When did you begin writing biographies?
In the early seventies. I was a writer at Time magazine and chafing at the constraints of what was called "group journalism." Writers generally stayed at their desks in New York and wrote from reporters' files. Some very good stories came out of such teamwork, but I wanted more freedom, a place for my own voice to be heard. So occasionally I wrote articles for magazines like The Atlantic and Esquire that allowed me to both report and writeand that gave me a byline in the bargain. I've always been fascinated by writerswhy and how they writeand I began a series of profiles of famous writers. Gore Vidal. Allen Ginsberg, the beat poet. Vladimir Nabokov, the father of Lolita. And P.G. Wodehouse, the comic genius who created Jeeves.
How did you get along with such formidable egos?
I liked and admired all of them, including Vidal, who is as prickly as a cactus forest. And I think they liked me. But Wodehouse was the only one who became a friendand that despite an age difference of nearly sixty years. Wodehouse said something I think all writers, a notoriously envious lot, should take to heart. I asked him if he had ever been envious of another writer. He looked at me with bewilderment, as if such a hostile emotion was beyond his comprehension. "Oh, no," he said. "I'm always too happy to have something good to read." He was a wonderful man, without a hint of guile or malice.
Where did Truman Capote come in?
Capote was also the subject of one of my profiles. When it appeared, I got a call from a publisher. "Will you write his biography?"
Had you known Capote before you wrote the profile?
Only slightly. I met him at one of George Plimpton's parties in the late sixties. There were lots of famous people at George's that night, but when Truman walked in, they all parted, like the waters of the Red Sea making way for Moses and the Israelites. Truman was a star, a genuine star.
Did he cooperate with your biography?
Yes, and he asked his friends to cooperate too. "Tell him whatever you want," he wrote one friend. "God knows everyone else has." Such cooperation is a gift to a biographer, but Truman then gave me something even more valuableabsolute freedom. "I won't respect you unless you tell the whole truth," he said, adding that he would never ask to see what I was writing about him. And he never did. A biographer could not ask for more.
How much time did you spend with him?
Hundreds of hoursso many that I couldn't begin to count. We both had apartments in Manhattan and summer houses, not more than five minutes apart, in the Hamptons, on Long Island. I saw him in both places, for long lunches and dinners or even longer talks in his house or mine. I also traveled with him to New Orleans, his birthplace, and I flew to California to watch him act in a movieNeil Simon's comedy, Murder by Death.
Was he good company?
When he wasn't drinking too much, Truman was more fun than anyone else I've ever known. He had an eye for the absurd, and when he told a story, he would laugh so hard that tears would come to his eyes. Until I knew him I thought that just happened to characters in books. But he was not a monologist. He did not monopolize the conversation. He was truly interested in the person across the table, and you would quickly find yourself telling him more than you really wanted to. That's why he was such a good interviewer.
Was he always so much fun?
No. when he was drinking too much or when he was depressed and lonelyand there were many such timesit was painful to be in his company. I remember one memorable lunch at a posh Manhattan restaurant. It started at noonTruman liked to eat earlyand it didn't end until midnight. Every time I got up to leave, Truman would grab my arm. "Oh, please, don't go," he would say, and he looked so sad and lonely that I felt I couldn't desert him. So I was glued to my seat for twelve hours. We stayed through lunch, we stayed through cocktails, we stayed through dinner, and we stayed through nightcaps. We didn't leave until the head waiter started to lock up. And then, at Truman's insistence, we parked ourselves in a bar for another couple of hours.
How many other people did you interview for your Capote biography?
Several hundred. I traveled all over the United States and Europe to talk to them. Some interviews lasted only a few minutes. Others took two or three days. Many people I talked to again and again over several years. As I was writing, new questions kept popping up.
Did your book really take thirteen years?
Yes, although I cringe when I hear that number quoted. It makes me sound as if I were trying to imitate Flaubert, writing a sentence one week, then taking it out the next week. Actually, I'm a fairly fast writer. At Time I often wrote four and five-thousand-word cover stories over-night. Believe me, that requires speed. I still sometimes write articles on short deadlines.
If you can write so fast, why did your book take so long?
