Truman Capote

Answered Prayers: the mysterious manuscript that devastated Truman Capote

It was meant to be his magnum opus. But extracts from Capote's book, depicting the lives of his glamorous friends, saw him banished from social circles and his professional reputation in tatters. As documentary The Capote Tapes is released, here's the story behind one of the most infamous unfinished novels of all time.

“The novel is called, Answered Prayers; and, if all goes well, I think it will answer mine,” Truman Capote wrote in a letter to Random House, his publisher. In was summer of 1958, and the author was in Greece, where he promised he was working on “a large novel, my magnum opus”.  

Almost exactly 26 years later, Capote died in a spare bedroom belonging to one of his few remaining friends, Joanne Carson. She found him minutes before he took his final breath, murmuring “Answered Prayers”. The book –⁠ which had, by this time, acquired a $1 million advance and three deadline extensions –⁠ was not published, and never would be in a completed form. The manuscript remains one of literature’s greatest mysteries – and is at the heart of a new documentary, The Capote Tapes, about the writer.

What chapters of Capote did publish of Answered Prayers became his downfall, extraditing him from the social group that had become his family, and caterpaulting him into a self-destructive period of drink and drugs that led to his untimely death at just 59. 

To set the scene, it pays to go back.

'He was dear friends with Marilyn Monroe, with Jackie Kennedy. He could have them to be his muse, and yet he picked these six women'

Over the course of the 1960s, Truman Capote’s life changed dramatically. In November, 1959, he read of the murder of the Clutter family in Kansas in the newspaper. Within three days, the author – who had shot to fame in 1948, at the age of 23, with his debut novel Other Voices, Other Rooms –⁠ was on the Clutters’ farm. His subsequent investigation of their deaths, and befriending of their murderers, led to In Cold Blood, his 1965 self-proclaimed “non-fiction novel” that became the best-selling book of the decade. It made Capote a millionaire, and, some say, it instilled in him a darkness that paved the way for his demise. In 1968 the author gave an extensive interview to Playboy magazine, in which he spoke about the Clutter case, his friendship with those responsible and the impact of watching their execution had on him. “Part of me is always standing in a darkened hallway, mocking tragedy and death,” he said. “That’s why I love champagne and stay at the Ritz.”

Newly rich and even more famous than before, Capote found himself the friend and plaything of a circle of American elite; the many-married wives of industry powerhouses and aristocrats, socialites whom he named his “Swans”. He threw them extravagant parties, joined them for their twice-weekly lunch meetings, rattled out stories about his celebrity encounters and smothered them with the kind of love that can make a woman shine.

“Capote was the only writer of his generation that had a toe in each camp,” says Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott, whose 2018 novel Swan Song is based on the author’s social group. “He knew the socialites, he knew the politicians, he knew the artists, he was dear friends with Marilyn Monroe, with Jackie Kennedy. He could have picked any of them to be his muse, and yet he picked these six women, who he felt had the most compelling narrative arcs.” Greenberg-Jephcott describes these women - Slim Keith, Lee Radziwill, C. Z. Guest, Gloria Guinness, Marella Agnelli and, his favourite, Babe Paley – as “the perfect novelistic subject, the mid-century Anna Kareninas and Madame Bovaries”. 

Over the course of 11,000 words, Capote systematically spilled the secrets his swans had trusted him with, from their husband’s infidelity to their husband’s murder

“He needed to keep the momentum going,” says Greenberg-Jephcott. Capote was no stranger to getting two bites from his cherries: before it was published as a book, Breakfast at Tiffany’s had appeared in instalments in Esquire (after a skirmish over the text at Harper’s Bazaar) and In Cold Blood appeared in The New Yorker before it emerged as a book. “He gave them little breadcrumbs to keep them interested.” 

And so Capote followed the same strategy with Answered Prayers: in June 1975, ‘Mojave’ appeared in Esquire. A ribald tale of sexual infidelity, violence and betrayal, it was intended to be the first chapter of Answered Prayers, until Capote decided against it. Still, despite it being what Greenberg-Jephcott describes as “a pretty transparent portrait of Babe Paley and her husband Bill”, ‘Mojave’’s publication did little to upset Capote’s inner circle. “In fact they said, ‘Truman, it’s so beautiful, you're really on form’”, says Greenberg-Jephcott.

