Diminutive in stature and with a soft cooing voice, Truman Capote was an unexpected celebrity in an era of strict masculine ideals. His sharp wit set him apart, first as a gossip columnist and then as one of the premier writers of his generation. Drawing on hundreds of hours of previously unheard interviews with the author’s friends and colleagues collected by George Plimpton shortly after Capote’s death in 1984, Ebs Burnough’s documentary The Capote Tapes searches for the man behind the persona. Building on these tapes as well as new interviews, archival footage, and even recreation, it captures a cross-section of a fascinating life. Central to this examination is the fallout of his unfinished final book, Answered Prayers, which exposed the innermost secrets of the company he kept. Burnough spoke with Hyperallergic by phone to discuss the film and Capote’s enduring influence on popular culture.
Hyperallergic: When did you discover Truman Capote?
Ebs Burnough: When I started school in Tallahassee, there was a lower library and an upper library; I always gravitated towards the upper school librarian. The first Capote story I read was ‘Miriam.’ From there, I kept reading him. I love Southern Gothic, and with Breakfast at Tiffany’s there was also this fabulous New York life to be lived. It was escapism for a little Black gay boy in Tallahassee.
Then I went away from his work for about 25 years. Only a few years ago, I was reading a biography about Bill Paley and the founding of CBS. By the end of it, the two people I was most interested in were Babe Paley and Capote. That led me back down the rabbit hole.
H: How did that lead to the documentary?
EB: I started reading George Plimpton’s wonderful book [Truman Capote: In Which Various Friends, Enemies, Acquaintances and Detractors Recall His Turbulent Career]. And there was Capote. I’ve seen the films, but the more I learned while researching, the more I realized there hadn’t been a definitive documentary on Capote. Both feature [films] focused on his work, but I was in search of who this person was, and I didn’t find it. So I thought, ‘Let’s go on a hunt and see if I can do that.’
H: How did you approach this challenge in capturing his multiplicity?
EB: I didn’t have a well-rounded treatment until I met Kate Harrington [the daughter of one of Capote’s lovers, who later became his protégé]. So much of who he is was wrapped up in the persona he created. He could be devastatingly cutting and cruel. He could also be sugary sweet and loving, but always with an eye toward what he was working on, whether that was a book or being a darling of the jet set.
Then I met Kate and experienced her complete and utter devotion to him. She does consider him her father. All of a sudden, he was selfless. There was someone whom he didn’t want anything from. All he wanted to do was give something back. This was a new dimension I had certainly not seen before.
H: Something fascinating about Capote is how he appealed to men who represented extremely idealized or exaggerated masculinity, like Norman Mailer. How do you make sense of that appeal?
EB: There were also the hyper-masculine men married to the Swans. In the beginning, they’d look down on him. But everybody who took the time to speak with him was captivated by his intellect; it was his stardust. And at that time, the writers were all in competition with one another. Truman’s stardom was also part of that competition. These super-masculine men were first intrigued by his intellect, then they were impressed by the force of his personality. He had knowledge of everything and everyone. He was also everywhere. Eventually it wasn’t just Babe Paley who wanted to talk to him; it was Bill Paley too. He wasn’t just Marella Agnelli’s friend; he became Gianni’s as well. Capote is a fascinating mix of tough and gentle, small and grand. He’s got it all. Writers in particular thought, ‘God, the writing is so amazing, I have to spend more time with him.’ Mailer said something like, ‘He wrote the best sentences.’
H: The film tackles the scandal surrounding Answered Prayers. Can you elaborate on its importance within his life and work?
EB: Capote revelled in gossip, and often used it as a weapon. He wrote brilliantly, and it didn’t feel like gossip. When you really read Breakfast at Tiffany’s, you see it’s about a kind of seedy, scrappy girl and her gay best friend who are just trying to survive; not lovely Audrey Hepburn dressed beautifully and singing ‘Moon River.’ But you had so many New York socialites saying, ‘You know, I was the basis for Holly.’ That’s not something I’d be raising my hand to confess.
Today people go on social media and share intimate details of their lives, or watch The Real Housewives. The good, the bad, and the ugly are all out for everyone to see. [Back then, it was] the opposite. The powerful, famous, and wealthy didn’t want anyone to think of them as anything less than paragons of strength, style, and beauty. The Condé Nast archive has something like 6,000 images of Babe Paley, all of them crafted to perfection. What Truman did with Answered Prayers was reveal that world for what it was. Those people were just like everyone else, experiencing the same struggles — or more heightened versions of them. It was so scandalous because it’s so truthful.
H: How did you narrow down what Plimpton material to include in the film?
EB: There were hundreds of hours, all on good old-fashioned cassette tapes. They had to be digitized and transcribed. I would download them and get on a plane or sit on the subway and make notes. I also had a great archivist working with me and my researcher. We were all listening and highlighting. So much ended up on the cutting room floor. There were things that I was like, ‘I don’t want to lose that,’ but it wasn’t furthering the story.
H: What do you hope people take away from this film?
EB: I hope people go and read some of Truman Capote’s work. Second, I hope that people recognize that even though he wasn’t perfect, he was a pioneer in the LGBTQ+ community. He had his negatives, but he deserves another look for being ahead of his time.
The Capote Tapes is now playing in select theaters.
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