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It was the Joanne and Truman show

Auction shows the bond between Carson's ex and the exiled Capote.

October 31, 2006|Robin Abcarian | Times Staff Writer

They were an unlikely pair, Joanne Carson and Truman Capote. She was the plucky, gorgeous wife of the man who would become the undisputed king of late-night television. He was the diminutive literary genius whose rapier wit would eventually force him into a kind of social exile from Manhattan.

In 1971, the year before her divorce became final, she moved home to California, while Johnny Carson stayed in New York, where his show was then taped. She bought a rustic house on Sunset Boulevard, at the western fringe of Bel-Air. Eventually, Capote would take over two of her five bedrooms, making her home his California pied-a-terre, spending months there every year, swimming and writing -- and, on Aug. 25, 1984, dying, in his writing room, probably from an overdose of pills.

For more than two decades, in her unpretentious house crammed with mementos of a life at the edge of a certain strata of glamorous L.A., Joanne Carson has lived among the things Capote left her. But now she's decided to part with most of it. On Nov. 9, "The Private World of Truman Capote," comprising 337 lots, will go to auction at Bonhams in New York (with simulcasts at branches in Los Angeles and San Francisco).

Carson, a fit and youthful-looking 75, is capitalizing on the resurgent interest in Capote, who in the last year has been the subject of two films (the Oscar-winning "Capote" and "Infamous") and a book, "Party of the Century: The Fabulous Story of Truman Capote and His Black and White Ball," about the legendary party he hosted at the Plaza Hotel in 1966.

That was the year Capote and Carson met, at a dinner party thrown by publishing legend Bennett Cerf. Capote, who would become a frequent guest on "The Tonight Show," was the toast of the town, thanks to the astonishing success of his nonfiction masterpiece, "In Cold Blood," the year before. Carson hated the social whirl and class consciousness of New York but bonded immediately with Capote, a famous social climber. In him, she said, she saw a "wounded child," someone with whom she, a girl from a broken home who was sent to a convent school, could identify.

"Truman loved celebrity," she said the other day, strolling through the auction preview at Bonhams & Butterfields in West Hollywood. "He crashed and burned because of the bitchiness of New York."


A lover of animals

Carson said she doesn't need cash. For a time she earned a living as a TV talk-show host, and she invested her divorce settlement with Peter Eliades, the well-known stock expert. She later returned to school, earning a doctorate and working as a metabolic therapist. But her passion is animals, and she plans to donate much of the auction proceeds to several pet-related charities, including a pet hospice that a veterinarian friend of hers in Santa Monica is trying to create.

The auction's centerpiece is the last story Capote ever wrote, penned for Carson next to her pool the day before he died. He asked her: What would you like for your birthday? "Truman," she replied, "I just want you to write. If you're writing, I'm happy."

"Remembering Willa Cather" is a 14-page unfinished essay, written on a spiral-bound notebook, about his chance encounter and ensuing dinner with one of his literary heroes at the New York Society Library on a snowy day in the 1940s, when he was a teenager. The story appears, unedited, in the November issue of Vanity Fair, which paid Carson $10,000 for the publishing rights. Its auction value is estimated between $20,000 and $30,000.

"All the critics said that he couldn't write and that it was all over and that he had destroyed his talent," said Carson, alluding both to Capote's well-known substance abuse and to "Answered Prayers," the much-hyped-but-never-finished novel that was excerpted in Esquire and proved his social undoing. "And that's why this last manuscript of his is so important."

Another item features Capote's extensive edits on a never-published 38-page essay by Carson about meeting and falling in love with her future husband in New York City in 1960. She recounts being introduced to Johnny in New York by her father, who'd come on a business trip to visit his daughter, a struggling model, and was introduced by a mutual acquaintance to Carson, then the host of "Who Do You Trust?"


Truly inspired edits

The typed prose is workmanlike, but there are extensive, and truly inspired, edits by Capote. It seems clear (and Carson confirmed) that he made up dialogue and some details, but preserved her feelings and the essential truth of the piece. (There is a very funny scene in which, on one of their first dates, she attempts to weigh a roast beef on her bathroom scale, and Carson unexpectedly walks in. "I think I'll just make myself another drink," he deadpans.)

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