Truman Capote’s Lost Novel Would Have Aired All His Dirtiest Laundry
The surviving chapters of ‘Answered Prayers’ feature real people and real gossip—but what happened to the rest?
If you enjoy reading Electric Literature, join our mailing list! We’ll send you the best of EL each week, and you’ll be the first to know about upcoming submissions periods and virtual events.
Each month “Unfinished Business” will examine an unfinished work left behind by one of our greatest authors. What might have been genius, and what might have been better left locked in the drawer? How and why do we read these final words from our favorite writers — and what would they have to say about it? We’ll piece together the rumors and fragments and notes to find the real story.
The only complete copy of Truman Capote’s final novel, Answered Prayers, may be sitting in a locker at the Los Angeles Greyhound Bus Depot.
Or at least that’s what he would have us believe.
By all accounts Capote began writing his last novel decades before his death from liver disease in 1984, long before In Cold Blood, maybe even before Breakfast at Tiffany’s. And yet to this day no one knows for certain if it was ever completed, or if Capote simply loved to talk about completing it. For more than thirty years, Truman Capote described the book to anyone who would listen as a Proustian novel, based on real stories straight out of New York’s 1950s café society. “It is the only true thing I know,” he said, “I was born to write the book… it means everything.”
According to biographer Gerald Clarke, Capote envisioned the novel as a “large, sprawling story that spanned thirty years, moved between two continents, and included a vast and influential company of players.” The title is taken from Saint Teresa of Ávila: “More tears are shed over answered prayers than unanswered ones.”
Truman Capote described the book to anyone who would listen as a Proustian novel, based on real stories straight out of New York’s 1950s café society.
All we have of it today are three chapters, and a fourth, “Mojave,” which he later cut out.
The first chapter, “Unspoiled Monsters,” is almost a novella by itself, introducing the narrator, P.B. Jones, a bisexual hustler living in a room at the YMCA and trying to write a novel called Answered Prayers. He is “an opportunist, a heel, a rat,” according to Clarke — clearly a stand-in for Truman. “P.B. isn’t me, but on the other hand he isn’t not me,” Capote said. “I’m not P.B., but I know him very well.”
Jones recounts his life story, from the time of his orphaning in a St. Louis movie theater, to being raised by nuns and becoming “a kind of Hershey Bar whore” before eventually landing in New York City’s literary world. It is here that he gets to peer inside of high society and assumes the companionship of the novel’s heroine, Kate McCloud, for whom the second chapter is named.
Kate McCloud is like Holly Golightly on steroids. Glamorous and cultured, PB calls her his “very own Death in Venice: inevitable, perilous as the asp at Cleopatra’s breast.” Supposedly she was modeled on as many as a half a dozen different society women Capote knew well from that world.
Indeed, most of the other characters in the three extant chapters are drawn more directly from famous and powerful people of the time. Hotel magnates. Wives and ex-wives of steel tycoons. Celebrities and countesses. George Davis of Harper’s Bazaar and Katherine Ann Porter. And in his darkly funny stories, Capote hung out all the dirtiest laundry that he had been noting in decades of running in their circles.
Most of the characters in the three extant chapters are drawn from famous and powerful people of the time. In his darkly funny stories, Capote hung out all the dirtiest laundry that he had been noting in decades of running in their circles.
Indeed, he relished this tell-all quality. When “Unspoiled Monsters” was published in Esquire Magazine in 1976, Capote posed for the cover as an assassin, holding a stiletto. Women’s Wear Daily dubbed him “The Tiny Terror.” Capote allegedly teased friends that if they were not careful he would put them in the book. He described the book in People magazine as being like a gun: “There’s the handle, the trigger, the barrel, and, finally, the bullet. And when that bullet is fired from the gun, it’s going to come out with a speed and power like you’ve never seen — wham!”
The most damaging of all was the third chapter, “La Côte Basque, 1965,” named for a real restaurant on East 55th street in Manhattan where high society often dined. In this story, P.B. lunches with an old friend named Lady Coolbirth, who spends the meal gazing around the celebrity-packed room, scathingly dressing everyone down. Some of the guests, like Gloria Vanderbilt and Princess Margaret, both real acquaintances of Truman’s, are included with their names unchanged.
Others are thinly-disguised, and involved in highly libelous stories. One, Ann Hopkins, a wealthy woman, is known to have shot her own husband in the face with a shotgun and gotten away with it by claiming she thought he was a burglar — just coming out of the shower. This is, almost exactly, the true-life story of socialite Ann Woodward, who remained part of the in-crowd even after her husband’s suspicious death.
