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Friday, October 1, 2010

Truman Capote and Harper Lee: Immortalizing each other in fiction

One of American literature’s great partnerships is the forty-year friendship between Nelle Harper Lee, whose only novel is celebrating its fiftieth year as a perennial best-seller, and Truman Capote.

Born in New Orleans, Truman grew up in Monroeville, Alabama, and Nelle was the youngest daughter of the family next door. In Capote: A Biography Gerald Clarke captures them as children of seven and eight:
Harper [was] the tomboy on the block, a girl who ... could beat the steam out of most boys her age, or even a year or so older, as Truman was.... Neither had many other real friends. Nelle was too rough for most other girls, and Truman was too soft for most other boys.
Lee’s father was a lawyer and both children were fascinated by crime. “We went to trials instead of going to the movies,” Capote once reminisced. When Mr. Lee gave them a twenty-pound Underwood typewriter, they tapped out stories about their neighbors.

Two characters based on Lee appear in Capote’s fiction. In Other Voices, Other Rooms (1948), his acclaimed first novel, tomboy Idabel Thompkins chides the main character Joel when he is embarrassed to undress in front of her:
“Son,” she said, and spit between her fingers, “what you’ve got in your britches is no news to me, and no concern of mine: hell, I’ve fooled around with nobody but boys since first grade. I never think like I’m a girl; you’ve got to remember that, or we can’t never be friends.”
Lee is also recognizable as Ann “Jumbo” Finchburg, “a sawed-off but solid tomboy with an all-hell-let-loose wrestling technique,” in Capote’s 1967 story “The Thanksgiving Visitor.”

Lee would return the favor by basing the child Dill in To Kill a Mockingbird on Capote:
He wore blue linen shorts that buttoned to his shirt, his hair was snow white and stuck to his head like dandruff; he was a year my senior but I towered over him. As he told us [an] old tale his blue eyes would lighten and darken; his laugh was sudden and happy.... We came to know [him] as a pocket Merlin, whose head teemed with eccentric plans, strange longings, and quaint fancies.
Collaboration proved trickier. The two became joint investigators in crime in 1959 when Capote invited Lee to accompany him on a new project: interviewing everyone who knew a family murdered in a small town in Kansas. Lee had just turned in the manuscript of the novel she had been working on for ten years. “The crime intrigued him, and I'm intrigued with crime—and, boy, I wanted to go. It was deep calling to deep,” Lee remembered.

In Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee Charles J. Shields details what Lee contributed. Kansans didn’t know what to make of Capote but Lee “knew how farmers and inhabitants of small towns thought and talked.... [Her] gift for creating character sketches turned out to complement Truman’s ability to recall remarks.” Shields's research found that Lee wrote some 150 pages of notes but that Capote ignored her recommendations to make the victims more complex.

Lee’s novel To Kill a Mockingbird was published in 1960 and won the Pulitzer Prize. (To date, it has sold more than 30 million copies.) A loyal friend, Lee returned with Capote to Kansas in 1963 to attend the trial of the accused killers. But three years later, when Lee saw the first edition of In Cold Blood, she was shocked that she shared the dedication with Capote’s lover, her contribution acknowledged as “secretarial help.” Their friendship would never be the same.

Related LOA works: American Fantastic Tales: Terror and the Uncanny from the 1940s Until Now (includes Capote’s haunting, first published story "Miriam"); True Crime: An American Anthology (includes “Then It All Came Down,” Capote’s interview with Manson associate Robert Beausoleil)


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