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Biography of Truman Capote (1924-1984)

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Truman Capote was born Truman Steckfus Persons in New Orleans on September 30, 1924 to 17-year-old Lillie Mae Faulk and Archulus ("Arch") Persons, a dissolute salesman. Capote's early life was marked by instability and poverty. When Faulk and Persons separated in 1928, he was left to be raised by relatives in Monroeville, Alabama, where he began what would become a lifelong friendship with Harper Lee, later the author of the renowned novel To Kill A Mockingbird. An unusual and observant child, Truman was determined to become a writer. He taught himself to read at age four and by age eight was "practicing" at writing in daily sessions. The details of the rural South, its oppressive poverty and wise, headstrong characters, impressed on the young Capote's imagination. He later drew on his memories of Alabama for some of his most famous writing.

In 1933, Lillie Mae, who then called herself Nina, remarried to a successful Cuban businessman, Joe Capote. Truman soon joined the couple in New York City, where he adopted his stepfather's surname and began an uneven career as a student in both private and public high schools in New York and Connecticut. While Capote was intelligent and highly focused on writing, he was uninterested in academics, and dropped out of his fourth year of high school when offered a 2-year contract position as a copy boy at the New Yorker. There, he attracted the attention of many of the city's literary and social elite, as much for his flamboyant wardrobe as for his mature, evocative prose. In 1942, Capote published his first short story, "Miriam", in the magazine Mademoiselle, which won him the 1946 prestigious O. Henry award for Best First-Published Story. He soon gained a contract with Random House, who advanced him $1500 for his first novel.

Other Voices, Other Rooms, published in 1948, was widely publicized, largely for Harold Halma's provocative back-cover author photo, which captured Capote lounging seductively on a chaise. The controversy surrounding the photo led to a storm of interest in the young novelist, and Other Voices, Other Rooms remained on the New York Times best-seller list for nine weeks. With his first novel, Capote became famous as a novelist and as a controversial figure who had captured the public's imagination. Capitalizing on Capote's sudden celebrity, Random House featured the Halma photo in their ads for the novel, which appeared in bookstore windows and continued to generate controversy.

Capote, now a celebrated member of New York's literary and social elite, followed the success of Other Voices, Other Rooms in 1949 with the acclaimed volume of short fiction, "A Tree of Night and Other Stories". In 1951, Random House published his novella, The Grass Harp, which he adapted as a play the following year. "Breakfast at Tiffany's: A Short Novel and Three Stories" was published alongside the serialization of "Breakfast at Tiffany's" in Esquire magazine, and proved so popular that the title story was quickly adapted for a major Hollywood film. With the publication of In Cold Blood in 1966, Capote secured his reputation as one of the most important American writers of the century. A novel-length exploration of the aftermath of the real-life murder of a family in remote Holcomb, Kansas, In Cold Blood required extensive on-site research, and he took over five years to complete the manuscript. Serialized in the New Yorker in 1965 and published in hardcover by Random House the following year, In Cold Blood was an international best-seller and pioneered a new genre of literature: the non-fiction novel. Fragments from his final work, the unfinished novel Answered Prayers, were published as short stories in Esquire in 1975 and 1976, where they alienated the majority of Capote's celebrity friends, who recognized themselves as thinly-disguised characters in the work.

Capote's works are generally divided into three chronological periods. His early works are inconsistently styled with a focus on rural setting, family secrets and tragedy, and fall into the established genre of "Southern Gothic" fiction. Other Voices, Other Rooms and The Grass Harp belong to this early period. "Breakfast at Tiffany's" and its accompanying short stories, "House of Flowers", "A Diamond Guitar", and "A Christmas Memory" define Capote's middle period, which is characterized by a distinctively spare, direct prose style; minimal, linear plotlines, and a thematic obsession with eccentricity and the diversity of human love. This period also marks the development of what critics often call the "Capote narrator", the author's distinctive narrative persona who, while periodically participating in plotlines, remains conspicuously "objective", external to the story's narrative and emotional focus. The "Capote narrator" is also a distinguishing feature of In Cold Blood and the unfinished An Answered Prayer, the works of Capote's third period, which saw him moving towards his own, innovative hybrid of non-fiction and literary prose.

In his time in the public spotlight, Capote was renowned for his social stature and for his contributions to literature. His friends included actors, authors, critics, royalty, and aristocrats, whom he entertained in famous style. In 1966, in honor of Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham, Capote hosted the "Black & White Ball", a themed costume party widely regarded as the most important social event of the decade.

An open homosexual in a time when gays and lesbians were widely considered "deviant" or even criminal, Capote enjoyed an intimate, non-exclusive relationship with author Jack Dunphy from their first meeting in 1948 to Capote's death from liver failure in California on August 24, 1984. Today, Capote's life and works continue to capture public interest, with film versions of Other Voices, Other Rooms, In Cold Blood, and The Grass Harp released after his death. In 2005, the biographical film Capote, which dramatized the author's often difficult process of researching In Cold Blood, was nominated for numerous awards, and secured a Best Actor Academy Award for actor Phillip Seymour Hoffman's nuanced portrayal of the writer's struggle to maintain professional integrity in the face of his growing affection for the subjects of his work.

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