An American tale

Ebs Burnough on The Capote Tapes

by Anne-Katrin Titze

The Capote Tapes director Ebs Burnough: “When you go back and think of Truman interviewing Marlon Brando. Marlon Brando was like, I’ll never give another interview, as a result.”
The Capote Tapes director Ebs Burnough: “When you go back and think of Truman interviewing Marlon Brando. Marlon Brando was like, I’ll never give another interview, as a result.”

Ebs Burnough’s The Capote Tapes, co-written with Holly Whiston, features the interviews recorded by George Plimpton of Lauren Bacall, Norman Mailer, Lee Radziwill, Slim Keith, and Gore Vidal, along with recent on-camera remembrances and interpretations of Truman Capote from Kate Harrington, Jay McInerney, Colm Tóibín, Dick Cavett, André Leon Talley, John Richardson, Dotson Rader, Lewis Lapham, Sally Quinn, and Sadie Stein.

Ebs Burnough with Anne-Katrin Titze on a Truman Capote Swan: “I have to say Slim Keith was the most gutsy, direct, honest of the group.”
Ebs Burnough with Anne-Katrin Titze on a Truman Capote Swan: “I have to say Slim Keith was the most gutsy, direct, honest of the group.”

Capote’s “Swans”, Babe Paley, CZ Guest, Gloria Guinness, Marella Agnelli, Lee Radziwill, and Slim Keith, the stylish socialites who used him more or less for their amusement and to alleviate their boredom, float in and out of the narrative and we see that Breakfast at Tiffany’s Holly Golightly is as much influenced by Truman’s mother as she is our image of Audrey Hepburn in Blake Edwards’ film.

This gracefully structured and wittily edited documentary takes us on a ride to discover uncharted Truman territories. Who was the private man who presented his sparkling persona to the world? We get to glimpse in his freezer and his heart, hear from friends who not seldom turned to enemies, go ice skating with him, and twirl in an Hermès poncho on the autumnal beach. Then there is the well-known vitriol about how a lack of intelligence goes a long way for actors (“Marlon Brando is so dumb it makes your skin crawl”).

Without skipping the well-known stepping stones of Capote’s notoriety - from growing up next to Harper Lee (whose mother little literary Truman already caricatured as Mrs. Busybody), to In Cold Blood, to his “Ball of the Century”, to Studio 54, to his drunken TV appearances - Burnough also travels off the yellow brick road to give a much fuller picture into why Saint Teresa so perfectly expressed Truman’s conundrum. “More tears are shed over answered prayers than unanswered ones” is not only relevant for one of the 20th century’s most interesting men of letters, it is good to keep in mind for all of us how people’s wishes can be a potent force.

Truman Capote ice skating at Rockefeller Center
Truman Capote ice skating at Rockefeller Center Photo: Getty Images

On the afternoon, a few hours before Ida hit New York, Ebs Burnough joined me on Zoom for an in-depth conversation on The Capote Tapes.

Anne-Katrin Titze: Very happy to talk with you about your beautiful film. It’s always a good start to have previously unheard audiotapes, like the ones by George Plimpton, but good audiotapes do not necessarily make for a great documentary. You did make one.

Ebs Burnough: Thank you very much.

AKT: I loved the wit and attention to detail with the archival footage. In the first five minutes we already know a lot about where the film is going. You introduce us to Kate Harrington (who was adopted by Truman Capote at age 13, after her father had an affair with him). She gives a lot of insight. How did she come onboard, how did you find her?

EB: Gosh, it’s so funny because I just saw her on Monday, actually. She was traveling in California and we got to meet up. I grew to have such an affection and love for her. She’s an extraordinary individual. I knew of her and she had been interviewed a little bit, but she had gone off the radar and was living in Wyoming as a mother of two. I went on a hunt for her and we had some good conversations. In one of them she said “I think it’s been long enough that I can really talk about this now without being too upset.” She kept saying “I know you have to tell the full story, you have to tell the sad stuff, but I really hope you can also tell the positive moments, because it all wasn’t sad and it all wasn’t bad.” And I thought who she was and how she approached his legacy was so much the way a child approaches a parent. It gave so much more context and colour.

AKT: I mean, being adopted by Truman Capote at age 13 and entering his world, wow! It’s a new perspective on Truman for many people, I am sure. We even get the content of their refrigerator!