In another such story, Lady Coolbirth spots a powerful political figure and relays a tale of a steamy one-night stand the man once had with the wife of a former Governor, who failed to mention that she was having her period. The next morning, the man finds his sheets covered in bloodstains “the size of Brazil” and ends up desperately scrubbing them in the tub with a bar of soap before his wife gets home. People in the know — Truman’s friends — recognized instantly that this was based on a rumor about the real-life former New York Governor, W. Averell Harriman.
Tennessee Williams, who appears in “Unspoiled Monsters” as Mr. Wallace, one of P.B.’s johns, captured the fury provoked in the people who had trusted Truman with their biggest secrets. “This thing Capote has written is shockingly repugnant and thoroughly libelous. Capote’s a monster of the first-order, a cold-blooded murderer at heart. He’s a liar and everybody knows he is.”
The backlash against Capote was swift and cruel. He was threatened and snubbed constantly by people he thought were his dearest friends. Even as copies of Esquire flew off the stands, Truman was banned from the high society events where he’d long been a fixture.
Many have questioned why Capote published the excerpts, instead of keeping it all secret until the whole novel was finished. He likely did not need the money. Certainly, he may have been proud of them; Clarke argues that these chapters are his “most mature piece of fiction” and “contain some of the best writing he ever produced.” Still, Capote could have guessed that some, if not most, of his friends would despise him for what he was writing.
Tennessee Williams wrote, “This thing Capote has written is shockingly repugnant and thoroughly libelous.”
William Todd Schultz, in his book Tiny Terror: Why Truman Capote (Almost) Wrote Answered Prayers, views the whole affair as something akin to a suicide attempt. He argues that Capote never expected, and did not know how to handle, the immense success that followed In Cold Blood, and that Answered Prayers was, on some level, his way of stopping the ride. Releasing it before it was finished may have been an act of desperation, not of over-confidence.
The standard thinking is that after the fury that followed the Esquire chapters in 1976, Truman Capote never wrote any more of Answered Prayers, falling into a deep despair, abusing alcohol and drugs until his death eight years later. This is what Jack Dunphy, Capote’s long-time companion, believed—that while Capote pretended publicly to be working hard on the book in the intervening years, he was never able to progress in his work on it.
In an enormous oral biography of Capote assembled by George Plimpton, many of those around Capote speculated about what happened to Answered Prayers. Norman Mailer, one of Capote’s greatest literary enemies, recognized the bind that Truman was in. New York society, in Mailer’s mind, had “swallowed his talent.” Answered Prayers stemmed from a desire to exact revenge on the beautiful people who had seduced and distracted him from his work. He imagined that Capote, a “little Napoleon” believed that writing those chapters would increase his power among the jet-set, but “he didn’t understand the true social force of New York — that even he could be eighty-sixed. …He did not have the stuff left to say ‘A plague on your house’ and write the book he could write. The book … probably died in him ten years earlier.”
It also may have been a bridge too far. Another enemy, Gore Vidal, scoffed at the idea that Capote could ever have succeeded in his ambitions to be America’s Proust, who was more than just a gossip. “But [Capote] had never read Proust. I quizzed him once, sharply, on the subject. He was incapable of reading Proust: he didn’t have that kind of concentration, and, of course, he had no French or interest in history.”
Capote’s editor at Random House, Joseph Fox, wrote in a note on the published version of Answered Prayers that he believes that there is another possibility: that Capote did write as many as four more chapters, including “A Severe Insult to the Brain,” and “Yachts and Things”, “Father Flanagan’s All-Night N****r-Queen Kosher Café,” and “Audrey Wilder Sang,” but that they did not live up to his hopes for them, and he then deliberately destroyed them during the final years of his life, when he was “almost incoherent because of drugs or alcohol or both.”
This would explain one mystery, which is that so many of Capote’s friends later recounted times when he shared some of the missing chapters with them. Joe Petrocik recalled an evening in Sag Harbor when Capote got up in front of them and read sections from “A Severe Insult to the Brain” (the phrase, incidentally, is supposedly listed as the official cause of death on Dylan Thomas’s certificate — Capote used it often to refer to the city of Los Angeles). But Petrocik admitted he was “never sure whether or not he was just telling me the story. He had pages in front of him which he was apparently reading. He would look up. He was quite the actor … I never did actually see the words on paper.”
Author John Knowles claimed that he did see physical pages from the rest of Answered Prayers, but that years later Capote told him in Southampton that he’d come to believe none of it was any good. “I don’t know,” Knowles said, “I think he burned hundreds and hundreds of pages.”
But director Frank Perry told another story. “I asked him how everything was going and he said, ‘It’s wonderful. … Look at that, finished pages, two and a half inches. It’s wonderful.’ Later on, being a cynic, I drifted over to riffle through the manuscript. It turned out to be a Missouri bankroll, which is to say, the top three pages had typewriting on them and the rest were blank.”
