Thursday, January 20, 2011

Capote Has Two Redheads

I stayed up late last night to finish reading Answered Prayers, Truman Capote’s last book. Of course, one could argue that’s it’s not a book, either on grounds of it being more of a collection of scathing, scandalizing stories about the real-life twats Capote associated with (until the book was published, anyway) or because he died before the book could be completed and its parts assembled into into the masterful tell-almost-all that could have ruined even more lives. Regardless, I read and enjoyed. The victims are quite nearly all dead now, I’d bet, and I didn’t have the weight of their grief dragging at my heels as I sped through all 180 pages.

It’s actually notable that I began reading the book so soon after the new year. We spent part of New Year’s Eve watching the film Murder By Death — a fantastic, Neil Simon-penned murder mystery parody that predates the Clue movie by nine years — and this film happens to star Capote, who at this point in his life had devolved into a waddling, quacking boiled egg. But the film also stars Estelle Winwood, who appears in Answered Prayers not under a pseudonym. She gets off rather easily. She’s only portrayed as a drunk who shows up late (and drunk) to a dinner party alongside Dorothy Parker and Talulah Bankhead (also drunks). This sort of folding of reality upon pop culture upon reality is representative of how one experiences Answered Prayers.

It’s a strange read, not only as a result of the personal, hurtful subject matter but also because the book was written over a period of nearly twenty years. Parts are missing. There are redundancies. And the whole time I was reading this fractured, cobbled-together collection of words, I wondered how much of it existed in its current form because Capote planned it to be so and how much was simply because Capote stopped and started writing so many times, likely forgetting which socialite he’d already tossed a thin veiled over and then shit on. For example, the character of the Black Duchess (a.k.a. Perla Apfeldorf) is introduced in the “Kate McCloud” chapter. As Capote’s seeming stand-in P.B. Jones notes in that chapter, Perla is “the wife of a very racist South African platinum tycoon… as much a figure of the wordily milieu as Kate McCloud. She was Brazilian, and privately — though this was something I discovered later — her friends called her the Black Duchess, suggesting she was not of the pure Portuguese descent she claimed, but a child of Rio’s favelos, born with quite a bit of the tarbrush which, if true, was rather a joke on the Hiterlerian Herr Apfeldorf.” A memorable introduction. However, strangely, in the subsequent chapter, “La Cote Basque,” the same character is reintroduced, in a similar but briefer manner, as if it may occur earlier in time than the “Kate McCloud” chapter or if the “Kate McCloud” chapter may not exist at all.

Most writings on Answered Prayers attempt to provide the brass instrument with which you can decode the various characters, but I’m not interested in them so much. In fact, these characters having real-life analogues distracted me for much of the reading, since I kept jumping online to find out who so-and-so might have actually been. I eventually stopped this, and I ended up enjoying the book a whole lot more just as story and writing and adeptly crafted insults that I can’t wait to steal and use against the failures I have encountered in my life.

As far as looking at the book from a non-roman à clef perspective, I’m fascinated by a doubling even stranger that the repeated introductions of Perla Apfeldorf. It’s the Ann Woodward analogues. In the 1940s, Ann Crowell married into high society, despite objections and suspicious of those around her husband. After a 1955 party for Wallis Windsor (mentioned in the Answered Prayers as “The White Duchess”), Mr. and Mrs. Woodward returned home, whereupon the Mrs. fatally shot the Mr. Despite initial appearances that she murdered him, the shooting was declared an accident.

The story seems to appear twice in Answered Prayers. The first (and most obvious) instance occurs in “La Cote Basque,” in which J.B. Jones observes Ann Hopkins, whom he is quickly told had murdered her husband in cold blood to prevent him from divorcing her and depriving her and her children of his fortune. She is a redhead dressed in black. Everyone in the restaurant regards her with scorn. She meets and eats with a Catholic priest in what seems to be interpreted as a public confession. Mrs. Hopkins’s story is explained much in the manner that Ann Woodward’s might have: Dancer meets rich boy, tricks him into marrying him, then kills him when he threatens divorce. The Ann Hopkins character was so obvious, in fact, that Ann Woodward committed suicide allegedly because she feared what Capote wrote about her.

However, Ann Hopkins is a relatively minor character in Answered Prayers The dominant character, aside from J.B. Jones, is Kate McCloud, another redhead — a amber-haired goddess, in fact — who elicits not scorn but admiration and awe wherever she goes. The oddest part about Kate McCloud, however, is that her story mirrors those of Ann Hopkins (and Ann Woodward) in many ways. Kate McCloud, as both Jones and the reader learns, was born poor, married her way into wealth and ended up trapped in a desperate situation. McCloud’s husband loves her too much, to the point of obsession, and eventually her mother-in-law helps her escape because Kate remaining under her husband’s watch would surely result in her death. (This stands as a twisted parallel of the Hopkins/Woodward story, in which the mother-in-law declined to press charges in order to protect her family’s dignity.) Upon her husband’s incarceration in a sanitarium, McCloud divorces and marries again, only to end up shunned by her second husband and forced to live a leisurely nomadic life. She cannot divorce him, and she fears that he will one day murder her to eliminate the possibility that she will one day stand against him.

For so many reasons, Kate McCloud works like a “good” version of Ann Hopkins. Both have read hair. Both marry into wealth. Both escape from troubled marriages, with the aid of their husband’s mother. Both suffer a certain moneyed homelessness. But whereas Hopkins is roundly vilified, Kate is celebrated and justified. It’s worth mentioning that Jones — again, Capote’s stand-in — sees McCloud as an object of lust and fascination, even imagining that he one day becomes her lover. (And that image, given my impression of Truman Capote as being a sort of gay toad, is rather jarring.) So what gives?

Despite the fact that Capote wrote Answered Prayers over such a long period, I have to imagine that he intended the parallels, despite that I’d imagine he thinks fairly little of Ann Woodward. So why, then, would he re-create her as bad and good versions, a positive and negative David Lynch-esque pair — or, to use a more current metaphor, as a White Swan and a Black Swan? All I can come up with is that the veneration of Kate McCloud in light of the vilification of Ann Hopkins resulted from Capote’s desire to cover his own ass. On some level, he knew the impact Answered Prayers might have and therefore attempted to preemptively restrain the assault against Ann Woodward by invented a “good” version of her that might provide the woman some solace. “See? You’re not a complete monster, deserving nothing more than death by your own hand.” A noble gesture (albeit alongside a deathly mean-spirited one) that did little good in the end. I can think of no other reason why Capote would create these characters in the way he did, save drunken brainmelt and sheer coincidence.

For what it’s worth, both Woodward and Capote were worm food by the time the book was finally published in 1987. Somehow, that makes it better.

For good and for bad, he certainly had a way with words.


  1. I am re-reading Answered Prayers and leaving the book to investigate the people involved. It is small wonder Truman was ostracized by his friends and acquaintances. Pretty nasty material and no secrets left untold

    1. Have you heard that there was a recently discovered lost chapter?