EB: Right!

AKT: There were not too many groceries, she says: we had some soup cans, rock shrimp, Tab soda …

EB: … and vodka!

Ebs Burnough on Truman Capote: “He was very stylish and he gave that group of women a definition.”
Ebs Burnough on Truman Capote: “He was very stylish and he gave that group of women a definition.”

AKT: And vodka. Also how he told her that when she was bored in restaurants she should listen to the conversations in the booth next to them and later tell him. To get to the Capote we haven’t seen is the focus of your film, isn’t it?

EB: That was 100% the focus. Everyone of us, we’re all layered and textured individuals. For a lot of people, they get defined, as Truman was, by his celebrity. By the way, I’m not saying that 95% or 100% of that wasn’t self-made, these were choices. But I was fascinated with the man, the real person behind the façade. That’s what I really wanted to get at.

AKT: Colm Tóibín has wonderful insight into Truman Capote. For instance when he points out that Truman grew up with the same people his mother grew up with. And he talks about what that does to a person, he has marvellous thoughts about him.

EB: Colm is brilliant as a writer and as a thinker. In many ways, having grown up also in the American South we have a different, I mean, having lived in New York and in Chicago and all around the US and the world for that matter, there’s something about the South that is history. It is generations upon generations being in the same place and being of the land. And Truman was certainly very rural. There’s a lineage, there’s a history, a legacy, as Colm talks about it, the people who brought the mother up also brought him up and you can see how it all keeps going. What I think is extraordinary about Truman and makes him such an American, self-made story, an American tale, is that this very petit, effeminate boy with a high-pitched voice from rural Alabama found his way.

AKT: And a real man’s laugh!

Ebs Burnough on Colm Tóibín: “Colm is brilliant as a writer and as a thinker.”
Ebs Burnough on Colm Tóibín: “Colm is brilliant as a writer and as a thinker.” Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

EB: And a real man’s laugh and this incredible strength! That he made himself into the person that he wanted to be and became the darling of the jet set and one of the most famous people, writers or not, at the time. That’s one of those uniquely all-American stories.

AKT: It’s so funny, even when you just called him rural - it produces a little jolt, yes, of course, I almost forgot. You speak about how he made himself, in a way he also made “the Swans” (Slim Keith, Babe Paley, CZ Guest, Gloria Guinness, Marella Agnelli, Lee Radziwill). They were rich bored women with a lot of style, but maybe even some of that style came because of Truman’s style. I have to make this point because it is shown so well in your film: Truman has the best taste in knitwear!

EB: Yes, yes, completely. You see it throughout the film, so funny you noticed that. It’s very true.

AKT: The pink sweater you chose for the poster, then the Norwegian one when he is ice skating! They’re gorgeous!

EB: Even when you get to the end where he’s wearing like an Hermès poncho on the beach. He was very stylish and he gave that group of women a definition. Very much, even like the Black and White Ball, it wasn’t that there weren’t balls before, there were balls in Venice and great balls, but he gave us that marketing genius that goes with his brilliant writing. He gave us ideas and context and definitions that we’re still using today. We’re still talking about who are the swans of New York, we’re still talking about a black and white ball or a white party, we’re still doing modern and fresh riffs on great concepts that he really pushed out there.

Truman Capote greets his guests at the Black and White Ball at The Plaza
Truman Capote greets his guests at the Black and White Ball at The Plaza Photo: Elliot Erwitt

AKT: I liked that you filmed André Leon Talley in the ballroom at The Plaza. Was that his idea or yours?

EB: We both wanted it! And it turned out to be far more complicated than I thought it was going to be, but I was determined. The ballroom was constantly booked but we finally got it done. Of all the people, actually, there was no one better to have in the ballroom than André because he’s also just divine and larger than life.

AKT: He has Truman’s couch from the famous photograph. He also talks about the cookie container, which he didn’t get, but it connects back to the gingerbread you show earlier in the context of Truman’s childhood. Beautiful editing, linking back to A Christmas Memory [Truman Capote’s short story].

EB: Thank you. So much while we were editing, which is always the case, ended up on the editing floor. The story from André connecting the dots to the Christmas Memory and his family, his cousin and his aunts was really a great gift. I do think it goes back to even though Truman made himself into this jet set persona he created, I do believe at the heart of it - that’s why I think Kate Harrington is such an important force and figure in his life - because at the heart of it he was desperate to be loved.

