by Thom Robinson
Andy Warhol, Polaroid photographs of Truman Capote and William Burroughs
Largely absent from his home country in the immediate aftermath of Naked Lunch, William Burroughs evaded the mass publicity that America lavished on other writers during the 1960s. This was a time when post-war novelists were afforded considerable public attention, with the media’s investment in figures such as Norman Mailer, Gore Vidal, and Truman Capote rewarded in the column inches generated by the spectacular fallings-out which occurred between these literary titans, accomplished grudge-bearers all. The high-profile lifestyles enjoyed by these authors would have been anathema to Burroughs. Never one of life’s natural schmoozers, the “literary outlaw” made his home in the pages of the underground press rather than on the set of The Dick Cavett Show.
Nonetheless, crossovers remained inevitable between Burroughs and his more mainstream contemporaries. Norman Mailer was keen to establish himself as one of Burroughs’ earliest champions, supplying a much-quoted tribute (“Burroughs is the only American novelist living today who may conceivably be possessed by genius”) alongside other more dubious commendations (“Burroughs may be gay, but he’s a man”). Gore Vidal passed through the Beats’ orbit in New York in 1953, affording Vidal an appearance in Jack Kerouac’s The Subterraneans (as “Arial Lavalina”). It also merited Kerouac a chapter in Vidal’s 1995 memoir Palimpsest, documenting the same occasion described in The Subterraneans alongside the detail omitted from Kerouac’s account (that the two ended the night together in bed). Meanwhile, Capote’s best-known association with the Beats came via his famous dismissal of On the Road on the talk show Open End in 1959: “[It] isn’t writing at all — it’s typing”.
Yet years before his putdown of Kerouac’s breakthrough novel, American’s foremost literary protégée was already a target of ire for the nascent Beats. In texts written throughout the 1950s, Kerouac and Burroughs denounce Capote, their derision occupying a space between jealousy and contempt. In the case of Burroughs, his most remarkable comments regarding Capote remain unpublished, housed in a two-page typescript in the Burroughs Archive of the New York Public Library’s Berg Collection. This late 1960s document, listed in the archive’s finding aid as “An Open Letter to Truman Capote,” forms a disconcerting counterpart to Burroughs’ interest in magic, with Burroughs taking Capote to task for a “betrayal” of literary talent before concluding by effectively casting a curse on Capote’s writing abilities. Read with the benefit of hindsight, the text is all the more disturbing given that history bore out the desired effects of Burroughs’ sinister wish. But first, some background…
According to Ted Morgan, Burroughs first became aware of Capote between 1942 and 1944, when Capote was working as a copyboy at the offices of the New Yorker. Morgan recounts that Burroughs was introduced to Capote by a mutual friend, Chandler Brossard, then a reporter for the New Yorker and later a novelist in his own right. Conversely, in his “Afterword” to And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks, James Grauerholz states that Burroughs was introduced to Capote by David Kammerer’s friend Marguerite Young (also a writer). Regardless of who arranged the introduction, Burroughs was unimpressed by the encounter, having been notified in advance of Capote’s beauty: “Burroughs,” writes Morgan, “didn’t think [Capote] was beautiful at all — he had a squeaky voice and looked like a wizened, prematurely aged albino.”
Burroughs’ first impressions notwithstanding, within a matter of years the twenty year-old Capote had made a spectacular entrance on the world’s stage, aided and abetted by his striking appearance and prodigious gift for self-promotion. After the success of a series of stories published in Mademoiselle and Harper’s Bazaar, Life magazine placed a near full-length photograph of Capote on the title page of their 1947 article “Young U.S. Writers” (spotlighting “a refreshing group of newcomers on the literary scene”). The following year, Capote’s looks again garnered substantial publicity when Harold Halma’s photograph of the prostrate author with eyes both beguiled and beguiling was used to adorn the rear dust-jacket of Capote’s debut novel Other Voices, Other Rooms. The book was an instant cause célèbre and its success facilitated Capote’s entrance into the world of international celebrity.
