THE CHAT: Truman Capote Talks to Truman Capote about Willa Cather

Truman Capote. New Orleans. Photograph by Henri Cartier-Bresson. 1947. From the collection of the Museum of Modern Art, NY.

TRUMAN CAPOTE:  What are some of the things you can do?

TRUMAN CAPOTE:  I can ice-skate.  I can ski.  I can read upside down.  I can ride a skateboard.  I can hit a tossed can with a .38 revolver. I have driven a Maserati (at dawn, on a flat, lonely Texas road) at 170 mph.  I can make a soufflé Furstenberg (quite a stunt: it’s a cheese-and-spinach concoction that involves sinking six poached eggs into the batter before cooking; the trick is to have the egg yolks remain soft and runny when the soufflé is served).  I can tap-dance.  I can type sixty words a minute.

TC: And what are some of the things you can’t do?

TC:  I can recite the alphabet, at least not correctly or all the way through (not even under hypnosis; it’s an impediment that has fascinated several psychotherapists).  I am a mathematical imbecile – I can add, more or less, but I can’t subtract, and I failed first-year algebra three times, even with the help of a private tutor.  I can read without glasses, but I can’t drive without them.  I can’t speak Italian, even though I lived in Italy a total of nine years.  I can’t make a prepared speech.  It has to be spontaneous, “on the wing.”

TC: Do you have a “motto”?

TC:  Sort of.  I jotted it down in a schoolboy diary: I aspire. I don’t know why I chose those particular words; they’re odd, and I like the ambiguity – so I aspire to heaven or hell?  Whatever the case, they have an undeniably noble ring.

Last winter I was wandering in a seacoast cemetery near Mendocino – a New England village in far Northern California, a rough place where the water is too cold to swim and where the whales go piping past.  It was a lovely little cemetery, and the dates on the sea-grey-green tombstones were mostly nineteenth century; almost all of them had an inscription of some sort, something that revealed the tenant’s philosophy.  One read: NO COMMENT.

So I began to think what I would have inscribed on my tombstone … The first inscription I thought of was: AGAINST MY BETTER JUDGMENT.  Then I though of something far more characteristic.  And excuse, a phrase I use about almost any commitment: I TRIED TO GET OUT OF IT, BUT I COULDN’T.

TC:  How do you handle the “recognition factor”?

TC: It doesn’t bother me a bit, and it’s very useful when you want to cash a check in some strange locale.  Also, it can occasionally have amusing consequences.  For instance, one night I was sitting with friends at a table in a crowded Key West bar.  At a nearby table, there was a mildly drunk woman with a very drunk husband.  Presently, they woman approached me and asked me to sign a paper napkin.  All this seemed to anger her husband; he staggered over to the the table, and after unzipping his trousers and hauling out his equipment, said: “Since you’re autographing things, why don’t you autograph this?” The tables surrounding us had grown silent, so a great many people heard my reply, which was: “I don’t know if I can autograph it, but perhaps I can initial it.”

Ordinarily,  I don’t mind giving autographs.  But there is one thing that gets my goat: without exception, every grown man who has ever asked me for an autograph in a restaurant or on an airplane has always been careful to say that he wanted it for his wife or his daughter or his girlfriend, but never, never just for himself.

TC:  Do you consider conversation an art?

TC:  A dying one, yes.  Most of the renowned conversationalists – Samuel Johnson, Oscar Wilde, Whistler, Jean Cocteau, Lady Astor, Lady Cunard, Alice Roosevelt Longworth – are monologists, not conversationalists.  A conversation is a dialogue, not a monologue.  That’s why there are so few good conversations: due to scarcity, two intelligent talkers seldom meet.  On the list just provided, the only two I’ve known personally are Cocteau and Mrs. Longworth. (As for her, I take it back – she is not a solo performer; she lets you share the air.)

Among the best conversationalists I’ve talked with are Gore Vidal (if you’re not the victim of his couth, sometimes uncouth, wit), Cecil Beaton (who, not surprisingly, expresses himself almost entirely in visual images – some very beautiful and some sublimely wicked).  The late Danish genius, the Baroness Blixen, who wrote under the pseudonym Isak Dinesen, was, despite her withered though distinguished appearance, a true seductress, a conversational seductress.  Ah, how fascinating she was, sitting by the fire in her beautiful house in a Danish seaside village, chain-smoking black cigarettes with silver tips, cooling her lively tongue with draughts of champagne, and luring one from this topic to that – her years as a farmer in Africa (be certain to read, if you haven’t already already, her autobiographical Out of Africa, one of the 20th Century’s finest books), life under the Nazis in occupied Denmark (“They adored me.  We argued, but they didn’t care what I said; they didn’t care what any woman said – it was a completely masculine society.  Besides, they had no idea I was hiding Jews in my cellar, along with the winter apples and cases of champagne.”).

