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A Literary Biography Defeated by Surrender : CAPOTE A Biography by Gerald Clarke (Simon & Schuster: $22.95; 632 pp.)

June 12, 1988|RICHARD EDER

The subject seems to have given unstintingly of himself over the nine years that Gerald Clarke sought his company, sat with him into the early hours of the morning and interviewed him. But perhaps he didn't have himself to give.

"Capote: A Biography" is a devotedly detailed and impressively well-sourced account of a deadly industry. The industry, conducted for 59 years by a man born in a tiny Alabama town under the name of Truman Streckfuss Persons, was for the creation, employment, promotion and maintenance of Truman Capote.

It was deadly because the driven and singularly gifted manufacturer destroyed himself in his own exhaust and ended, despite some successes, in failure.

The Capote that he produced was intended to be a major fiction writer; he was a minor one. He was intended to live a dazzling life among rich and dazzling friends; he lost his dazzle and his friends; his friends lost their dazzle and kept their money. His homosexual love affairs became spectacularly destructive and humiliating obsessions.

And what was supposed to justify it all--retiring into the equivalent of Marcel Proust's cork-lined room to write the great, evocative and distanced book about America's high world, fizzled into a few chapters of acute and bitchy social reportage, streaked with sentimentality. When Capote was alone in the cork-lined room, there was nobody in it--and he couldn't stay.

And there is nobody, really, in Clarke's book; only a record of extravagant artifice, of moments of inspiration and style, and of the grinding pain of wearing out your body, your talent and your innocence by trying to fashion from these things an instrument of fame and power.

A few photographs in this generously illustrated book tell some of the story. In 1946, we see the young faun at 22: silvery hair, wistful eyes, sultry allure and infinite promise. (He was the year's New Writer.) By 1954, he has aged far more than eight years. A tubby, bespectacled man clings to his dance partner, Marilyn Monroe. The faun has not become a satyr; worse, he has become an entrepreneur. A meaty fist in the foreground anchors Monroe by her wrist, she will not get away until the picture is taken.

Clarke has been everywhere that Capote went to, and he talked with just about everyone who knew him. He has read unpublished letters and portions of Capote's unpublished writings and notes. The account could not be more complete. There is a wealth of detail about Capote's family and childhood. Even when dealing with the extensively publicized and self-publicized portions of his life--just about everything from 18 on--Clarke finds new details and new anecdotes.

The father, Arch Persons, was a charmer, a failed big-schemer and a con man, arrested at various times for misunderstandings over checks and other matters. When he married Lillie Mae Faulk, a small-town beauty, he ran out of funds on their honeymoon and had to send her back to her family.

Arch floated in and out of Truman's childhood in Monroeville. So did Lillie Mae--later known as Nina--who loved good times and good-looking men. Truman, largely abandoned, was brought up by three middle-age sisters who were Nina's cousins.

Abandonment--if your parents refuse to invent you, you have to invent yourself--was followed by life in and around New York with Nina and her second husband, Joseph Garcia Capote, a Wall Street commodities broker. Nina was alcoholic, erratic and violently abusive about Truman's homosexuality.

As a child, Capote had a girlish manner and a lisp, which he retained and fortified through adolescence. He displayed a contagious celebratory energy and an extravagance for which the word "campy" had not yet been invented. He met and became pals with Gloria Vanderbilt, Carol Marcus and Oona O'Neill--the earliest of his socialite beauties--and together they would get free lunch at the Stork Club on the strength of their glitter.

Clarke discusses the gossipy, storytelling atmosphere of Capote's Southern childhood as a source of the writing he was to do in "Other Voices, Other Rooms" and "The Grass Harp." He recounts Capote's comically inglorious time as a New Yorker copy boy, and his splashy breakthrough as a short-story writer for Harper's Bazaar and Mademoiselle.

Random House took him on for "Other Voices," and the New York publicity and party-giving complex built him up as one of the hottest of the postwar writers. He was barely in his 20s and looked much younger. People offered him milk by mistake.

There is a vivid account of Truman as an Ariel-like master of the revels at the Yaddo writers' colony. There he met his first serious love. He was Newton Arvin, a Smith professor and a leading critic and scholar. Excerpts from Arvin's letters depict a steamily romantic and sexual affair; readers are apt to wonder about his students' prose, though perhaps not their morals.

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