In the mid-'60s I saw Capote for the first time. My wife and I, recently returned from Paris, were heading for a drink at a New York spot, the Blue Note or the Little Club or something, when a limo whispered to a stop and Gloria Vanderbilt, looking very nifty indeed, got out and waited. We paused to see just who might be with her. It was Truman, also in evening clothes. Emerging from the back of the car he did a sort of grand jete across the sidewalk, leaped into the air, caught hold of the vertical support pole for the club's canopy, and twirled around, gradually descending to the pavement, where he froze in an elegant heap, much like a ballerina in "Swan Lake."
After which, he rose, dusted himself off, and he and Gloria, totally unfazed, went into the club. It was the best entrance either of us had seen since Dali launched himself, his waxed mustache, and his walking stick into the small bar on the rue Cambon side of the Ritz in Paris a few years before.
In the years until his death I enjoyed, as so many did, the man's luminous writing (most of it!), and actually got to know him. When I saw that Plimpton's book was out I asked Frank LaRuffa, the contractor, what he remembered of Capote. Frank had owned a restaurant and bar called St. John's at the corner of East 49th Street, right across from Truman's apartment in the U.N. Plaza.
"He'd come in every afternoon about 3 and start drinking screwdrivers. Then, if I was there, he'd say, `Come on, Frank, we'll go get a haircut.'*Then he'd ask me to go back to his apartment with him."
Mr. LaRuffa said he occasionally went for the haircut but never for the apartment. "Then I met him at one of your book parties in 58th Street. He was in his beret and his sunglasses and a Korean or Chinese jacket and I said, `Hello, Truman.' And he said, `I don't know you.'*"
When the Greek hairdressers, Tino and George, were losing their lease, Truman went door to door in the neighborhood asking other shopkeepers if they knew of available space. Tino was by now shaving Capote every morning because his hand shook too badly to shave himself. Then Truman would ask George, "He's the juicy one," he explained, to help him back to his apartment.
I interviewed him a number of times for WCBS-TV News and for print, including one memorable morning in his apartment when he was grounded by a blizzard and hired a Philadelphia taxi to drive him back to Manhattan for our appointment. It was during one of these interviews that he claimed Sunny von Bulow knew very well how to use a hypodermic needle on herself and taught him how to do it as well. It was that taped interview which was then called for by lawyers in the Claus von Bulow trial who believed it said something, I don't know quite what, about the guilt or non-guilt of Claus.
Then there were Capote's stories, rather wicked, about Jackie Onassis and her sister Lee. And his recollections of youth. "I was very small and traveling by train with my mother," he told me once, "and impatient and feeling burdened by me, she opened the window and threw me from the train. After that, I was raised by maiden aunts." Having read James Thurber's great book about the early New Yorker, "The Years With Ross," I once asked Capote if it were true one of his duties as art department assistant included going across to the Algonquin to fetch back drunken writers.
"Yes, it surely was," he said in that insinuating whine, "and I can tell you one of those drunken writers was Mr. James Thurber .*.*."
I guess the last time I saw Capote we lunched at la Petite Marmite in Beekman Place. Capote was drunk and unkempt and kept his hat on during the meal and called persistently to and waved at U.N. Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick who pointedly ignored him. "Do you have fresh strawberries?" Capote then asked the captain, explaining, "they grow them on the roof." This was midwinter and very few strawberries were being grown on Manhattan roofs. But the Frenchman, accustomed to whimsy, went along with the gag and, somehow, found some decent berries for good client Capote.
When lunch ended, he couldn't walk, and I helped him across the street to his building where the doorman took over. Gently, capably, he took Truman's arm and steered him inside.
It was so competently done, I realized the doorman had done it before. Which is surely the saddest part.