Capote’s increasing success occurred during a period in which Kerouac and Burroughs experienced frustration in following their own respective debut novels, The Town and the City (1950) and Junkie (1953). Hence it is understandable that, as his fame grew, Capote became a figure of intermittent ridicule for the struggling writers. Kerouac’s suspicion of Capote is exemplified by a 1952 letter to Allen Ginsberg in which Kerouac describes Capote’s writing as “full of bull on every page” (by comparison with John Clellon Holmes’ Go, which is “sincere, each page”). Kerouac’s eagerness to praise more unsung authors in favor of Capote is similarly displayed by a detail in Gerald Nicosia’s biography Memory Babe, recounting that Kerouac presented a copy of Denton Welch’s Maiden Voyage to Justin Brierly (former patron of Neal Cassady), with an inscription lamenting “that none of the 15th Street book dealers would buy [Maiden Voyage] even though Welch was the literary predecessor of the much touted Capote.”
This evidence of Kerouac’s interest in Maiden Voyage supports Burroughs’ later claim in interviews that Kerouac was the first member of the Beat circle to read Denton Welch (it was only after rereading the English author in the 1970s that Burroughs took to referring to Welch as the writer “who has influenced me more than any other”). Though Capote never acknowledged an influence from Welch, the overwrought Gothicism and coming-of-age theme of Other Voices, Other Rooms certainly bears comparison both with Welch’s 1943 debut Maiden Voyage and his 1945 follow-up In Youth is Pleasure (regardless of the fact that Capote’s novel is set in the Deep South and In Youth is Pleasure in the English Home Counties). More directly, the title of an introduction Capote wrote for a 1969 edition of Other Voices, Other Rooms, “A Voice from a Cloud,” clearly suggests the title of Welch’s posthumously published final work A Voice Through a Cloud (1950). If Burroughs were ever aware of this unacknowledged lift from Welch, it would no doubt have consolidated the sense he and Kerouac had harboured since the 1950s of Capote as rip-off merchant and charlatan. Though Burroughs also borrowed from Welch in his later writings, he took care to acknowledge the fact in his interviews and essays.
Burroughs’ texts of the early 1950s offer his own mordant mockery of Capote’s success. A letter to Ginsberg from April 1952 finds Burroughs shifting into an effeminate register to mock the gossipy tone of litterateurs: “My dear I simply must read the short story about your affair with a Mongolian hair-lipped idiot in Dakar. It sounds too too Truman Capoty. A hunch back blowing you at the same time?” Most witheringly, Burroughs invokes Capote in the pay-off to the Billy Bradshinkel routine of The Yage Letters (written 1953, published 1963), a tale of an adolescent love affair whose narrative tone treads an uncertain balance between abject sentimentality and self-conscious satire. The latter wins the day as the teenage Billy rejects the advances of Burroughs’ narrator and later dies in a car crash, leading Burroughs to conclude “And I got a silo full of queer corn where that came from,” ending in the bathetic and dismissive address to the reader, “Ah what the hell! Give it to Truman Capote” (a sentiment-puncturing punchline performed to terrific effect in Ed Buhr’s 2008 film of the routine, The Japanese Sandman). Burroughs’ notes on the original Yage manuscript imply that the Bradshinkel vignette was specifically intended as a parody of contemporary American fiction, as a “lapse into typical young U.S. novelist style” (suggesting Burroughs may also have had in mind Vidal’s 1948 novel of gay adolescent infatuation, The City and the Pillar).
Burroughs’ arrival in Tangiers in 1954 offered new reasons to resent Capote, given that Burroughs promptly felt slighted by the city’s expatriate literary community centered around Paul Bowles (who Burroughs would only befriend some years later). In August 1954 Burroughs writes to Kerouac complaining that “[Bowles] invites the dreariest queens in Tangiers to tea, but has never invited me […] Since Tennessee Williams and Capote etc. are friends of Bowles I, of course, don’t meet them when they come here.” Despite Burroughs’ bruised tone, it is worth noting that at this point Bowles, Williams, and Capote were all successful writers while Burroughs had only one pulp novel to his (pseudonymous) name. Furthermore, Burroughs may have been misinformed as to the likelihood of encountering Capote in Tangiers, given that Capote’s sojourn in the city had occurred much earlier, in the summer of 1949. Yet the following month, Burroughs again bemoans his social exclusion to Kerouac, revealing the extent to which his sense of being ostracised in Tangiers had reopened old wounds:
I wanted to meet what there was here to meet. But they seem to have scented my being different and excluded me, just all squares instinctively do. And these people, Bowles, Tennessee Williams, Capote, are just as square as the St. Louis Country Club set I was raised with, and they sensed I was different and never accepted me as one of them.
