Truman Capote’s Other True-Crime Story

From a Washington Post review by Dennis Drabelle of the book by Roseanne Montillo titled “Deliberate Cruelty”:

In today’s world of fractionated media, the celebrity status once enjoyed by Truman Capote, Gore Vidal and Norman Mailer may be impossible to duplicate. Not only did these three authors write brilliantly, they also chose subjects that were bound to sell books: the massacre of a respectable middle-class family in rural Kansas (Capote’s “In Cold Blood”), the lewd exploits of a fictional trans woman (Vidal’s “Myra Breckinridge”), the 1967 antiwar march on the Pentagon (Mailer’s “The Armies of the Night”). From the 1950s to the ’80s, hardly a week seemed to go by without a talk show appearance in which one of them displayed his wit or voiced his take on contemporary affairs. And their behavior made them notorious, as when Capote threw himself a lavish masquerade party, the Black and White Ball, or when Mailer almost killed his wife by stabbing her with a penknife.

Now comes Roseanne Montillo to argue in her new book, “Deliberate Cruelty,” that Capote was a near-killer of sorts, too. Montillo, a research librarian and author of several works of nonfiction, makes her case plainly but persuasively.
After the critical and popular success of “In Cold Blood,” Capote resumed work on “Answered Prayers,” a novel for which he had grand ambitions: It should do to the denizens of New York cafe society what Marcel Proust had done to French aristocrats in his multivolume “In Search of Lost Time” — expose their well-heeled shallowness.

“Answered Prayers” was to center on an actual event, the 1955 killing of Billy Woodward by his wife, Ann, in their house at Oyster Bay Cove, N.Y., on Long Island. Billy was the heir to a New York banking fortune; Ann came from Kansas, where she’d grown up poor and neglected by an absent father and a feckless mother. On the strength of a good face and figure, the young woman moved to New York to pursue a modeling career and became the mistress of Billy’s father, who on tiring of her arranged for her to meet Billy.

Their marriage was a triumph for Ann, who had wanted to be a socialite when she grew up. But she and Billy drank heavily and fought noisily, sometimes in public. There were separations and talk of divorce. And there was a prowler.

On the last night of Billy’s life, the couple attended a party where a recurring topic of conversation was a series of local break-ins. Ann in particular seemed rattled by the incidents. Back home afterward, husband and wife repaired to their separate bedrooms, and Ann took her usual generous helping of sleeping pills. A noise woke her up in the middle of the night. Grabbing a shotgun she’d been keeping handy, she got up and opened her bedroom door. “There, at the far end of the darkened hallway,” Montillo writes, “she made out the silhouette of a man. She didn’t say a word, barely inhaled as she slowly brought the gun to eye level, aimed, and shot twice, hitting her mark, the figure crashing to the floor.” It turned out to be Billy.

Capote had no doubt that Ann — “Mrs. Bang Bang,” he once called her to her face — had offed her husband with malice aforethought, but in Montillo’s telling the evidence is less than clear-cut. A grand jury thought so, too, and local prosecutors declined to put her on trial.

Capote wanted the homicide to exemplify the rotten core of high society, but Montillo introduces another, more personal motive for his fascination. Like Ann Woodward, Truman Capote came from a broken home and had long coveted a place on the upper crust, which he attained the right way, by deploying his wit and charm to make friends of the women he called his “swans” — trophy wives with extra polish, such as Babe Paley, Slim Keith, Princess Lee Radziwill and Marella Agnelli.

“Answered Prayers” was much anticipated — Capote made sure of that by bragging about its scope and insider’s perspective — but years went by and nothing came forth. Then in the mid-1970s he published three chapters in magazines, notably “La Cote Basque, 1965,” in which a thinly disguised Keith tells Capote’s version of the Woodward story over lunch at the eponymous swanky restaurant.

“La Cote Basque” reads as if written by a misogynistic frat boy rather than the sophisticated Capote, but what galled Keith and her friends most was his use of sordid anecdotes they had told him in strict confidence. Despite his protests that a writer could hardly be expected to ignore such great material, almost to a swan they dumped him — treatment that Capote never got over. As for Ann Woodward, after getting an advance look at “La Cote Basque,” she took a fatal overdose of sleeping pills, thus making Capote, as Montillo sees it, an accomplice in her death.

Capote published no more excerpts from his would-be magnum opus. Indeed, he may have written no more of it — an instance of much hustle but no book. (In 1987 Random House published the three stories under the title “Answered Prayers: The Unfinished Novel”; it runs to 180 pages.) Capote’s final years were replete with drug use, alcoholism and poor health. On Aug. 25, 1984, he died at age 59.

It goes without saying that “Deliberate Cruelty” is awash in salacious material, but Montillo handles it with narrative skill — and deliberate fairness.

Dennis Drabelle is a former contributing editor of Book World.

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