Tiny Terror: Why Truman Capote (Almost) Wrote Answered Prayers (Inner Lives)

Image of Tiny Terror: Why Truman Capote (Almost) Wrote Answered Prayers (Inner Lives)
Release Date: 
April 29, 2011
Oxford University Press
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Tiny Terror: Why Truman Capote (Almost) Wrote Answered Prayers is a victim of what might be called “the curse of a beautiful face.” Or, more precisely, the curse of a beautiful title. I do not know of the choice of title was the author’s or if it came from an editor or anyone else associated with the book’s publication, I only know what the title suggests to this reader, as opposed to what the book itself actually presents.

Surely there can be no more evocative title than Tiny Terror, especially for any book whose subject is the tiniest terror that the world has ever seen, author Truman Capote. To read the title is to picture the little guy, all dressed up with fedora and scarf, sitting high in his chair before giving Johnny Carson his famous assessment of Jacqueline Susann’s face: “She looks like a truck driver in drag,” he hissed in his characteristic Southern-tinted, high-pitched voice, much to the delight of a sleepless nation.

Thus, the reader, on opening a book with such a suggestive title, opens it with certain expectations. Surely this will be the most delightful, gossip-filled, raunchy biography ever written! Surely the reader will be kept up very late reading reading reading, drinking in all the sordid details contained within. Especially since the subtitle suggests that it will zero in on that most mysterious of Capote’s work, his final and unfinished novel, Answered Prayers, which suggests that we will be visited by the spirits of his “swans,” Babe Paley, Gloria Vanderbilt, and Slim Keith as well.

But this is not the case.

Tiny Terror: Why Truman Capote (Almost) Wrote Answered Prayers is, instead, part of Oxford University Press’ “Inner Lives” series, a line of “psychobiographies” dedicated to the motivations—if not the full lives—of notable people (George Bush, for instance, has already been psychobiographied, if that’s the word for it, with John Lennon and Big Daddy Sigmund Freud himself soon to come).

This left the reader, after reading a very brief Preface, with a number of questions as to just what he should expect from the book and a growing sense of dread. It all sounded just so scholarly—precisely when the reader was expecting some sensationalized dreck.

As to the nature of a psychobiography, author William Todd Schultz sums it all up very neatly:

“Psychobiography is not ‘biography.’ It is quite a bit more focused, selective. Biography is an exhaustively descriptive life-study, a massive, decades-long undertaking. It’s all about the what, where, when, how and who of the subject’s live. Psychobiography zeros in on the why. Biographers talk about the why, too, but it’s not their chief focus. The why is touched on, but typically undernourished. Psychobiographers flesh out the why, and they do so in a fashion they are uniquely suited for: by thoughtfully and judiciously applying psychological theory and experimental research. They use theory and research to shed light on subtext, to get at motives secreting themselves behind the life and, in this case, the art.”

In the case of Tiny Terror, our author makes use of two rather exhaustive tomes that have already been written on the life of Truman Capote, Gerald Clarke’s wonderful volume, Capote, A Biography and George Plimpton’s oral history of Capote, Truman Capote: In Which Various Friends, Enemies, Acquaintances, and Detractors Recall His Turbulent Career (another terrific title), as well as Capote’s own work, including Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Other Voices, Other Rooms, and In Cold Blood, to act as source materials that can be studied to give indications of the emotional and behavioral patterns that guided Capote in his life.

In other words, the reader who begins Tiny Terror with the expectation of a “ripping yarn” about favorite author gets instead something deeper and richer—a work that examines not only Capote at his highs and in his lows, but also gives insight into the things that motivated him throughout his life, that both wounded him and not only gave him the material to write about but also created the engine that drove him to become a writer in the first place.

Given this, it is perhaps not surprising when the reader reports that Tiny Terror kept him up just as late reading it as any sensationalized biography might have. And that it proved to be every bit as much of a page-turner.

Especially fascinating is Mr. Schultz’s account of Breakfast at Tiffany’s and the long-sought identity of the woman who acted as prototype for Capote’s most famous creation, Holly Golightly. The author’s sleuth work here is admirable and his conclusion is surely correct; the reader moves on from this early chapter with a sense of amazement at the work of the psychobiographer as he moves on to his central task—the why of Answered Prayers. The book in which Truman Capote promised to tell the tales that had been told to him in confidence by the great society ladies of New York, the swans who had, over the years, taken the Tiny Terror into their confidence about their marriages, their affairs, their divorces, their sexual mores and, best of all, their financial status.

Such a betrayal of confidence would, of course, lead to Capote’s dismissal from New York society, the very society that the had courted for so many years, the very society for whom he had given his famous Black and White Ball in 1966, which placed him in the very heart of High Society. Less than ten years later, however, when excerpts of his unfinished novel Answered Prayers were published in Esquire magazine in 1975, his swans deserted him (Keith and Paley never spoke to him again, Vanderbilt said that, if she ever saw him again, she would spit on him), society shunned him.

Which brings us to the question at hand.

As author Schultz puts it: “So we arrive now at the psychological question lurking behind every page of this book. Why did Capote (almost) write Answered Prayers? What ‘crazy wind’ possessed him? It’s true, in relation to his previous work, that the book is anomalous, a definite outlier. But it’s also predictable, a development in perfect keeping with who he was and how he went about regulating an emotional life that was always tenuously controlled at best.

“No one ever does anything for just one reason—that’s a cardinal assumption of work in psychobiography. Motives are overdetermined, more chorus than solo, comprising groups of voices singing simultaneously, though not necessarily harmoniously . . .”

Mr. Schultz’s reasoning for the why of Answered Prayers, from its fictional opening quote from Saint Theresa of Avila (“More tears are shed over answered prayers than unanswered ones”), to Capote’s choice to excerpt it in Esquire when he could not finish it, to whether or not the finished manuscript ever existed (Schultz amusingly refers to it as “a literary Sasquatch.”) makes for illuminating, even exciting reading.

Hopefully there are many volumes yet to come in the Inner Lives Series.

Tiny Terror does leave the reader with a few questions, however. Most concern the motivations of the author of this psychobiography himself as he went about his work. And of the books that William Todd Schultz chose to base his work on and those that he chose to ignore.

As the ultimate findings of the psychobiography are dependent upon the primary materials—those works that Capote produced himself—as well as on previously written biographies, it makes the reader wonder why such a key volume as Capote’s Music for Chameleons was overlooked. Most especially since it contains key material, such as “Handcarved Coffins,” which is something of a follow-up to In Cold Blood, and helps inform the reader of the why of Capote’s interest in crime, as well as the important writer’s portrait of Marilyn Monroe, “A Beautiful Child.”

This is important to the understanding of Breakfast at Tiffany’s in that Monroe was Capote’s choice for the role of Holly Golightly in the film version and because that selection is key to understanding the genesis of the character.

Finally, Mr. Schultz, in dismissing Chameleons dismisses the short story “Dazzle” which strongly supports much of his thesis of the why of Truman Capote’s writings. Its inclusion seems not only sensible, but highly important. The fact that it is missing puzzles. . . .

Any questioning of the motivations of pyschobiographers aside, let it be stated that while Tiny Terror may not be the salacious biography of a great American author that hits the top of bestseller lists, it is an impressive work, one that should find its way onto the bookshelf of all those who admire Capote’s work and who would come to understand both the man and his work better.