Thursday, May 8, 2014

MONROEVILLE, ALABAMA: TRUMAN CAPOTE

According the The Encyclopedia of Alabama, in 2010 the population of Monroeville, Alabama, was 6,519, with about 56% identifying themselves as African American, 42% as white, and 4% as other races. The median household income was just under $32,000. Eighty years before, the town was probably smaller than that and just about as poor.

How in the world did two major American authors come from a place like that?  Nelle Harper Lee was born in Monroeville in 1926, and Truman Steckfus Persons (who later took on his step-father's last name of Capote) came to live with his cousins next door to the Lees when he was just three years old in 1927, stayed there until 1933, continued to spend many summers in Monroeville as he was growing up, and visited many times as an adult. As a result, Harper and Truman grew up together as best friends. Harper Lee even modeled one of the main characters in To Kill a Mockingbird, a precocious neighbor boy named Dill, after her friend Truman. In return, Truman Capote based a character in his first novel on Harper--Idabel Thompkins in Other Voices, Other Rooms.
Truman as a young child
Truman was a year-and-a-half older than Harper (known by her first name Nelle back in those days), and they had many wonderful adventures together.
He looks like the kind of boy who had LOTS of crazy adventures.
Part of the Monroe County Courthouse Museum is dedicated to the life and works of Truman Capote:



The family that Truman lived with was his mother's youngest sister's family, and it included some elderly relatives. Truman became very close to one in particular, Sook Faulk. He wrote, "I had many kindly relatives, aunts and uncles and cousins, particularly one cousin, an elderly, white-haired, slightly crippled woman named Sook, Miss Sook Faulk. I had other friends, but she was by far my best friend."

It was Sook who ran the household and had the primary responsibility for Truman, and she is featured as a character in three of his most popular short stories: "A Christmas Memory," "The Thanksgiving Visitor," and "One Christmas."

In "A Christmas Memory," he wrote:
"In addition to never having seen a movie, she has never eaten in a restaurant, traveled more than five miles from home, received or sent a telegram, read anything except funny papers and the Bible, worn cosmetics, cursed, wished someone harm, told a lie on purpose, let a hungry dog go hungry. Here are a few things she has done, does do: killed with a hoe the biggest rattlesnake ever seen in this county (sixteen rattles), dip snuff (secretly), tame hummingbirds (just try it) till they balance on her finger, tell ghost stories (we both believe in ghosts) so tingling they chill you in July, talk to herself, take walks in the rain, grow the prettiest japonicas in town, know the recipe for every sort of old-time Indian cure, including a magical wart remover."

Truman gives credit to Sook for teaching him to read by using "the funny papers" when he was only four years old. "She was the only stable person in my life," Truman said.

It was Sook who crocheted this granny square baby blanket for Truman, which was one of his most cherished possessions. He took it everywhere with him, even when he traveled.

He had it with him when he flew from New York to Los Angeles to be with Joanne Carson, Johnny Carson's wife, on August 23, 1984. And when he died in her home the next day, Joanne says his last words were, "It's me, it's Buddy," followed by "I'm cold."  Buddy was Sook's nickname for Truman.  (See an interesting article about Carson and Truman's friendship here.)

Another display in the museum points out that Truman loved the quilts made by his cousins and had several of them in his New York apartment:
Sook's "Coat of Many Colors" (c. 1900) is on display in a glass box in the museum:

The coat is made in the style of a crazy quilt, much like the one hanging on the wall behind the display case. Text at the museum says that one of Truman's cousins recalls that as children, "he and Truman never had trouble finding Sook in the darkened house on South Alabama Avenue because they simply looked for the bright colors of her coat."
Truman loved Monroeville, and even as an adult he came back often to see his cousins and to visit Harper:
Truman with his aunt, Mary Ida Cartr
Perhaps the most interesting result of the Harper and Truman's friendship was their teamwork on the research for Capote's magnum opus, In Cold Blood.

Truman and Harper in 1966, with copies of Capote's book In Cold Blood:
Photo from here
On our way out of town we stopped at the marker placed on the empty lot that used to the the Faulk home where Truman lived with his relatives.
The original house burned to the ground in 1940, was rebuilt, and then was demolished in 1980. Parts of the foundation can still be seen:
On one side of the deserted lot is Mel's Dairy Dream, a place that looks like it might have been here during the 1930s (but wasn't):
Photo from Mel's Facebook page
We had some wonderfully greasy chicken with hot sauce packets and sweet potato fries:
 . . . and an order of chicken liver and gizzards that was shockingly good:

On the other side of the vacant lot is a gas station with a really great name:

READING:
I have not read any biographies of Truman Capote, but I have read and really enjoyed a few of his books and short stories. His writing is as diverse as his life experiences.

The book Capote researched with Harper Lee in tow, In Cold Blood, was a genre ground-breaker, considered by many to be the first nonfiction novel and by others the first "true crime" novel. Based on thousands of pages of notes Truman and Harper wrote, it details the 1959 murder of four people in their own Kansas home by two male parolees who seem to be completely without feeling.

Capote's insights not only about the crime itself, but also into the psychology of the victims and the murderers make this a chilling read (no pun intended.) I listened to this book on my iPod, and I had a hard time sleeping at night for quite a while.

I probably would not have chosen this to listen to had I not first read Mockingbird by Charles Shields (reviewed in a previous post). I was so intrigued by Harper Lee's role in the fieldwork for the book that I had to read the actual product of her partnership with Capote.


Capote's 1958 novella Breakfast at Tiffany's contains the most famous of his characters, Holly Golightly, a southern hick who married too young and has escaped her bad marriage by running away to New York City, where she changes her name and reinvents herself.

The movie by the same name is a loose interpretation of the book, and Capote had envisioned Marilyn Monroe, not Audrey Hepburn, in the lead role, which would have changed the tone of the movie completely, don't you think?

Two-time Pulitzer Prize-winner Norman Mailer said that Capote was "the most perfect writer of my generation, he writes the best sentences word for word, rhythm upon rhythm. I would not have changed two words in Breakfast at Tiffany's . . . . "


A Christmas Memory is Capote's tender recollection of his days in Monroeville. Here is a sample, a description of his beloved Sook:

"A woman with shorn white hair is standing at the kitchen window. She is small and sprightly, like a bantam hen; but due to a long youthful illness, her shoulders are pitifully hunched. Her face is remarkable--not unlike Lincoln's, craggy like that, and tinted by sun and wind; but it is delicate too, finely boned, and her eyes are sherry-colored and timid. 'Oh my,' she exclaims, her breath smoking the windowpane, 'it's fruitcake weather.'

"I am seven, she is sixty-something. We are cousins, very distant ones, and we have lived together--well, as long as I can remember. Other people inhabit the house, relatives; and though they have power over us, and frequently make us cry, we are not, on the whole, too much aware of them. We are each other's best friend. She calls me Buddy, in memory of a boy who was formerly her best friend. The other Buddy died in the 1880s, when she was still a child. She is still a child."

3 comments:

  1. I love the quilt story and I love the relationship with Sook. I hadn't picked up on either of those facts. How nice to know that Sook was waiting for him at the end.

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  2. I knew Capote and Lee were childhood friends; I didn't know Lee helped Capote with the research for In Cold Blood. Very interesting!

    Everyone needs a Sook in their life.

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  3. For sure, Monroe should have played Golightly. I re-watched that movie recently and still can't understand people's fascination with it. But if Monroe was the star. . . hmmmm. Fascinating info about Capote and Lee and their relationship. Love the quilts (of course), and glad you got some fried gizzards, for a trip to the South just wouldn't be complete without gizzards, right?

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