The Beatrice Interview

George Plimpton

"He probably thought that they wouldn't mind. After all, he was a writer, what did they expect?"

interviewed by Ron Hogan


George Plimpton is an author who needs no introduction. Even those who don't know him as one of the founding editors of the Paris Review and author of a series of books in which he participated in several sports at the professional level to report on what it felt like (the most famous being Paper Lion, his chronicle of life in a Detroit football training camp) will recognize him from his cameo appearances in films such as Reds. In his latest book, Plimpton returns to the oral biography format he popularized with American Journey: The Times of Robert F. Kennedy and Edie: An American Biography (both produced in collaboration with Jean Stein). When I suggested that the subject of Truman Capote (In Which Various Friends, Enemies, Acquaintances, and Detractors Recall His Turbulent Career) was particularly suited to the ambiguities and dishiness of the oral biography, having been known to distort the truth on occasion himself, Plimpton readily agreed, further pointing out that Capote "came from humble beginnings, rose meteorically to this tremendously high standing, not only socially but as a writer as well, then he made some almost Aristotelian errors of hubris that started his downfall." It's a great story made even more intriguing by the personal reflections of people ranging from Norman Mailer and Gore Vidal to Lauren Bacall, fashion designer Milan, and the late Herb Caen.

RH: What appeals to you about the format of oral biography and brings you to it again and again?

GP: There's always something intriguing about the raw material of a biography. If you're doing a biography on contemporary figures, because of the magic of the tape recorder, most biographies are put together by writers going out and interviewing people who knew the subject. They have the advantage afterwards of picking out the one or two sentences from the interview they want. But I'm fascinated by the entire transcript, by the depth of material that's available in it.

RH: Without the author's voice, though, it's not always clear whether what you're being told is reliable or accurate.

GP: You lack the firm hand of the biographer leading you through a man's life or a woman's life, true. It's like the famous film Rashomon, a particular incident viewed several different ways. In Truman Capote there are a number of divergences of opinion on what happened. One that's caused a considerable furor is the varying descriptions of Capote's performance at the hanging of Perry Smith and Dick Hickock. A Kansas Bureau of Investigation agent named Harold Nye says that Capote couldn't bear to watch Smith swing, because they had been lovers in the penitentiary, so he ran out of the west end of the warehouse where the hanging took place. The head of Random House, who was there, says Truman never left, although he was sick to his stomach. Charles McAtee, who was there, doubts that he ran out of the west end of the warehouse because there was no west end to the warehouse...

Usually, a biographer will make up his mind which version to tell you, but it's interesting to get the different views. It's particularly interesting to understand why Nye would say that about Capote, because it becomes clear in Nye's descriptions of Capote that he didn't like him. Nye and his wife had been taken on a tour of Kansas City nightspots by Truman, who took them to a lesbian nightclub, a gay nightclub, and a transvestite show, horrifying both of them and undoubtedly prejudicing Nye to rather disparaging portraits of Truman's behavior at the hanging.

RH: Over how long a period of time did these interviews take place? A number of people who appear in the book are no longer alive.

GP: I started it about two years after Truman died in 1984. Gloria Jones, who was at Doubleday then, suggested I do it, and it struck me that he was a very good subject for an oral biography. He knew some very interesting people from every world. From the world of business, because he doted on their wives, to the world of Hollywood, the literary world. So you had all these people that you could talk to, all of whom tended to have very interesting memories of him.

RH: Did you have any trouble convincing people to talk about him to you?

GP: I can only think a few people who really refused. One was Harper Lee, who grew up living next door to Truman in Monroeville and went with him to Kansas at the time of the Clutter murders. She turned me down because she turns down all interview requests. She's never been interviewed by anybody. It's against her principles, although I don't quite know why. Just before the book went to press, I wrote her one last time to see if there was any chance she'd changed her mind. She wrote back very politely and said, "No, I don't like interviews. I just don't do them." I've tried to get her to become a member of the great pantheon of writers who talk about the craft of writing for the Paris Review, and she's turned that down as well.

Dick Avedon turned me down as well on the grounds that he didn't remember anything, which is sort of silly since he also went out to Kansas with them, but that's his choice to make. Amanda Burdon, the daughter of William and Babe Paley, also turned me down because she didn't quite know whether her mother would have approved of her talking to me. Everybody else, as far as I know, was delighted.

RH: Unlike many biographers dealing with previously treated lives, who want their works to be seen as the definitive life of the subject, you're quite gracious in saying that a perfectly good conventional biography of Capote already exists.

GP: This is absolutely not meant to replace Gerald Clarke's book. If you really want to find out about Truman's life, that's the book to read. This is's a little like going to see the Bobby Morse play, Tru. It's an offshoot. The oral biography gives you much more information than you'd get watching a drama, but it's still very sketchy in terms of giving you all the information about Truman Capote. It's a series of sketches rather than a portrait.

RH: The Black-and-White Ball is the centerpiece of your book, spanning three chapters from conception to completion. It does seem to be the symbolic high point of his life.

GP: It was hugely important to him, certainly. It was a pinnacle from which he never really recovered afterwards. It threw him too deeply into that world of high society, and once you get in there it's too comfortable. He became too famous. He was destroyed by fame. He was on television so much, and very good at it, and it's very hard to go into a cork-lined room and write when you've just entertained 6,000,000 people.

RH: It's hard to tell whether, in his publishing of the Answered Prayers material, he didn't see how his high society friends were going to react or if he just believed that he'd really get away with it.

GP: I don't know the answer to that myself. I think he probably thought that they wouldn't mind. After all, he was a writer, what did they expect? One of the most interesting theories is from Andreas Brown, who thinks that Truman did it as an act of revenge against the society that had forced his mother to commit suicide. Interesting idea.

RH: There's a tremendous amount of controversy about whether any other portions of Answered Prayers other than what has been published actually exists. What's your take?

GP: There are three possibilities. One is that it does exist in a safe deposit box someplace, which is what Joanne Carson and Lester Persky think. Carson says that Truman gave her a key which she then handed over to Alan Schwartz, the lawyer. Schwartz remembers the key, but it has no marks on it, and there's over six million safety deposit boxes in America, so which one does it belong to?

Another possibility is that Truman had written much more and then destroyed it because he didn't feel it was up to par. He had destroyed a manuscript before, a book about New York debutantes in the 50s, because he wasn't satisfied with it. And the third possibility, which I think is probably the case, is that the three published chapters are the only ones he ever wrote. He used to pretend that he'd written more, but I think he just stopped writing. It happens to writers, and there's no reason why it shouldn't have happened to him.

RH: What are you working on at the moment?

GP: Right now I'm doing a screenplay for Whit Stillman, the director of Metropolitan and Barcelona, about Paris in the '50s. And I'm working on a children's opera, and considering a collection of some of my short pieces from over the years...

I remain hugely active in the Paris Review as well. That's really what I do in life. It's never occurred to me to stop doing it, except once when we were running out of money. The poetry editor, Donald Hall, insisted that we had to go on, and that was all I needed to convince me.It's always been a drain on money and on my time, but I can't think of anything that I'd rather be doing.

BEATRICE More Beatrice Interviews
Jay McInerney | Allan Gurganus

All materials copyright © 1997 Ron Hogan