When Truman Capote died in 1984, he left the remains of a novel he had been hatching for nearly two decades, and talking about for almost as long. Answered Prayers, the story of a budding writer screwing his way through polite society, was intended to be Capote’s most explosive achievement. He likened it to a deadly weapon. “There’s the handle, the trigger, the barrel, and, finally, the bullet,” he told People magazine. “And when that bullet is fired from the gun, it’s going to come out with a speed and power like you’ve never seen – wham!” Having bragged about the book for years, all he had to do now was write it.
A contract was signed in 1966, but advance chapters published in Esquire magazine nine years later proved to be far below the standard of his defining successes, Breakfast at Tiffany’s and the “non-fiction novel” In Cold Blood. There was a cost to his social reputation as well as his literary one. As soon as the socialites and wealthy wives with whom he had mingled happily for years – including Slim Keith, Babe Paley and Gloria Vanderbilt, whom he called his “swans” – saw how casually he had spilled their most intimate secrets, those friendships were dead. Capote hadn’t bitten the hand that fed him. He’d gnawed it off at the wrist.
The scandal of Answered Prayers is central to The Capote Tapes, a new documentary that incorporates archive footage of the writer’s TV appearances alongside new interviews with confidantes and admirers, among them writers Jay McInerney and Colm Tóibín. Most fascinating, though, are the previously unheard audio recordings of Capote’s friends and contemporaries, drawn from interviews conducted by the late George Plimpton for his 1997 book, Truman Capote: In Which Various Friends, Enemies, Acquaintances and Detractors Recall His Turbulent Career.
We hear Lauren Bacall pointing out the contrast between Capote’s “little boy voice” and “deep male laugh”. Norman Mailer marvels at his literary gifts – “He wrote the best sentences of anyone of our generation” – and uniqueness: “He had a special life and he was going to live it in a special way.” The journalist Sally Quinn remembers his flair for generating gossip. “He’d spill it all out and you’d eat it up,” she says. “He was bitchy but he was smart.”
That wasn’t quite enough to save him once the excerpts from Answered Prayers were published. But Ebs Burnough, the director of The Capote Tapes, has always had a soft spot for that flawed, incomplete final book. “To me it feels smart and salacious, like People magazine or Vanity Fair,” says the 40-year-old first-time film-maker, who served previously as deputy social secretary at the White House, and senior adviser to Michelle Obama.
“It’s not his best work by any means,” says Burnough. “Part of the reason was his addiction to alcohol and prescription pills. But in writing about people he knew, layering and exaggerating the truth, he was only doing what he had always done. At the age of nine or 10, he entered a newspaper competition with an essay called Miss Busybody, which was all about a local woman who sat on her front porch – Harper Lee’s mother, in fact. He got in terrible trouble for that, too. But he won the prize.”
Had the book been better written, Burnough suggests, Capote would have escaped such a lambasting. “Don’t forget Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany’s was a prostitute, and yet women were lining up to claim they were the inspiration.” Not so with Answered Prayers. “He goes to places he wouldn’t have gone before, such as when he writes about a woman having sex while on her period, the blood all over the sheets. It didn’t need to be so direct, or such a full-frontal assault. He made us feel for Holly, and showed empathy for the murderers from In Cold Blood, but you don’t feel for anyone in Answered Prayers. You just feel that everyone’s bad.”
Promising for so long that the novel would be his greatest book must have exerted its own pressure, but leaving it incomplete also meant that it could never strictly be branded a failure. Was it part of his plan not to finish it? “I actually do believe he finished it,” says Burnough. “Too many people have said they saw him working on it, saw these huge stacks of paper.”
He also dismisses the rumours, mentioned in the film, that the full manuscript resides in a safe deposit box somewhere. “My theory is that one night he got really smashed and something happened to the rest of it. I can easily imagine that, after those excerpts were published, and after the phone stopped ringing, he might have woken after a wild night and seen pieces of it in the fireplace. That’s what addiction can do to people.”
Burnough was first introduced to Capote’s work by a school librarian at the age of 12. “The southern gothic voice was immediately recognisable,” he says, “because I grew up in northern Florida, near south Georgia, all oak trees and plantations and Spanish moss.” He devoured everything Capote wrote (“Though the canon’s not huge, let’s be honest”). He can even watch the sanitised 1961 film version of Breakfast at Tiffany’s without fast-forwarding through the scenes of Mickey Rooney playing Asian. “It’s so fucked up and yet we can’t pretend it didn’t exist. We need to be able to say, ‘Look how far we’ve come.’”
Burnough is opposed generally to the soft-soaping of past prejudices. He had no reservations about including in his film Mailer’s description of Capote as a “beautiful faggot prince”, which may cause modern audiences to flinch. “That comment shows what Truman was up against,” he insists. “He didn’t live in a world of LGBT+. He lived in a world where you were just another ‘fag’. It was so matter-of-fact. But if we remove that from the record, how are we supposed to learn from history?”
Burnough – who is married to Pierre Lagrange, the Belgian hedge-fund heavyweight estimated to be worth £237m – traces Capote’s career chronologically, from the luminous promise of his first novel, Other Voices, Other Rooms, published in 1948 when he was just 23, to the dismal fallout from Answered Prayers. The film doesn’t stint on the seamier details: the writer’s friend and self-proclaimed fellow voyeur Dotson Rader is on hand to reminisce about nights spent in New York’s gay bathhouses and in the darker corners of the nightclub Studio 54.
Pride of place in The Capote Tapes, though, is given to new interviews with Kate Harrington, who at the age of 13 was unofficially “adopted” by the writer. Her father, a Long Island bank manager, was Capote’s lover, and had left the family home to be with him. Capote took Harrington under his wing, coaching her in etiquette and taking her along as his companion to boozy, celebrity-strewn lunches. When she found herself wearying of the social whirl, or zoning out at the lunch table, he advised her to squeeze the situation for every drop of possible scandal or gossip. “He told me that what I should do is sit and listen to the conversation next to us,” she says in the film. “And on the way home, I could tell him everything they talked about.”
That adoptive-father-daughter relationship was vital for Burnough in unlocking his subject’s life. “I never knew before that Truman essentially adopted his lover’s daughter,” he says. “He wanted a family so desperately at a time when he wasn’t allowed to have one. It just wasn’t on the table for someone like him, and yet still he made the life he wanted to live. That to me is rather extraordinary. He’s someone who has been given short shrift historically, in part because he is characterised as merely bitchy. And yes, there was that component. But he was also a pioneer – an out gay man, famous, on TV, being honest about who he was. He deserves more than just the image of a vicious little queen.”
Would a Capote figure even register as scandalous today? “The difference now is that everyone is always telling us personal things on social media,” says Burnough. “You’ve got celebrities like Taylor Swift and Madonna talking about their experiences, or Hilaria Baldwin discussing her miscarriage on Instagram. The idea that someone could tell a story about another person’s intimate life is less compelling today, because we’ve probably heard it already from the person concerned.”
Since leaving the White House in 2012, Burnough has worked largely in public relations. Would he have taken Capote on as a client? “No!” he says, without missing a beat. “I would be cancelled. Truman would be fine, but people would ask me, ‘How can you represent him?’” Still, he admits he would follow him avidly on social media. “His Instagram would be outrageous. And Truman on Twitter would be a beast. He’d be attacking people left and right, or telling Kim Kardashian: ‘Darling, who cares?’”
• The Capote Tapes is available from 29 January at altitude.film and on digital platforms.