At the heart of it, he was a gay, openly gay man, in an era when, I like to remind my kids, it wasn’t just uncomfortable, it was illegal. The things that we take for granted, to have a family, was not an option. I look at his relationship with Kate and I think about where he was from and the era, and I think, oh my gosh, what he was always searching for was love and affection and family. And he created it the best way he could - I give him mad, real props, because I think he’s been overlooked in some way by the LGBTQ canon. We kind of see him as oh, Truman Capote, he was witty and gay and actually he was quite a pioneer in some ways.

André Leon Talley filmed at The Plaza ballroom: “Of all the people, actually, there was no one better to have in the ballroom than André because he’s also just divine and larger than life.”
André Leon Talley filmed at The Plaza ballroom: “Of all the people, actually, there was no one better to have in the ballroom than André because he’s also just divine and larger than life.” Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

AKT: Yes, he is being pushed aside. That is also the case when you show him on the boats with the Agnellis. As much as they depended on him and needed him, he was a court jester.

EB: Totally.

AKT: I knew I was going to talk to you and I had another look at Answered Prayers. And my, my, is it vicious! Even when you don’t recognize all the people, he is so cruel. It feels like vengeance for always being the court jester. There is always that but … Yes, you are hosting this fabulous party …

EB: … but you’re not one of us! I think Answered Prayers, I reread it quite often actually, and every time I’m struck by how vicious it is but also by how modern it is. I mean there are elements of it that certainly are vulgar in a way that you don’t envision that being written at that time, certainly not by a “mainstream author.” He worked on it off and on for such a long time. Yes, there’s a sharpness to it, yet, I do believe and I thought about this quite a bit, that this is also how he wrote. When you go back and think of Truman interviewing Marlon Brando. Marlon Brando was like, I’ll never give another interview, as a result. When he was a kid, he wrote a terribly naughty story about Mrs. Busybody, who was Harper Lee’s mother.

AKT: Right.

EB: He does this. That’s part of his art and part of his process.

AKT: And part of his armour.

Audrey Hepburn as Holly Golightly in Breakfast At Tiffany’s
Audrey Hepburn as Holly Golightly in Breakfast At Tiffany’s

EB: And part of his armour. Answered Prayers, it’s tough to read and it’s not that these are people he’s only been friends with for a summer.

AKT: No, Slim Keith, his friend for many years …

EB: 20-plus year relationships!

AKT: When I looked at my copy, I noticed a little mark I had made years ago. This is the spot in the restaurant: “There is at least one respect in which the rich, the really very rich, are different from … other people. They understand vegetables. … The greenest petits pois, infinitesimal carrots, corn so baby-kernelled and tender it seems almost unborn …”

EB: The vegetables! The teeny-tiniest little corn! Incredible!

AKT: The perfect expression of corn! I loved Sadie Stein’s comments on the Bill Paley “bloodshed moment.”

EB: The bloodshed moment, yeah.

The Plaza in New York
The Plaza in New York Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

AKT: I thought the same thing. She also brings up at another place the suicide of a parent as something you can never reconcile.

EB: Again, these are the things with Truman that were so mixed up. His mother’s suicide, even though they had a very difficult relationship, and then his attachment to these women but his need to devour them in some way and disengage with them. And yet he also thought in some way he was protecting them. And there is always somewhere in his mind the business. He was a writer but there was also always: I got to sell this book!

AKT: It’s great what you just said: devouring, protecting, and the business. The holy trinity of Truman Capote.

EB: It’s literally how you have a person that has so much within them that’s so conflicted.

AKT: There is so much in your film and you made him more complicated for us, which is always a good thing. A bit about Breakfast at Tiffany’s; much has been said and written about how the book and the film are so very different. I never before heard anything about the resemblance between Holly Golightly and Truman’s mother. That was new to me. The other thing you did by showing these beautiful clips of Audrey Hepburn, it becomes a Möbius strip. On the one hand, yes, the film doesn’t do justice to the novel, on the other hand, it overwhelms us again by adding another layer of beauty to it.

