Driving Truman Capote
Author: Theron Montgomery
Publisher: Boat Shop Press
Price: $11.00 (Paper)
When we want to know the life story of one our favorite authors, we usually go to the full-length biography. In the case of Truman Capote, that would be Gerald Clark or the composite biography that George Plimpton assembled by interviewing about 170 people who knew Capote in Monroeville, New York City, Hollywood or elsewhere and creating a kind of biographical montage of their impressions and recollections.
Bits from "Driving Truman Capote" might well have been one of the entries in Plimpton's book.
Theron Montgomery, now a professor of contemporary literature and creative writing at Troy University, was, in March of 1975, a senior at Birmingham-Southern College, an English major with ambitions to become a writer.
One afternoon he received an unexpected phone call from his father—the Vice-President for Academic Affairs at Jacksonville State.
Truman Capote would be speaking at Jacksonville, the next day, with a reception to follow at Montgomery's home.
He drove to Jacksonville the next morning, heard Capote read and attended the buffet supper party his mother had arranged.
Already a strong Capote fan, Montgomery realized this was an unusual opportunity and that night he made extensive notes on the events of the day—the reading, the gathering at his family’s house, and, later, on the events of next day when he agreed to drive Mr. Capote and his companion, Jack Dunphy, to the Birmingham airport.
Some 30 years later, Montgomery found those notes and wrote up the experience, the result being this little book, a fresh, rather innocent and honest account of those 24 hours, personal, scene by scene, in a way a full-length biography cannot be.
Capote on stage, the veteran showman, read the Alabama story, "A Christmas Memory” in "a slow tone, like a soft and sullen child." Upon finishing the story, Capote wept a little, as he did every time, then answered questions in his own wry way.
Asked how his friend Harper Lee was doing Capote replied, “I do not care to discuss my friends in public.” He should have stuck by that plan more than he did.
Who was the greatest living writer today brought a pause, then Capote offered some possibilities: William Styron, Bernard Malamud, Norman Mailer? He then asked the student questioner who HE thought the greatest living writer was. The student answered “you.”
“That’s acceptable,” Capote responded quietly.
At the reception Montgomery noticed Capote and Dunphy were both painfully hung over from the previous night and in dry Jacksonville, no one had been willing to give them a drink all day.
His mother, an understanding and truly gracious hostess, demonstrated her Southern hospitality by getting her guests some vodka from a neighbor.
That helped a little.
Montgomery noticed, to his surprise, that the dinner was sparsely attended, the President of JSU and several others left early and no official photographs were taken, and he was puzzled. Thinking about it 30 years later he realized although Capote was to him a famous and respected author, to others he was a homosexual, travelling with his lover.
It made the locals "uneasy and nervous" as if gayness were a contagion.
It seems clear that Capote and Dunphy were as uneasy as the Jacksonvilleans. And fully alert to what others thought of them. In the morning when he went to get them for the ride to the airport he overheard “voices rising from inside the room, loud and boisterous, now and then squealing with laughter.” Jack and Truman were imitating and making fun of the President of Jacksonville State.
Later, in the car, Truman and Theron talked about why some people have the powerful urge to write and Capote agreed to read and comment on a short story by Montgomery, in which a young boy shoots a horse. Capote sort of praised it and wept a little.
“Driving Truman Capote” is a small tale, a moment, but authentic and worth reading.
Don Noble is host of the Alabama Public Television literary interview show “Bookmark with Don Noble.” His most recent book is Belles’ Letters 2, a collection of short fiction by Alabama women.