My storyTruman's storywas constantly changing. And changing in momentous ways. What I could not have predictedwhat Truman could not have predictedwas that, just as I began, he was entering the most dramatic decade of his life. No American writer, not even F. Scott Fitzgerald, has ever fallen so far so fast so visibly. And I was there, often as a participant, for every minute of that incredible drama, from the first act to the last. I was in the same position he had been inan irony not lost on mewhen he was writing In Cold Blood. My book had no ending.
It didn't have to end with his death, did it?
No, of course not. When I began, Truman was in his late forties and in good health. I thought my book would take two years, three at most, and that writing it would be a lark. I expected to end it with another of his triumphs, the publication of Answered Prayers, the novel he thought would be his magnum opus. That, alas, was not to be. When he died in 1984, he had written only three chapters.
What happened to Jack Dunphy, Capote's companion?
Jack died of cancer in 1992. He was seventy-seven. I arranged a memorial for both of them on Long Island, on Crooked Pond, a quiet lake owned by the Nature Conservancy, to which Jack had given their Long Island property. I scattered Truman's ashes into the pond, Jack's nephew scattered his, and the Conservancy dedicated the preserve to both of them. Today there is a simple but elegant memorial at the lake's edge: two short quotations from their books are inscribed on a rock, next to which is a bench for visitors who want to linger and enjoy the beauty of the spot.
Were you involved with the making of Capote, the movie?
Yes. I made suggestions and had long talks with everyone involved: Dan Futterman, the scriptwriter; Bennett Miller, the director; Caroline Baron, the producer; and Philip Seymour Hoffman, the actor who plays Capote. I enjoyed working with all of them. They wanted to make a classy movie. And they did. I have only one small regret. At the last minute Bennett asked me to play a cameo role, just a minute or two, during a party scene. But I was in Turkey when he shot that scene. I had a choice. I could cut short my trip for my moment of cinematic fame, or I could visit the ruins of Troy. I chose Troy. My close-up will have to wait.
Your second biography was Get Happy, the life of Judy Garland. Why did you choose her?
I've always been interested in the movies. Though my parents had nothing to do with the industry, I was surrounded, growing up in Los Angeles, by people who worked on motion pictures. Los Angeles, or at least the part I lived in, was an industry town in those days. I went to school with the children of movie people, and I played in their backyards. I visited my first film setit was at Paramountwhen I was ten. One of my aunts also often took me to the horse races at Hollywood Park, where we'd sit in the Turf Club with the stars and the directors and the studio bosses. Watching them was as entertaining as anything I ever saw on screen. I remember one epic screaming match between Harry James, the great trumpet player, and his wife, Betty Grable, who was then No. 1 at the box office. So it seemed like a homecoming when I began writing Time's Show Business section and interviewed stars like Mae West and Bette Davis, Rex Harrison and Claudette Colbert.
Where did Judy Garland fit in?
By some trick of fate, my first show business cover story for Time was on Judy's daughter, Liza Minnelli, who was wowing everyone with her performance in Cabaret. Judy had been dead less than three years, and Liza talked more candidly about her mother then than I suspect she ever has since. Years later, as I thought of a subject to follow Truman, my mind turned more and more to HollywoodHollywood when it was really Hollywood, the Hollywood I had known as a boy. And no one embodied that Hollywood better than Judy Garland. As I read about her and remembered all the things Liza had told me, I also realized that Judy, like Truman, was a great storya story that, in my opinion, had never been told, or had never been told the way it should be. I thought I could do it, and I like to believe I did. People who think Get Happy is just another movie star biography are in for a surprise. It's not.
What are you doing now?
I'm trying something newfiction. I'm writing a novel. It's set in the Midwest, and it's based partly on some real and very terrible events. I spent some time out there recently, doing research and getting a feel for the area in which most of my action takes place. But I don't think I'd better say anything more.
Do you plan any more biographies?
At the moment I don't have a subject that captivates me. I'm convinced that a subject chooses a biographer as much as a biographer chooses a subjectthat there has to be some kind of bond between them. So far I haven't found a third bond, a third subject. But of one thing I'm certain: we are now living in the golden age of biography. With a few notable exceptions, the greatest biographies have all been written in the past fifty or sixty years. I think more are even now waiting to be written. Who knows? By the time I finish my novel, I may have my No. 3. I'm open to suggestions.