Alan Schwartz, Capote’s literary executor, claims to have been “absolutely astounded” to find no trace of the missing chapters after Capote’s death. He recalled that Capote had tried many times to get Random House to fork over more of his advance, claiming that the novel was basically done.
Clay Felker, the founder of New York Magazine, remembered that he offered Capote $35,000 for the next excerpt from the book. Capote spent an entire morning at his house recounting one chapter in lurid detail. He said he’d give it to him that weekend, but Capote later backed out. He met Felker again and began to describe a whole different part of the book, a suicide that Kate McCloud witnesses. “I just have to tighten a few screws,” he said. Felker claims he would have paid even $100,000 for the chapter. But Capote never delivered it.
Of course, Capote was known to exaggerate and to lie. He was also, reportedly, often disastrous during these years. John Knowles recounted how Capote once lost $4,000 worth of cocaine in his front yard, and later got so inebriated that he fell out of bed fifteen times in one night. Knowles witnessed Truman having hallucinations and drug-related seizures. Once he walked into traffic and nearly was run over by a bus. “I think he just decided… I’m going to be stoned all the time. And die.”
John Knowles recounted how Capote once lost $4,000 worth of cocaine in his front yard, and later got so inebriated that he fell out of bed fifteen times in one night.
Alan Schwartz recalls that, at one point, Capote claimed to him that the novel was finished and that a former lover, John O’Shea, had stolen it and gone to Florida, and that it was still in the trunk of his car. Capote asked Schwartz to file a lawsuit, demanding the return of the pages. Later, Capote claimed to have gone down to Florida and personally blown up O’Shea’s car. “One day little Johnny went downstairs and his car wasn’t there. Instead there was a big puddle where a car used to be.” Nobody believed him.
Producer Lester Persky claimed for a long time to have the manuscript locked in a drawer in his house he couldn’t open. When he and Schwartz finally did pry it open — there was nothing there.
Joanne Carson, wife of Johnny Carson, recalled that Capote gave her a key to a safe deposit box on the morning of his death. But that there was no number on the key and furthermore, she had no idea what box, in what bank, or even in what city, it belonged to. She claims to have read, firsthand, “Father Flanagan’s…,” “Yachts and Things,” and “Audrey Wilder Sang.” She described them in some detail to George Plimpton — who says that he then personally went to Alan Schwartz to ask about the safe-deposit key after that.
Schwartz replied, “Yes, I think there was a key. There was no clue as to what it did unlock, or if it did, what was inside. We could never find the safe-deposit box. There was a key, and we tried to track it everywhere. We couldn’t. So we’re left with that.”
Capote’s favorite story about the location of Answered Prayers was that he had locked it up at the Greyhound station in Los Angeles — hidden it deep inside the “Severe Insult to the Brain” itself.
Capote’s favorite story about the location of Answered Prayers was that he had locked it up at the Greyhound station in Los Angeles.
Could it be true? Even if the manuscript had been there, Greyhound moved their station from 7th and Maple in 1991. The building still stands today as a parking garage for the L.A. Merchandise Mart, but I doubt the old lockers have survived.
Most scholars have long since abandoned hope of ever finding Answered Prayers locked away somewhere, though in 2012 researchers from Vanity Fair did stumble across an unfinished manuscript of one chapter, “Yachts and Things,” among Capote’s papers at the New York Public Library, where they had been available for more than two decades. The six type-written and hand-edited pages are still up on the Vanity Fair website.
Nevertheless, it seems most likely that Capote either never finished, or destroyed, the rest of Answered Prayers, and that he spent the eight years between the publication of the Esquire chapters and his death in a slow deterioration, dreaming about how wonderful the stories would be if he could only write them well.
It seems most likely that Capote either never finished, or destroyed, the rest of Answered Prayers, and that he spent his last eight years dreaming about how wonderful the stories would be if he could only write them well.
By not writing them, or at least not publishing them, he spared himself any further social damage, and the loss of the friends who did stick by him. Many of these people are the same ones who later reported kindly to Plimpton on the spectacular excerpts they saw, or read, or heard, reinforcing the speculations that Capote himself may have desired.
And there’s something fitting in being are left with only rumors about a novel born of, and killed by, gossip. Perhaps on some level this was Capote’s intention. Years before he released the excerpts, in 1971, Capote joked on the Dick Cavett show that the book would be his “posthumous novel”… “either I’m going to kill it, or it is going to kill me.”
If he could not write, or could not publish, the novel itself, then perhaps he decided to leave behind the next best thing — an enduring literary mystery.