Cover story

On Truman Capote and Richard Avedon

Laura Stickney, Editorial Director at Penguin Press, sheds light on the lifelong collaboration of two American icons ahead of a new Penguin Modern Classics design for Truman Capote

This month in Penguin Modern Classics we're introducing a new cover look for one of the most significant American writers of the 20th century. Born in New Orleans in 1925, Truman Capote later moved to New York City and was catapulted to fame at age 24 when he published the novel Other Voices, Other Rooms. He wrote fiction and non-fiction – short stories, novellas, essays, reportage and plays – and is the author of some of postwar America’s most celebrated books, including Breakfast at Tiffany’s and In Cold Blood.

A glamorous figure, Capote was a popular subject for photographers, but maintained a lifelong relationship with only one - Richard Avedon. The iconic American photographer shot him first in 1955, when Capote was 31 years old, and for the last time in 1974. In 1959, they collaborated on Observations, a collection of Avedon’s portraits of luminaries such as Marilyn Monroe, Pablo Picasso and Robert Oppenheimer, alongside Capote’s witty commentary.

Yet perhaps Capote and Avedon’s most intriguing collaboration involved In Cold Blood, Capote's ground-breaking account of the brutal murder of the Clutter family in 1950s Kansas. The book was met with controversy on publication, but is now considered a seminal work of modern prose. When Capote was researching the book in Garden City, Kansas in April 1960, Avedon came to visit his friend. Working with a handheld Rolleiflex camera in a studio, Avedon took startling mug shot-like portraits of Perry Smith and Dick Hickock, who were then awaiting trial for the murders. Two of these striking photographs appear on the cover of our new edition of In Cold Blood.

Penguin Modern Classics cover of In Cold Blood featuring Avedon's portraits of Perry Smith and Dick Hickock, awaiting trial for murder in 1960

Nine of Capote’s works are published in Penguin Modern Classics, including, most recently, a newly discovered collection, The Early Stories, and all the new editions feature Richard Avedon photographs.

Samantha Johnson, Picture Editor for Penguin Classics, explains her choice:

‘When I began thinking about what imagery to use on the Capote covers, I started reading about his life and the many artists and photographers he was friends with over the years. The name that remained throughout was Avedon. The intensity of the experience of working on In Cold Blood together helped them form a lasting friendship. I contacted the Avedon Foundation and they were very interested in the project, so the process of selecting images for each book began.

The frame we used of Capote himself for A Capote Reader had never been printed by Avedon himself, so we printed it as he had marked it up for the darkroom from the contact sheet. The Foundation had one stipulation when it came to the image we used on The Complete Stories of a young woman holding a diamond necklace – on no account should this be used on Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Why? 'Because the diamond is a Cartier, of course!’

Work in progress: proofs of Truman Capote's new covers featuring the photography of Richard Avedon

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