fails to index the subject at all — a fact Plimpton, remarkably, doesn’t seem to recall, since he referred me to the index to locate the book’s few references to the subject.
With his open hand, Capote once nailed a drunken belligerent who was making fag jokes and disparaging Capote’s voice.
On yet another occasion, Capote grilled a biographer of British writer E.M. Forster for not including references to the author’s homosexuality.
Still, Capote “wasn’t overtly militant about homosexuality,” Plimpton maintained. “He hated the word ‘gay.’ He thought the term was inappropriate, so he reversed it — he called them ‘yags.’ But . . . you’ll see there are some rather interesting things he had to say about it, particularly his defense of those who are [homosexual].”
The fact that Plimpton’s name is on the cover gives the book an instant cachet it fails, perhaps, to deserve.
Plimpton’s original contribution amounts to a brief letter to the reader.
The remainder of the book is given over to the interviews themselves, and the author credits seven others for substantial work on the final product. (Plimpton himself refers readers to Capote, the definitive biography by Gerald Clarke, for a complete picture of the fabled author.)
This is probably why Plimpton seems unfamiliar with some of the book’s details.
For instance, he is unaware of whether Capote ever met Dorothy Parker — yet the book contains Norman Mailer’s recollection of appearing on the David Susskind television show with both Capote and Parker.
And former Esquire editor-in-chief Lee Eisenberg describes a bitchy piece about Parker, which Capote submitted for the magazine’s 50th anniversary edition.
If his oral biography is a bit like “stitching,” it’s apparent other tailors played a substantial role in the final product.
With famous names being dropped left and right, it’s also difficult for the reader to keep track of who is and who isn’t of any real importance to understanding Capote.
Most of the anecdotes yield more heat than light. Giving the bulk of the book up to gossip rather than illuminating the harrowing twists and turns of Capote’s life — a path which ultimately led to alcoholism, drug abuse and death.
During our interview, Plimpton also reveals himself as a puzzling, prickly character. He admits he has no use for the internet.
“I’m not very good at it,” he said. “I don’t understand it. I’ve tried research on it, but I’m so poor at working the machine that I’d much rather do the research by going to the library.
“I don’t know how to use the internet,” he proudly declares, as if this fact grants him additional stature.
Asked about his appearance in Good Will Hunting, Plimpton is equally glib.
He says when he accepted the role, he didn’t even know who director Gus Van Sant was.
And he hadn’t read the first-time script by the twentysomething stars (Damon and Ben Affleck), a work whose precision and insight has left Hollywood breathless.
Instead, he says, it was the famous comedian Robin Williams who attracted his interest.
“I thought that anything with Robin Williams in it would be sort of interesting,” Plimpton said. “But I had not seen Gus Van Sant’s first film or second film — whatever it is, the one about Missouri. My Own Private Missouri?”
Is he fucking kidding?
I would like to have known more about Plimpton’s book, but that turned out to be impossible.
Plimpton became increasingly combative during our brief exchange, abruptly terminating the interview by hanging up his telephone when I disagreed with his assertion that renowned jazz pianist-bandleader Bobby Short was no celebrity.
But there’s no question about Capote’s celebrity (if he were still alive, you could just ask him, since discussing himself was one of the author’s favorite occupations), and no question that the celebrities he rubbed shoulders with have plenty of recollections about this colorful, if tragic, literary figure.
Truman Capote is an alluring book — easy to pick up and put down whenever you like.
At $35, it seems a bit expensive for readers looking for more than recycled information and gossipy recollections.