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The Tumultuous Friendship of Truman Capote and Harper Lee

By William Shelton • December 28, 2020

The later career of Truman Capote was so centered on his own celebrity, his non-fiction reportage, and Proustian unfinished novel Answered Prayers, that many readers often forget his largely autobiographical early works. A common thread that runs through these short stories, novels, and one play, is his recollection of holidays spent in Monroeville, Alabama.

The Rise of a Friendship

Although born in New Orleans, Truman was frequently deposited at the Monroeville home of his eccentric cousins; a setting more Southern gothic than even Carson McCullers, or William Faulkner, could conjure. The rambling, dark house, enclosed by a high rock fence, and inhabited by distant cast-off relatives without a home of their own, had one redeeming quality: next door lived a young girl who would initially beat him up, then befriend him. She was Nelle Harper Lee.

Though celebrity on a world-wide stage would be both theirs eventually, it was the lonesomeness of not fitting in, the otherness, as Lee later described it, which they both keenly felt in Monroeville, that bound them together. They turned inward, to their own imaginations, crafting stories which they shared with each other in a treehouse which topped a Chinaberry tree. Later, while both were living in New York City, each turned back with nostalgia to those Alabama days for material for their published works, and out of that nostalgia came some of the finest fiction of mid-20th century America.

While the efforts of Harper Lee culminated in one perfect novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, Capote gushed with short stories, like One Christmas, The Thanksgiving Visitor, A Christmas Memory, and his initial novel, which caused an uproar, Other Voices, Other Rooms. Both authors immortalized each other in their works: the character of the small, fabulous liar, named "Dill" in To Kill a Mockingbird, was based on Capote. Likewise, there were many older, larger girls in Capote's early work, who would vary between loving, and clobbering the smaller central character.

Another character, taken almost entirely from real life, that made frequent appearances in Capote's autobiographical fiction was an eccentric aged spinster. In real life her name was Nannie Rumbley Faulk, Truman's distant cousin, but the children of Monroeville all called her "Sook." She brewed vile concoctions to cure ailments, she killed rattlesnakes with her bare hands, she grew exquisite camellias, and most famously, she baked fruitcakes. Her nickname for Capote was "Buddy" and he dedicated a play, later transformed into a Broadway musical called The Grass Harp, to their adventures in Alabama.

The Fall of a Friendship

In 1959 Harper Lee followed Capote to Kansas, to spend six years documenting, and researching a gruesome murder. In Cold Blood, a non-fiction novel relating the tale of the murder, and resulting trial and execution of the guilty parties, was the culmination of their work.

A wedge in the friendship Capote and Lee had shared since childhood came when Truman refused to give Harper Lee any public credit for her part in researching the novel. The most damning break was when Harper Lee was awarded the 1961 Pulitzer Prize and Capote, fueled by jealousy, alcohol, and drugs, publicly claimed that he had written To Kill a Mockingbird because Harper Lee was unable to finish it.

The unwelcomed publicity, and a deep desire for privacy in her personal life, drove Harper Lee to leave New York and return to Monroeville to live with her sister. Capote continued to jet-set around the world with his millionaire friends, until he alienated them all by airing their sexual secrets in Answered Prayers.

At the hour of his death Truman Capote returned to Monroeville too, though he died in Los Angeles. According to his friend, Joanne Carson, who was at his bedside, the last words Truman uttered were "Sook! It's me, it's Buddy! I'm cold..." He died clutching the small granny-quilt that Sook had sewn for her "Buddy" as a baby.

Read more by William Shelton

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