This piece by acclaimed rogue New Orleans journalist (and Mississippi native) Don Lee Keith came to light a week ago in a folder of notes, letters, and other odds and ends while I was looking for something else.
Reading over it again, I made the decision to republish it on Mississippi Sideboard, since, as I’ve stated before, one of this platform’s functions is to preserve amusing or interesting ephemera. Keith’s piece is both interesting, amusing, and sheds a colorful light on people, a time, and a place.
I’ve long since lost the original copy, have only a vague idea of where I may have found it to begin with, and days of research has turned up nothing about the original publication. I did, however find rough drafts of “Fear and Loathing Beneath the Magnolias” in the Earl K Long Library’s archive with Keith’s other papers. If anyone can provide a citation, I’d be much obliged.
JACKSON, MISS.— A year and a half ago, when the post-Junior League women of this capital city began planning the 14th annual Mississippi Arts Festival, they took a shoot-for-the-stars attitude. They set their sights on the likes of Leontyne Price for opera, Liza Minelli for pops, and they wavered between Tennessee Williams and Truman Capote for their literary choices.
Throughout the months of letter writing and phone calling and contract negotiating, the pickings got slimmer. By last weekend, when the festival curtain opened, the committee had altered its preferences and settled on Joanna Simons instead of Leontyne Price. Robert Goulet cost $12,500, which was more realistic than Liza Minelli’s $65,000, so it was Goulet on the festival stage. But by some peculiar move of fate, both choices for the literary star—Williams and Capote—had agreed to appear. When that word was received, the women went into orgasmic ecstasy. They congratulated each other over sherry and called their friends long distance and bored their husbands, talking about nothing but their achievement. “Just think,” they all said, “Tennessee Williams and Truman Capote. Together for the first time on one stage. Ours. What a coup!”
What they did not know was that Williams and Capote did not want to be together on any stage at any time, did not want to speak or even see each other, much less appear on the same program. The two men had locked creative horns in the season’s most celebrated battle of egocentric frenzies. Inviting that pair to the same gathering was tantamount to pitching a couple of savage vipers into the same pit.
Truman Capote had been writing something called Answered Prayers for nearly 20 years. At least that’s how long he’s been talking about it, skillfully interjecting mentions of the book into every major interview, persistently reminding the public that his “life’s work” has a title taken from St. Theresa: “More tears are shed over answered prayers then over unanswered ones.”
In the meantime, of course, he has come out with several other books—most notably In Cold Blood, which he touted as a “new art form” –but no one had seen a word of Answered Prayers until the summer of 1975 when a story in Esquire was billed as a chapter from the long-awaited, finally forthcoming, novel. A few months later, in the same magazine, there appeared a second story, seemingly unrelated but supposedly part of the novel, which set New York society’s teeth on edge. Capote, in that story, sliced his friends off at the ankles. He told secrets, bared confidences, detailed scandals, disclosed intimacies and hung out more dirty linen than a lot of that gold-plated coterie had ever counted on seeing in print. Immediately, the social set reacted like a burnt spider.
Capote offered no explanation or apology. In May of 1976 he published a third story from the novel. And here is where he gave the shiv to a literary friendship that had spanned three decades.
Capote created an admittedly pseudonymous character called Mr. Wallace. He is America’s most acclaimed playwright. He is “a chunky, paunchy, booze-puffed runt with a play moustache glued about his iconic lips.” He has a corn-pone voice and a pet bulldog. He is paranoic. He is a hypochondriac and expects to die at any moment. He is convinced the critics have turned on himl He laments the death of his homosexual lover. And Mr. Wallace—whom the world took to be an unmistakable portrait of Tennessee Williams—is made more memorab le in Capote’s story for having engaged the services of a male prostitute and then proposing to extinguish his cigar in the young fellow’s rear.
The ink of that Esquire story was scarcely dry before Williams had dipped into an ample supply of venom and pulled out a vengeful epithet for Capote.
It was “rattlesnake”.
Well before Christmas, chairman of the Mississippi Arts Festival, Mrs. Heber (“Sister”) Simmons, began making overtures as to the availability of Tennessee Williams. It seemed more logical to invite the playwright because he was, after all, a native Mississippian. He had never appeared on stage in his home state. And, despite the height to which he had raised eyebrows with his revealing Memoirs (1975), there was an undeniable devotion to him among some of the state’s more literate groups.
Williams’ agent, Bill Barnes offered no encouragement, however. Sister Simmons, never a woman to be outdone, shot at the other star, firing off inquiries to Capote’s agent. The reply was a polite No. “Mr. Capote feels that he must closet himself in order to finish the book he is currently writing.”