The letter lays bare the lingering scars of Burroughs’ upbringing and his family’s uncertain status on the fringes of St. Louis society. These scars are mined in Burroughs’ later novels, with the striking claim that others can scent his “being different” neatly foreshadowing the experiences of autobiographical protagonists in The Wild Boys (“There was something rotten and unclean about Audrey, an odor of the walking dead”) and The Place of Dead Roads (“It wasn’t anything [Kim] actually did, or might do. He just did not fit.”)
In addition to reawakening his youthful sense of exclusion, Burroughs’ alienation from the Tangiers literary community presumably impinged upon familiar feelings of being an outsider among outsiders. The distaste Burroughs expresses towards Tangiers’ “dreariest queens” and his earlier camp invocations of Capote point to a characteristic antipathy towards effeminacy as expressed in Junky (“A room full of fags gives me the horrors”). As Jamie Russell discusses in his study Queer Burroughs, a letter to Ginsberg of April 1952 gives an insight into Burroughs’ view of his sexuality at this time, sent upon learning that Carl Solomon (Burroughs’ contact at Ace Books) had suggested renaming Burroughs’ manuscript Queer with the alternative title Fag. Burroughs informs Ginsberg, “Now look, you tell Solomon I don’t mind being called queer. […] But I’ll see him castrated before I’ll be called a Fag.” Explaining his position, Burroughs cites “the distinction between us strong, manly, noble types and the leaping, jumping, window dressing cocksucker.” Citing T.E. Lawrence as an example of his preferred “strong, manly, noble” type, Burroughs does not offer a specific embodiment of the alternative “type” in this binary take on homosexuality. Nonetheless, it is tempting to imagine that, when evoking the “leaping, jumping […] cocksucker”, Burroughs may have had in mind Cecil Beaton’s famous shot of Capote caught mid-air in Morocco in 1949 (familiar to later generations through its use on the cover of The Smiths’ 1985 single The Boy With the Thorn in His Side). One can only speculate on the extent to which Burroughs’ “effeminophobia” may have influenced his negative attitudes towards Capote and his work.
When Burroughs did attain literary attention with the publication of Naked Lunch, it was only natural that he should continue to move in circles distinct from those of Capote. Though the men had no direct contact, Capote’s reliable gift for scabrous opinion made it inevitable that he would find occasion to comment on the controversy generated by Burroughs’ work. By the time he did so, his own fame had continued to rise, climaxing in the much-anticipated publication of In Cold Blood in 1966. With his study of the killing of Herbert Clutter and family by Dick Hickock and Perry Smith in Holcomb, Kansas in 1959, Capote claimed to have invented a new genre, the “nonfiction novel” (culminating in a firsthand account of the murder trial which resulted in Hickock and Smith’s execution six years after the crime). Capote fiercely advocated his new literary form over other contemporary developments in American culture. Interviewed by the Chicago Daily News in 1967, Capote announced “I hate pop art to death […] Now William Burroughs. He’s what I’d call a pop writer. He gets some very interesting effects on a page. But at the cost of total lack of communication with the reader. Which is a pretty serious cost, I think.” Interviewed by Playboy the following year, Capote cited Burroughs’ work when defending his conviction that the journalistic style of In Cold Blood “is really the most avant-garde form of writing existent today […] creative fiction writing has gone as far as it can experimentally. […] Of course we have writers like William Burroughs, whose brand of verbal surface trivia is amusing and occasionally fascinating, but there’s no base for moving forward in that area.” Meanwhile, asked his opinion of Capote in The Job (1969), Burroughs supplied his own underwhelming verdict: “I thought that Capote’s earlier work showed extraordinary and very unusual talent, which I can’t say for this In Cold Blood, which it seems to me could have been written by any staff editor on The New Yorker.”
