Some rare family photos and a collection of Truman Capote’s letters to his favorite aunt in Alabama — on topics ranging from Harper Lee to Tallulah Bankhead to his longing for down-home butter beans — are going on permanent display in the state’s literary capital, where the writer spent some of his boyhood.
The collection, while apparently containing no riveting new material on his life and times, is a coup for the town that was spun into memorable works by Capote and Lee, his childhood friend and neighbor. It was assembled by Capote’s cousin, Jennings Faulk Carter, who donated it to the Monroe County Heritage Museums for an exhibit that opens April 27 in Monroeville’s Old Courthouse on town square.
Carter said there has been a “lot of static” in his family about turning over the family memorabilia, but he said he’s making it public so people will learn more about his famous cousin.
“I’m the only one that tried to accumulate the stuff that related to Truman and put it in a scrapbook,” Carter, 79, a retired crop-duster pilot, said in an interview at the museum.
The carefully restored Old Courthouse in southwest Alabama already draws about 30,000 visitors a year, mainly to an exhibit about Lee, famous for her novel, “To Kill a Mockingbird.” A stage production of the book is performed each April and May, with the 16 performances drawing sold-out crowds to the 250-seat courthouse auditorium.
Capote, who died in Los Angeles at age 59 in 1984, had close emotional ties to his aunt, Carter’s mother, Mary Ida Faulk Carter, the younger sister of Capote’s mother.
Off to HollywoodA prolific correspondent, Capote wrote the best seller “In Cold Blood,” the Kansas murder story of the Clutter family that was featured in the movie, “Capote,” which won an Academy Award for Philip Seymour Hoffman, who played the writer.
The memorabilia preserved by Jennings Carter includes a dozen handwritten letters, which he said accumulated in dresser drawers, though some were lost over the years.
In one, dated July 9, 1959, Capote tells his aunt that Lee — known to family and friends by her birth name, Nelle — has a novel in the works: “Yes, it is true that Nelle Lee is publishing a book. . ..I liked it very much. She has real talent.”
In another letter to his aunt, Capote, who loved gossip, discussed a planned trip to Alabama with another Alabama native, Tallulah Bankhead, that he canceled to go to Hollywood to work on the movie version of his book, “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.” He wrote that Marilyn Monroe will play Holly Golightly in the film — a role that producers instead gave to Audrey Hepburn.
He wrote that Bankhead — whose father was a congressman from Alabama — would be disappointed in not going to Hollywood, but it’s probably good that she didn’t stay in Monroeville because, he wrote, “Tallulah stays up all night every night and never gets up till five in the afternoon. She is a marvelous woman, and very amusing — but oh so exhausting!
“Two evenings with her would be enough to last you a lifetime.”
Capote also wrote about his stepfather’s bad behavior after his mother’s death in 1954, saying he shouldn’t be expected to financially support him if he “wants to stay out all night dancing in nightclubs with a stable of girlfriends.” He underlined “stable.”
In closing the July 9, 1959 letter, Capote told his aunt: “Oh I do wish I could have some butter beans. Now! This very minute.”
Many of Capote’s letters were published in “Too Brief a Treat,” a collection edited by Gerald Clarke.
Clarke, who wrote a 1988 Capote biography, notes that Capote’s letters can be found in libraries and personal collections throughout the United States and Britain. The largest collection is housed in the New York Public Library.
Clarke, who said he talked at great length with Carter’s parents for his biography, has not seen the Carter collection but doubts they contain anything that would surprise him.
“I don’t think there are many Capote letters that I have not seen for my biography and for ’Too Brief a Treat.’ But there are undoubtedly some that I have not seen and that I hope will come to light someday,” Clarke said.
In a 1963 photo included in the collection, Capote has an arm around his aunt. During that visit, Capote was working on “In Cold Blood,” which was released in 1966 and billed by Capote as an innovative “nonfiction novel.”
As Carter, who took the photo, recalled in an interview: “He was just bubbling over. He was telling all of us he had created a new style of writing. I don’t know whether he did or not, but it was an impressive book.”
As boys, Carter and Capote played together.
“I was sort of young and impressionable. He was sort of a hero because he always had a pocket full of money — always. You’d never go to the drug store where he couldn’t treat you — if he would. He was also pretty stingy,” Carter recalled.
On visits home, Carter said Capote loved to brag about where he had been and what he had done. “Half of it was lies, I’m sure,” Carter said, laughing at the memory. The collection includes 13 postcards dated from the 1950s through the late 1970s, mostly from European vacations.
Family photosBorn in New Orleans in 1924, Capote’s parents often left him in Monroeville with his distant cousins, the Faulks — three sisters and a brother. The sisters are easily recognized as characters in some of Capote’s most popular works, including “A Grass Harp,” “A Christmas Memory” and “The Thanksgiving Visitor.”
In the summer of 1930, Capote was dropped off there, remaining in Monroeville until two years later when his mother took him to her new home in New York.
The collection includes family photos, including two rare photos of Capote’s mother, Lillie Mae Faulk Persons, holding baby Truman; and photos of Capote’s father, Arch Persons, who was never a large part of his life. The couple divorced. She changed her name to Nina and married Joe Capote, the writer’s stepfather, who adopted him and moved the family to New York.
In his will, Capote created a literary trust to give a prize in honor of Newton Arvin for the best book of literary criticism and to give scholarships for creative writing, said Louise Schwartz of Los Angeles, associate trustee of the Truman Capote Literary Trust.
The prize is administered by the University of Iowa’s Writers’ Workshop and totals $30,000 each year to the best book of literary criticism published in the last few years. The trust also has scholarships at the University of Alabama, Stanford University, the University of Iowa, the Institute of American Indian Arts, Xavier University in New Orleans and Appalachian State University, Schwartz said in an e-mail interview.
Literary rights to the letters in Monroeville belong to the trust. Capote’s cousin owns the paper only, but can display them.