Truman Capote novel inspired ‘Conversations with’ Justin Ross Smith

Written by By Chelsea Jerusalim, CNN

“I was a star, a swan. And Truman Capote betrayed me.”

So begins a brilliantly anticomic story by Justin Ross Smith in his new memoir “Conversations with Truman Capote,” which recounts Smith’s career as a literary agent whose work was idolized by the famous author.

As an aspiring literary agent in the 1970s, Smith was also an avid admirer of Capote’s work and had the chance to meet his idol several times. For Smith, Capote’s widely admired personality and intoxicating, candid dialogue were the things that really hooked him.

This insight into the genesis of Capote’s persona comes as part of Smith’s ongoing investigation into literary love and fame in the 1970s, a generation that in Smith’s words, lacked “cultured, educated people who were happy to let their writing come first.”

The author told CNN that Capote was a kindred spirit.

“The difference is that he had support and respect for the book, and I never had that,” he said. “We have different needs and he had both, while I didn’t.”

Don Achey, Capote’s brother, elaborated on Smith’s story.

“Truman was very privileged,” he said. “Truman was even privileged above most everybody else — he had an editor and literary agent who were well equipped and knew what they were doing, and that’s all Truman had, was what he had.”

Smith didn’t mind, but added that Capote “wore his privilege very unconventionally,” noting the writer’s unapologetic declaration that “the best control of his life was to be dead.”

In order to pursue his own writing career, Smith has found his way to Esquire magazine, which he said is filled with “deranged smokers, violent females, terrible people who are on the wrong side of the law” — a far cry from the intellectual community Capote frequented with his literary agent and photographer Robin Orr.

While Smith wasn’t a fan of Orr, the photographer later snuck into a Capote tribute and followed Capote into a bathroom, which the author liked a lot, Smith said.

“It was a little bit awkward, it seemed like everybody expected to be afraid of him,” Smith said. “But the first time he came out of the bathroom he was just beaming; he looked great, he looked handsome.”

Award-winning writer David Remnick, founder of The New Yorker, told CNN that he read “Conversations with Truman Capote” when it came out.

“The story is relevant not just for the powerful literary figures of the day, but also for all of us today,” he said.

And there are many lessons in it, he added.

“This is a fair summary of how the new professional actress, the new successful literary agent, the new political journalist, the new book publicist, the new TV news person, the new power player are different from those of the old and beginning of the new century. These are new sorts of institutions, with new relations with old ones.”

“All of the things that we hate about our new professional arena are being taken up,” Remnick said. “And with reason. There are now more decisions in people’s lives, more money and authority and power, and culture and language than there were in ’61.”

Smith described his response to that.

“No matter how powerful a group, how many gatekeepers you get, there are still more people coming up behind, and more people to be influenced by,” he said.

“There’s always pressure on the people who have the strength to want to stay up there — or to set up a foundation that is worthy of a heart and humanity and culture and pleasure.”

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