Despite this measured criticism, behind the scenes Burroughs’ feelings towards Capote had obviously continued to fester. The “Open Letter to Truman Capote” held in the Burroughs Archive duplicates Burroughs’ remark that In Cold Blood “could have been written by any staff writer on the New Yorker,” but adds much else besides. Written in direct response to the flurry of popular interest generated by the book, Burroughs takes as his starting point Kenneth Tynan’s damning review in the Observer newspaper. Tynan identified a moral queasiness at the heart of the book’s construction, suggesting that, in order to ensure his work in progress would receive the ideal narrative closure, Capote chose not to help overturn the conviction of Hickock and Smith:
For the first time an influential writer of the front rank has been placed in a position of privileged intimacy with criminals about to die, and — in my view — done less than he might have to save them. […] An attempt to help (by supplying new psychiatric testimony) might easily have failed: what one misses is any sign that it was ever contemplated.
Capote’s biographer Gerald Clarke avows that “Tynan’s thesis was based on a sloppy reading of the book and false assumptions about Kansas law.” However, Clarke does concede that, though “Truman could not have saved Perry and Dick if he had spent one million dollars, or ten million […] Tynan was right when he suggested that Truman did not want to save them.” The ethical ambiguity surrounding Capote’s bestseller has remained a source of fascination, providing the basis for the two biopics which emerged within quick succession in the last decade, Capote (2005) and Infamous (2006).
Burroughs’ “letter” begins with an explanation to Capote that his “is not a fan letter in the usual sense.” Acting as spokesman for a “department” with apparent responsibility for determining writers’ fates, Burroughs announces that he has followed Capote’s “literary development from its inception” and, in the line of duty, has conducted exhaustive inquiries comparable to those undertaken by Capote in his research for In Cold Blood. An engagingly surreal touch finds Burroughs reporting that these inquiries have included interviewing all of Capote’s fictional characters “beginning with Miriam” (the title character of Capote’s breakthrough story of 1945). Referring to “the recent exchange of genialities” between Capote and Kenneth Tynan, Burroughs concludes that Tynan “was much too lenient.” Going one step further than Tynan and accusing Capote of acting as an apologist for hard-line methods of police interrogation (and thus supporting those “who are turning America into a police state”), Burroughs next turns to the question of Capote’s writing abilities. Avowing that Capote’s early short stories were “in some respects promising,” Burroughs suggests Capote could have made positive use of his talents, presumably by applying them to the expansion of human consciousness (“You were granted an area for psychic development”). Instead, Burroughs finds that Capote has sold out a talent “that is not yours to sell.” In retribution for having misused “the talent that was granted you by this department”, Burroughs starkly warns “That talent is now officially withdrawn,” signing off with the sinister admonition, “You will never have anything else. You will never write another sentence above the level of In Cold Blood. As a writer you are finished.”
It should be noted that, at the time of writing, Burroughs was a credulous believer in the efficacy of curses (famously believing he had successfully used tape recorders to close down a London restaurant where he had received bad service). Regardless of how seriously Burroughs intended his prediction for Capote’s future, his words proved eerily prescient. After the publication of In Cold Blood, Capote announced work on an epic novel entitled Answered Prayers, intended as a Proustian summation of the high society world to which he had enjoyed privileged access over the previous decades. The slim existing contents were eventually published posthumously while one of the few extracts which saw publication within Capote’s lifetime notoriously employed Capote’s habit of indiscretion to disastrous effect. When “La Côte Basque, 1965” was published by Esquire in 1975, Capote’s betrayal of the confidences of friends (who recognized the identities lurking beneath the veneer of fictionalized characters) resulted in swift exile from the celebrity world which Capote had courted for much of his career.
Given Burroughs’ curse on Capote, it is interesting to note that, in the years before his death, Capote’s dismissive views on Burroughs’ work became even more damning: “Norman Mailer thinks William Burroughs is a genius, which I think is ludicrous beyond words. I don’t think William Burroughs has an ounce of talent.” By the time these remarks were recorded by Lawrence Grobel in Conversations with Capote, successful canvassing by Mailer among others had resulted in Burroughs’ admission to the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters in 1983. After a long decline, wrought by the inability to break a harrowing cycle of alcohol and barbiturate abuse, Capote died the following year at the age of 59.