Encouraged, Capote submitted another chapter for Esquire’s November issue. Called ‘La Cote Basque, 1965’, the story offered a meticulous description of the luxurious lunches that fuelled his society sextet. Over the course of 11,000 words, Capote systematically spilled the secrets his Swans had trusted him with, from their husband’s infidelity to their husband’s murder, from pill-popping and debt to the men they didn’t marry – or forgot they had. Along the way, he paints his characters – thinly veiled depictions of real women –⁠ with descriptions such as “divine photographed from the bazooms up. But the legs are strictly redwood forest”.

“The minute he published that second extract in Esquire, it was like detonating a bomb” Greenberg-Jephcott says. “Everyone turned on him, he was a persona non grata.”

As Vanity Fair later reported, “ostracising Truman became the thing to do”. While some of the goings-on depicted in ‘La Cote Basque, 1965’ had been common knowledge within the social group, and even fodder for the local gossip columnists, the fact that Capote had betrayed the trust of nearly all of his nearest friends in such a prominent –⁠ and scathing –⁠ way for his own benefit was unforgivable. As The Village Voice reported at the time: “It is Capote who turns La Cote Basque into an abat­toir of hatefulness”.

Over the years, various theories have been given as to why Capote wrote it, ranging from malaise at being the plaything of the rich and famous, to a testing of the women’s affection, to an innocent belief that he wasn’t doing anything wrong. After all, Greenberg-Jephcott points out, Capote’s entire career rested on telling other people’s stories, starting with Old Mr Busybody, a prizewinning roman a clef written about his neighbour when he was 10. “He had been given nothing but affirmation for doing it, so how was this different?” the Swan Song author says. “But there’s also a reason why it took him so long to tackle this, and a reason why he missed all those deadlines for two decades.” 

'What did they expect? I’m a writer, and I use everything. Did all those people think I was there just to entertain them?'

Publicly, Capote maintained art as his defence, often asking “What did they expect? I’m a writer, and I use everything. Did all those people think I was there just to entertain them?” (It should be noted that only one of the Swans, CZ Guest, thought of this beforehand, advising her friends to tell their darkest secrets to their psychologist, rather than the writer). 

But behind that facade, Capote was crumbling. Babe Paley, his best friend, never spoke to him again. When she died three years later, from lung cancer, Capote wasn’t invited to the funeral. The rest of the circle cut him out. “He was devastated” Greenberg-Jephcott says. Reports from the time say he spent his days indoors in his Manhattan penthouse, curtains shut to the world, sobbing on his bed and repeating the words, “I didn’t mean to, I thought they’d come back.”

Cut off from the ladies who lunched, Capote turned instead to the nocturnal largesse of Studio 54, sidling into disco, Andy Warhol’s factory and copious amounts of cocaine, pills and alcohol. CZ Guest was among the scant few socialites who cared enough to escort him to rehab, but Capote continued to drink. One more chapter of Answered Prayers, 'Unspoiled Monsters', was published in Esquire, in May 1976. But soon Capote was the subject of headlines, rather than writing them himself: an embittered libel lawsuit with Gore Vidal and inebriated talk show appearances pockmarked his final years.

After Capote’s death, it didn’t take long for the hunt for the missing manuscript to begin. An incomplete version of it, Answered Prayers: The Unfinished Novel, was published in 1986, comprising the three chapters that had been published during Capote’s life. But history attests there was more: Joanne Carson, who was with Capote when he died, said she’d read the three remaining chapters in the early Eighties. What’s more, Capote had given her a key to an undisclosed safe deposit box on the morning before his death, saying, the chapters “will be found when they want to be found”.

It doesn’t help matters that Capote was prone to tossing manuscripts aside: after he died, his housekeeper rescued one for an early novel, Summer Crossing, from his bin. It was published in 2006. Capote was a perfectionist, often re-writing 30 pages to change a handful of words. Writer’s block often prevented him from touching the typewriter for months. Answered Prayers may well have existed, reasons Greenberg-Jephcott, but not to Capote’s exacting expectations: “My theory is he did write it and it didn’t meet his standards, so he destroyed it” she tells me. “When you’ve worked 20 years on a book, you’ve lost your entire social circle, who are essentially your family, over it? Those aren’t standards that are easily met. It would have to have been The Holy Grail of novels to have been worth what he lost.”

And with Capote’s loss goes that of modern literature. Greenberg-Jephcott believes that if he hadn’t published 'La Cote Basque, 1965', if he’d allowed his work to simmer and richen, Capote would have produced such a brilliant novel that his friends would have been immortalised, as he intended, rather than offended. “I do think that if it had been completed and it then been found, we’d be dealing with the great social novel of the second half of the 20th century,” she says. “It’s impossible to know how all the pieces that we have left would have been connected.”

Illustration: Mica Murphy / Penguin.

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