The Monster from Manhattan

Truman Capote in his Brooklyn Heights apartment in 1958.Photo: Slim Aarons/Getty Images

What did they expect?” moaned Truman Capote after the publication in Esquire of “La Côte Basque 1965,” thinly fictionalized gossip about his socialite friends; the literary stink bomb had exploded in his face, effectively ending his career. “I’m a writer.”

Capote, the new movie about the four years he spent digging deep into the murders of the Clutter family for his “nonfiction novel” In Cold Blood, and based on Gerald Clarke’s excellent biography, is being shrewdly marketed to the tribe for whom it forms a troubling sort of creation myth, with glitzy standing-room-only screenings attended by half the journalists in the city.

This should come as no surprise: The movie is a meditation on the journalist as charming predator. It’s a morality play, a kind of companion piece to Janet Malcolm’s The Journalist and the Murderer (a title that could have served for this film, too). Malcolm observed that even the most benign interview is by definition predatory, an act of seduction—“morally indefensible,” to quote her cutting first line. Journalists, in other words, dress the complicated ethics of our profession in all manner of fancy garments—objectivity, sanctimony, prizes great and small—but what’s concealed is not always noble. Where does empathy end and careerism begin? It’s a question that applies to the Ivy alumnus on a plane to New Orleans in search of a Pulitzer as well as to the Fleet Street hack lurking in Brad Pitt’s bushes.

Capote in Kansas was an advertisement for everything the red states hate about New York City—gay, soft, sissified, too clever by half. In a note-perfect performance by Philip Seymour Hoffman, he’s a jackal in a bow tie, giggling in falsetto. To the good people of Holcomb, Kansas, his values seemed even more outré. “Frankly,” Capote says to the cop who’s investigating the crime, in a crucial early scene, “I don’t care if you catch whoever did this.” To the police and the good people of rural Kansas, it’s a freakish moral sentiment, to go along with Capote’s freakish appearance, his effete overcoat and scarf (“Bergdorf’s,” he proudly tells a lantern-jawed Kansas lawman).

But Capote’s real stiletto was not urbane detachment but empathy. Capote’s metaphor is that he and Perry Smith, one of the murderers, grew up in the same house, but one left through the front door and the other went out the back. Like Capote, Smith was short, with a brutal childhood and a grandiose self-image. Like Capote, he was even a literary type, a compulsive diarist who made lists of words he thought beautiful or useful. “What a man I could have become,” he wrote. A prison friend observed that Smith couldn’t stand other people’s happiness.

The movie on one level is an extreme case study of the neurotic interchange between journalist and subject. To unlock Smith’s secrets—specifically, what happened on the night of the murders—Capote tries every key. If a deep personal revelation would work, he’d supply one; if a lie was needed, he’d do that, too. His vast identification with Smith is always in the service of his ambition. And because he had chosen a poor, rural mass murderer (as opposed to, say, the society friends whose secrets he betrayed in Answered Prayers), he faced few repercussions—only praise for his mastery.

But for a media-savvy audience, the key to the movie may lie not in its condemnation of Capote, but in the nugget of irresistible wish fulfillment just beneath the surface. In our age of newspaper scandal, here is the story of a writer freed to invent his own code. Capote didn’t use a tape recorder and didn’t even take notes, believing that these inhibited his subjects from speaking freely. Instead, he relied on his memory (“I have 94 percent recall,” he liked to brag)—a tactic that nowadays would result in a cacophony of libel suits. (According to Clarke’s biography, The New Yorker’s fact-checkers found Capote among the most reliable of its writers.)

Everywhere the movie contrasts the moral seriousness of this Kansas tragedy with the frivolousness of Manhattan denizens in search of strong sensation, sympathizing to their faces, poking fun behind their backs. Avedon flies in to take the murderers’ photographs, as if they’re fashion models. Capote bartered his fame for access, bribed prison wardens, and even found a lawyer to keep his subjects alive long enough to spill the beans. It’s as if Manhattan is a colonial power, living high on raw material—human tragedy—mined in the hinterlands.

As the murderers exhaust their appeals on their way to the Big Swing, as Hickock liked to call the gallows, the fate Capote bemoans is not Perry Smith’s but his own. His story needs an ending. “They’re torturing me,” he says tearfully. Capote, pace Malcolm’s famous first line, was far from stupid, but he was full of himself, and he never imagined his work to be morally indefensible. It’s a truism that narcissism and empathy are opposites. But in the journalistic tradition Capote forged, they are more like brothers, walking out the front door and the back door at one and the same time.

The Monster from Manhattan