Sunday 10 April 2011

Capote’s Taylor

Truman Capote was a writer of unique genius, one who could cover so many genres, fiction and non-fiction, the creator of some brilliant literary cameos. I’ve loved his work ever since I read Breakfast at Tiffany’s, which introduced me to Holly Golightly, a free spirit, the one figure in literature that I identify more with than any other, the delightful, effervescent, wonderful Holly, always travelling and never arriving.

A few years ago I saw Capote, an excellent biopic of the author, played with commendable skill by Philip Seymour Hoffman. It follows in Capote’s steps as he, with the aid of Nell Harper Lee, his childhood friend and fellow writer, researches the 1959 murder of the Clutter family in Holcomb, Kansas, a quest that would end in the publication of In Cold Blood, in so many ways the definitive non-fiction novel, disturbing and horribly compelling at one and the same time.

The recent death of the veteran actress Elizabeth Taylor brought to mind another aspect of Capote’s work – the detailed and memorable little pen-portraits he painted of some of the celebrities he knew, not the kind of superficial tittle-tattle one usually associates with this kind of thing, but revealing, affectionate and intimate. There are several in my A Capote Reader, an anthology which covers various aspects of his work, short stories, novellas, reportage and travel writing as well as his portraits.

My favourite of his pen sketches by far is A Beautiful Child, an account of the day he spent with Marilyn Monroe, but Elizabeth Taylor, published in 1974, is almost as good, not just for the sympathetic way he depicts her but for the obvious empathy between the writer and the actress, which, in so few words, enables him to get well below the surface.

My rereading was well-rewarded. He describes how he once visited her in hospital, where she was recovering from a bout of life-threatening illness. In response to a question of his she replies that she wasn’t afraid, that she was too busy fighting, that she was not ready, as she put it, to “go over that horizon”, not being the type. She clearly had a ‘type’ in mind, as Capote immediately deduced;

“Perhaps not; not like Marilyn Monroe and Judy Garland, both of whom had yearned to go over the horizon, some darker rainbow, and before succeeding, had attempted that voyage innumerable times. And yet there was some kind of common thread between these three, Taylor, Monroe, Garland – I knew the last two fairly well and yes, there was something. An emotional extremism, a dangerously greater need to be loved than to love, a hotheaded willingness of an incompetent gambler to throw good money after bad.”

When it came to life and relationships Taylor was certainly a gambler, evidenced by her turbulent relationship with Richard Burton, another movie veteran, a relationship itself with enough drama for a movie; a relationship that, in some ways, did make a movie in the screen version of Edward Albee’s play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, where they played opposite one another in the lead rolls. They were the most celebrated off-screen lovers, as Capote says, since Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson.

The essay concludes several years after this hospital visit. Taylor is in New York with Burton, where he is appearing in a play. After one performance Capote joins them in their hotel suite, where he shares in a late-evening buffet. When Burton leaves the room to fetch some more champagne Taylor describes their relationship:

Oh, we quarrel. But at least he’s worth quarrelling with. He’s really brilliant. He’s read everything and I can talk to him – there’s nothing I can’t talk to him about…But the most important thing is what happens between a man and a woman who love each other. Or any two people who can love each other.

Capote writes, as Taylor draws the curtains against the rain, she looked at him sightlessly, like Galatea surveying some ultimate horizon. “What do you suppose will become of us?,” she asked, but the answer came already supplied – “I guess, when you find what you’ve always wanted, that’s not where the beginning begins, that’s when the end starts.”

I felt sad the first time I read this, even sadder the second. I hope not to find what I’ve always wanted for some time yet, though I can’t help but envy the actress. I think also of the brilliance of past celebrity, the brilliance of Taylor and Burton, both now over that ultimate horizon, compared with the mediocrity of the present.


  1. Have you seen many of Taylor's films? She was never an actress, but always a star. National Velvet, Butterfield 8, Cleopatra, Who's Afraid of Virginia Wolfe? - I would be very interested to know what you think of her different roles.

    It seems to me that the most intense actors are born broken, incomplete, and that the character they play makes them whole for a brief time and the wonder of it shines through in their performance as they feel themselves complete . . . afterwards the vitality ebbs away and they are empty and needy again until the next performance. Burton and Taylor seemed to complete one another while they were together, but Burton's drinking was the 'other' that made their relationship so difficult.

    Her best aspect, I think, was her brave and generous loyalty standing up for her gay friends and troubled friends when the rest of showbiz wanted to run frightened from AIDS and other terrors. For younger people it is difficult to imagine how hard it was for an actor like Rock Hudson who had always portrayed the most masculine heroes to expose his secret gay life when he was stricken and at his most vulnerable. Elizabeth Taylor and Doris Day were the first to stand up and say he would always be their friend and that they loved him. It made all the difference. RIP Elizabeth; you were a star.

  2. Britains got talent and they eventually make it to America.

  3. What a lovely article, Ana, and what a beautiful writer you are. Such a delight to read. Burton was a great actor, probably one of the best of the latter part of the last century. Have you seen the film adaptation of "The Night Of The Iguana?" Maybe not to everybody's taste, but a great favorite of mine.

  4. Nicely summarized, succinctly written.

    Good Morning Ana. And thanks for the compliments on my blog. Yes I too write a bit. Capote is one of my favorites too.

  5. Calvin, that's beautiful. Thanks you so much.

    I haven't seen too may, and none on the big screen. What I have seen has been on TV or in DVDs given away as freebies in newspapers, most recently A Place in the Sun, which I enjoyed. Yes, I've seen Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, and I thought she and Burton sparkled, as they did in Cleopatra. But it's National Velvet I loved her for the most. I've been crazy about horses and riding for as long as I can remember, so this movie spoke, and spoke loud to a dewy-eyed seven year old. :-)

  6. NP, thanks ever so; you are very kind. :-)

    Yes I have seen it and I loved it. Burton acts with such overwhelming passion. The scene of the beginning where he has his blow-out in the pulpit was quite something!

  7. Ankush, good morning and thank you too. :-)

  8. Long time no see, Ana.
    Something happened that kept me away but I have been back on the world of blog for a while.Somehow did not come to your page until now.
    This is a delightful piece here. Thanks.
    Hope you are very well.

  9. I am, Shermeen. It's wonderful to see you. :-)