So, for the first time, the festival committee went to the festival board about an alternate choice for a literary star. James Dickey was considered, a contract was drawn up, tut the board had second thoughts and opted for John Gardner. Gardner’s contract was in the hands of the board, ready for signing, when a telegram arrived from Capote’s agent saying that yes, he would appear. The women in charge of the shindig clasped their bosoms and signed with thanksgiving.
But Sister Simmons would not rest easily until she knew for certain that Williams had personally refused to come to Jackson. She sent out new feelers, fresh inquiries, and dispatched another wire to agent Barnes, with a copy to Williams himself. Then it dawned on her that the festival coffers were empty. All the money had been allocatged.
Raising money in Mississippi to bring in Tennessee Williams can be a furrow-browed chore, particularly when you’re already shelling out three thou for Truman Capote. Potential donors—all the way from bank presidents to prominent professionals—are likely to glance to the side and shuffle nervously at the prospect of paying good money to the likes of those two, regardless of their individual achievements. A kind of magnolia-scented macho rises likethe swamp fog, and when the topic invades beer sessions or hunting outings, the term “damn queers” is heard out loud.
So, Sister Simmons had a few weeks of constant turn-downs ahead, even after Williams informed his agent that he was, indeed, interested in coming to the festival, Finally, with two-thirds of the $4000 pledged, she confronted the board, which eventually agreed to underwrite the rest. If Williams would come, an admission fee of $5 would be charged.
Now, Sister Simmons sat back and waited There was little else she could do.
When Capote’s agent, Irene Smookler, was told that Williams might be appearing at the festival, she said she’s pass that word to her client. Two days later, she phoned Nora Jane Ethridge, seminars chairman, with this message: “Mr. Capote doesn’t care of Mr. Williams comes. He just doesn’t want to look at him.”
Less than two weeks before Festival, a contract with Williams had been signed. His agent has been assured the yes, the playwright was being paid more than Capote. The program had been updated to include Williams and was at the printer. Now, it was Thursday afternoon and Ms. Ethridge was on the phone to Barnes, confirming arrival time and other such details. Mr. Williams was scheduled to go on stage Sunday at 1 p.m., she said. There was no possibility of a conflict since Truman Capote would have already spoken and left town.
“Well, the phone fairly exploded,” says Nora Jane Ethridge. “Bill Barnes just went crazy “Capote? Capote?” he yelled, and went right into a fit about how anybody with any sense would never invite the two men to the same thing, and what did those deceptive women who called themselves fine Southern ladies mean, and if Mr. Williams had cone to Jackson and found that Truman Capote was on the same program how me, Bill Barnes, would have been fired, and well, it went on and on—and before I knew what was happening he had hung up the phone right in my face!”
For two days, the women in charge of the festival breathed short, careful breaths, their optimism corseted by fear that the playwright would cancel. They sent a lengthy telegram to Williams, saying how pleased, how every pleased everyone was that he was coming. They implored Jacksonian author Eudora Welty to call his New York hotel and if she couldn’t get him in person to at least leave a message that she, too, was pleased. And it wasn’t until the 6 p.m. pl,ant landed on Saturday night that anyone was actually sure that Mississippi’s most acclaimed literary son was coming home again.
By then, nerve endings were blood raw from all the excitement that Truman Capote was in town.
Capote’s Saturday had begun with a brunch at the Ethridge house. Predictably, conversations often got around to a mention of Williams. One guest said she was looking forward to meeting him. “You’re in for a big no-treat,” advised Capote. When someone else brought up the question of when Williams latest play, Vieux Carre, might open, Capote remarked, “Oh, his plays open and close so fast you can’t keep up with them.” More immediate concern, however seemed to be on his own appearance on stage.
The crowd arrived early and waited anxiously but patiently. It was an odd assortment and a peculiar one for an auditorium on a religiously-oriented campus. Embroidered jeans sat right next to double-knit leisure suits. Gum-chewing teenagers shared arm rests with blue-haired matrons wearing canary diamonds. And all conversations, regardless of subject matter, halted at 3 o’clock sharp when the place was thrown into sudden darkness, except for a single pink pinspot trained on an edge of the stage. From behind the red velvet curtain, he appeared. His head was tilted back at a rakish angle as he struck a pose, he remained there for a moment, affecting a dislocated hip stance not unlike that of Vogue models of the early 1960s. He was wearing a tannish suit with narrow lapels, and an orange turtleneck sweater. His hands were at his sides until all at once, his right arm shot upward and stayed there, straight, with its hand bobbing limply from its wrist. Amid the roar of applause, someone wondered loudly if he had borrowed that salute from Natalie Wood’s last scene in Gypsy.