Tiffany & Co. in New York
Tiffany & Co. in New York Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

EB: Thank you. It’s a beautiful film and it’s a beautiful book. It’s beautifully written, but it’s gritty. The one thing about Breakfast that always makes me laugh, you read it and the protagonist is certainly an escort and her best friend is certainly a quasi escort grifter. But because it was so beautifully written, everyone was saying: that’s me! I am the inspiration for Holly! This is where Answered Prayers clearly had a flaw. The writing with Breakfast is so beautiful and it is flawless. I think sometimes if Truman hadn’t been really struggling with addiction, if he had had all his cylinders really running … you can see how Answered Prayers slips into gossip, into tabloid. It’s painful to read, even though it’s still delicious, because you know what you’re getting is not the best work.

AKT: Was the detective in you hoping that maybe one of the people that you came in touch with throughout the making of this film would turn to you and say “By the way, here I have a key to a safe deposit box,” and there’d be the complete manuscript?

EB: Of course! I still hold out hope that we’ll find the rest of it! It’s so funny, all these years later, I’d still read it cover to cover. It’s so rich and what he did so brilliantly, and which we do all the time now, I was just saying this to one of my kids recently, which is: Now we share everything, on Twitter, on Instagram, on social media. That was an era when people of a certain class, certain stature, the only thing they wanted to share was a very prescribed vision of themselves. And Truman thought, that’s a) not really who you are, and b) you’re actually just like the rest of us. We all struggle through so many of those things that those people struggle through, but we think because they have a ton of money, a ton of power, it’s not the same. He democratized that class of people for us in a way that since has become everyday life.

Ebs Burnough on Truman Capote’s Answered Prayers: “It’s tough to read and it’s not that these are people he’s only been friends with for a summer.”
Ebs Burnough on Truman Capote’s Answered Prayers: “It’s tough to read and it’s not that these are people he’s only been friends with for a summer.” Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

AKT: You end with a beautiful song "I Didn't Know What Time It Was.” Is there a special Truman connection or is it one of your favourites?

EB: No, one thing I felt adamant about in the film was the music. I felt I was telling the story that was Truman’s story, but as I went through the process of this life and these people, the Swans, etc., there was absolutely no diversity. And as a person of colour, I kept saying I feel like I’m telling a story that is authentic to the story that I’m telling, but there’s so much else going on at the time that is epic. In terms of where my grandparents were, where my mother was, or my uncles.

AKT: I just recently interviewed Melissa Haizlip on Mr. Soul! and the TV program her uncle presented at that time!

EB: At the same time, yes. I knew the story I was telling, but I thought, gosh, I’m missing the diversity of the time. So for me the way that I wanted to infuse that without being intrusive to the story, was in the music. So the music is very intentionally Billy Holiday or it’s jazz. I tried to bring some other culture from the time that was representative of what I felt my own personal family link was. I’m thrilled that you noted that.

AKT: I love the Bossa Nova and that during the Swan collage we hear The Girl from Ipanema.

EB: Exactly. Spice it up a little bit.

AKT: Are you working on another documentary?

The Capote Tapes poster
The Capote Tapes poster

EB: I’m working on a couple of other projects now and I’m hoping, one in particular to be able to announce it very soon.

AKT: Totally different or in the same realm?

EB: Totally different.

AKT: Because I thought there are so many people in your documentary who deserve one of their on. Slim Keith! Where is the film about Slim Keith?

EB: Slim Keith is one of my favourites. Of those ladies, I have to say Slim Keith was the most gutsy, direct, honest of the group. I felt like I spent so much time with these women and their kids and relations doing research on them, that you can’t help but walk away feeling some sort of tenderness towards them. Or not, depending on who it was. And Slim Keith was the one I walked away thinking what a gutsy, strong lady!

AKT: Her whole history, married to Howard Hawks …

EB: … and Leland Hayward. Just an extraordinary individual.

AKT: And Dotson Rader is another one who needs his own documentary.

EB: I love Dotson, still so full of great stories and experiences. There was so much more, Dotson could have his own documentary entirely. That’s before we even talk about his life with Tennessee Williams. He was just forever in the mix.

AKT: Also Dick Cavett, we have to give a shoutout to him. The first thing you have him say is “I wasn’t invited to the Black and White Ball!”

EB: You gotta love him.

AKT: Thank you so much for this!

EB: Thank you so much!

The Capote Tapes opens in the US on September 10.

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