Just skimming off the top of my head, other conversationalists I’d rate highly are Christopher Isherwood (no one surpasses him for total but lightly expressed candor) and the feline-like Colette.  Marilyn Monroe was very amusing when she felt sufficiently relaxed and had had enough to drink.  The same might be said of the lamented screen-scenarist Harry Kurnitz, an exceedingly homely gentleman who conquered men, women, and children of all classes with his verbal flights.  Diana Vreeland, the eccentric Abbess of High Fashion and one-time, long-time editor of Vogue, is a charmer of a talker, a snake charmer.

Will Cather. Photograph by Carl Van Vechten. 1936.

When I was eighteen I met the person whose conversation has impressed me the most because the person in question is the one who has most impressed me.  It happened as follows:

In New York, on East Seventy-ninth Street, there is a very pleasant shelter known as the New York Society Library, and during 1942 I spent many afternoons there researching a book I intended to writing but never did.  Occasionally, I saw a woman there whose appearance rather mesmerized me – her eye especially: blue, the pale brilliant cloudless blue of prairie skies.  But even without this singular feature, her face was interesting – firm-jawed, handsome, a bit androgynous.  Pepper-salt hair parted in the middle.  Sixty-five, thereabouts.  A lesbian?  Well, yes.

One January day I emerged from the library into the twilight to find a heavy snowfall in progress.  The lady with the blue eyes, wearing a nicely cut black coat with a sable collar, was waiting at the curb. A gloved, taxi-summoning hand was poised in the air, but there were no taxis.  She looked at me and smiled and said, “Do you think cup of hot chocolate would help? There’s a Longchamps around the corner.”

She ordered a hot chocolate.  I asked for a “very” dry martini.  Half seriously, she said, “Are you old enough?”

“I’ve been drinking since I was fourteen.  Smoking, too.”

“You don’t look more than fourteen now.”

“I’ll be nineteen next September.”  Then I told her a few things: that I was from New Orleans, that I’d published several short stories, that I wanted to be a writer and was working on a novel.  And she wanted to know what American writers I liked.  “Hawthorne, Henry James, Emily Dickinson …”  No, living.  Ah, well, hmm, let’s see: how difficult, the rivalry factor being what it is, for one contemporary  author, or would-be author, to confess admiration for another.  At last I said, “Not Hemingway – a really dishonest man, the closet-everything.  Not Thomas Wolfe – all that purple upchuck; of course, he isn’t living.  Faulkner, sometimes: Light in August. Fitzgerald, sometimes: Diamond as Big as the Ritz, Tender is the Night.  I really like Willa Cather.  Have you read My Mortal Enemy?”

With not particular expression she said, “Actually, I wrote it.”

I had seen photographs of Willa Cather – long-ago ones, made perhaps in the early twenties.  Softer, homelier, less elegant than my companion.  Yet I knew instantly that she was Will Cather, and it was one of the frissons on my life.  I began to babble about her books like a schoolboy – my favorites A Lost Lady, The Professor’s House, My Ántonia. It wasn’t that I had anything in common with her as a writer.  I would never have chosen for myself her sort of subject matter, or tried to emulate her style.  It was just that I considered her a great artist.  As good as Flaubert.

We became friends; she read my work and was always a fair and helpful judge.  She was full of surprises.  For one thing, she and her lifelong friend, Miss Lewis, lived in a spacious, charmingly furnished Park Avenue apartment – somehow, the notion of Miss Cather living in an apartment on Park Avenue seemed incongruous with her Nebraska upbringing, with the simple, rather elegiac nature of her novels.  Secondly, her principal interest was not literature, but music.  She went to concerts constantly, and almost all her closest friends were musical personalities, particularly Yehudi Menuhin and his sister Hepzibah.

Like all authentic conversationalists, she was an excellent listener, and when it was her turn to talk, she was was never garrulous, but crisply pointed.  Once she told me I was overly sensitive to criticism. The truth was that that she was more sensitive to critical slights than I; any disparaging reference to her work caused a decline in spirits.  When I pointed this out to her, she said: “Yes, but aren’t we always seeking out our own vices in others and reprimanding them for such possessions? I’m alive.  I have clay feet.  Very definitely.”


(An excerpt from Music for Chameleons, Random House.  1980.)

  • Kevin Sessums is the author of two New York Times bestselling memoirs, Mississippi Sissy and I Left It on the Mountain.

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