Then Capote walked to the podium. The edge of its top reached him mid-chest. He leaned forward to the microphone. He blinked several times in rapid succession and began to speak. Capote’s voice is even more celebrated than his prose. It is as recognizable as a whining mammy-cat—fragile yet somehow strong, condescending but commanding, a rather freakish effect devoid of gruff bass notes, almost as if the transition of adolescence has never visited his vocal cords. He commenced the twice-told tale of a guy in New York who went to a pretty model’s apartment in the Dakota to pick her up for a date. In the living room the man encountered a Great Dane, and while the girl finished dressing, the man amused the dog by bouncing a rubber ball, which the animal would catch in its mouth.
The faint ringing that had begun in the sound system of the auditorium had now reached a loud, hollow echo level and the author stopped his story. Three men appeared from three different directions, each intent on correcting the embarrassing dilemma, but they succeeded only partially. The somewhat muted echo continued its distraction. And Capote continued the saga of the big dog that sprang for a rubber ball and leaped through an open window to its death a dozen floors below.
The audience had started to adjust to the little man on sage. Fewer and fewer nudged each other in the ribs when his voice struck lyric soprano notes. But nervous laughter would mount within the group, erupting every minute or so at the least opportunity. When Capote began reading an early story, “My Side of the Matter,” virtually every sentence was punctuated by spratic giggles from his listeners. It seemed an appropriate response, so with each appreciative round of laughter, his interpretation of the story grew more dramatic.
“My Side of the Matter,” is about a young man with a persecution complex who is riddled with paranoia concerning his wife’s family. It is told in first person, and more than one astute reader has noted its similarity to Welty’s brilliant story, “Why I Live at the P.O.” Capote has vowed that he wrote his story long before reading Miss Welty’s.
Certainly he has written better stories, but seldom has he written more expressive orf, indeed, more theatrical ones. His reading left no point unmade, no nuance unrealized. His gestures were plentiful, and each sweet of the hand, each snarl, each frown, was rewarded with laughter.
But the Peter Lorre-like imp did not go on with his caricature after that story. Instead, he switched the turntable speed from humor to tenderness, and he read his highly autobiographical, “A Christmas Memory”. This time the audience adopted a reverence. Several women dabbed at their eyes in the closing words. Clearly, Capote had won. He had converted the disbelievers, even those who had come to point and smirk, and his victory was evident in the unrestrained applause. The jarring, erratic cadence of the crowd clapping almost managed to drown out the hollow echo of the sound system.
Already four persons had stalked out to the lobby, had demanded and received their money back. One said the Festival folks were putting on a shoddy show. Everybody else, however, appeared determined to hear Capote’s response to audience questions, and the most sensitive of the lot were in for a few attacks of chagrin. When a girl rose and asked if he would mind signing a book for her father, paperbacks suddenly began appearing from purses and from beneath vests, and a lot of autograph seekers gathered at the steps leading to the stage. That’s when the Capote performance fell apart; it had lasted an hour and 38 minutes, and if anybody who had stayed to the finish felt it hadn’t been worth the money, no one said so.
The first thing anyone noticed when entering the auditorium of the Millsaps Christian Center Sunday afternoon was the table placed at center stage. Right smack in the middle of it was a bottle of wine, and to the right of the bottle was a glass, half full of the dark red liquid the sight had the same effect on the first to arrive, and the last. It caused people to sit stiller than people had sat the previous afternoon. Those who had to speak did so in whispers, almost as if the presence of wine in a placed named Christian Center demanded awe. And when Tennessee Williams came on stage promptly at 1 p.m. and stumbled just enough to drop two of the books he was carrying (but managed to hang onto the raincoat draped across his arm) several persons closed their eyes, in dread that it was all true, all those stories about his getting liquored-up and falling out in public. Some remembered what Truman Capote had said on that talk show, that Williams was going around claiming he had cut down on the booze. Capote said he had cut down all right, at least to three or four bottles a day.
At the podium was the woman lieutenant governor, a tall lady who kept reminding the audience, over and over, that the man was a native Mississippian. When she hammered on that point for the fourth time, they laughed. They laughed even harder when she said the governor himself would have been there, had he not been in the hospital getting a medical check-up. The joke was an inside one shared by those who recalled the governor having been hospitalized last year. That, too, was supposedly a check-up but informants reported he was suffering from a gunshot wound accomplished by his wife. They continued the laughter when the tall woman presented Williams with a certificate declaring him an honorary colonel on the governor’s staff.
