In a life that spanned nearly six decades, Truman Capote wrote stories that remain reliably in print. The short story “A Christmas Memory” is a yuletide classic, and his popular novel, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, is a touchstone for young, restless souls trying to make it on their own in the big city. Capote’s true-crime narrative, In Cold Blood, became a blockbuster movie and a standard-bearer of a new literary genre, the “nonfiction novel.” But after he died in 1984, a month before his sixtieth birthday, Capote’s writings weren’t the first thing that conservative columnist William F. Buckley Jr. thought about.
Buckley instead recalled a 1976 visit to the set of Neil Simon’s campy mystery movie, Murder by Death, which featured Capote as homicide victim Lionel Twain. The plot, in which many wanted the worst for Twain, seemed a wry case of art imitating life.
Shortly before Murder by Death entered production, Capote had published a portion of Answered Prayers, his unfinished novel, in Esquire. “That work finished Truman Capote’s social life as decisively as a hangman’s trapdoor,” Buckley told readers. “It collected brilliantly and with relish related every ugly fact and rumor about New York’s glitterati that Truman Capote, in years of knowing and mixing with them, had assembled. He seemed astonished, at first, that old friends hung up the telephone when he called, and that others took trouble to avoid him. And so he took refuge in booze and pills, pills and booze.”