It was hardly a reassurance when Williams took the mike from the woman and proceeded to sing the first few bars of the esoteric Mississippi state song. And it failed to squelch any scattered uneasiness when, in the midst of an introduction by a lady from his hometown, Columbus, Williams sauntered over to the table and seated himself in the chair behind it.
Oh, Christ, he really is drunk, they thought. But he wasn’t.
After the introduction, he slowly, methodically, raised his wine glass and proposed a toast: “To the imminent recovery of the governor.” The whole place fairly shook with guffaws.
“I know all about Southern proprieties,” he said, “and I don’t want to offend you. Yet I suspect that you expect me to be somewhat unconventional.” And he read a poem called “Ole Men Go Mad at Night”. When he came to a reference regarding “a fox teethed boy” he offered a sliver of parenthetical insight. “That is preparing you for the general, upcoming mood of this afternoon,” he said, “Not that you are not already adequately prepared. And on he went with the poem.
He sat on the edge of the chair, leaning rather precariously on the table, his head framed on one side by the wine bottle and on the other by the microphone. Not infrequently he reached up to stroke a mustache more carefully clipped than his enunciation. On a couple of occasions, he giggled his celebrated giggle, a sort of gentle cross between the sounds of a robust wind chime and a soup spoon caught in a garbage disposal.
He leafed through the book of poetry, hesitating here and there to consider a selection. “I’m doing this unplanned,” he said, smiling, “so in the meantime, you can bite your nails to the quick.” The audience laughed its last laugh of the afternoon. It soon became obvious that Williams was not aiming for humor. He was aiming for sensitivity. He was not offering the audience comedy. He was offering the audience challenge.
He read a longer poem, “The Lady with Nobody at All”. By now he was more relaxed, more comfortable. He was more peaceful. But peace and Tennessee Williams have not walked together often. Throughout most of his 66 years, he has been plagued with gnawing distresses, by claustrophobia, by fear of heart attacks, drinking. His audience didn’t bat an eyelid when Williams read a short piece of fiction named “Mama’s Old Stucco House”. Its central character, Mr. Jimmy, picks up hitch-hiking young men from the nearby air base and entertains them at the house where his mother is dying. There wasn’t a gri9n, even, when Williams read such lines as “An old faggot took me to New York.” The audience was responding to the playwright’s challenge. It was regarding serious creativity as serious creativity. This was no freak they were listening to; eccentric, perhaps, plenty eccentric, but no freak. They were being enlightened, not merely entertained, and it seemed so incidental, whatever might be his sexual preference.
With the final words of the story still hanging in the air like moth trailings, the audience sat motionless, somehow transfixed by a collective shot of Novocain. Then, after a few brief seconds of steady applause, everyone stood at once. No early jump-ups, no late dawdlers. In a single, united movement, the crowd was on its feet, together. It was as if that particular moment had been choreographed, rehearsed, waited for.
Capote had been placed on a Delta jet that morning. Williams had now finished his appearance. Nora Jane Ethridge’s festival duties were three quarters complete. With Williams holed up in an anteroom with a television crew, and the team from People magazine nowhere in sight, Ms. Ethridge could stop fretting and drop all pretenses. She stood backstage with her hands on her hips. “The one yesterday was all you ever hoped for. Why, I had Truman eating out of my hand. But that one, she said, pointing a thin finger toward Williams’ interview room, “he really showed out at first he was the most ungracious, most insulting person I believe I ever saw. But after a while, he was eating of my hand, too. When he’s through in there, we’re going over to my house to have a drink and relax a little before he has to go to the airport.”
Williams sat cross-legged in a wicker chair and accepted a jelly-jar sized glass bucket full of vodka. He was over the rigors of performance. In a couple of house he’d be gone. Around him milled other guests, anxious bo hear but cautious not to seem pushy. All hesitation vanished, however, when the playwright slid into the subject of Capote. They clustered around him, savoring each provocative explicative he spat out. Truman is a gutter rat,” he proclaimed. “Ill-born and ill-mannered. He’s never created an original character and what’s more, he is deliberately malicious. I’d sooner bed down with a cobra than to be in his company.”
The folks in Jackson will be talking a long time about the 14th annual Mississippi Arts Festival, the year when those two came to town. Long after they’ve ceased to remember what the men said on stage, they will recall what was said about each other. Long after Tennessee Williams and Truman Capote have forgotten what each was all about, or indeed, that there was a clash, Jackson will recount tales of it all. By then, some of the stories may still have some vague basis of fact, and perhaps that will be enough. After all, some vague basis of fact is what started it all in the first place.