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TRUMAN CAPOTE AND EVENING IN PARIS…
THE SMELL OF DESERTION
I have never read Truman Capote’s famous novels, but I have read and re-read his short stories, which in 2004 were compiled in one book, The Complete Stories of Truman Capote, and which I perennially dig out of my bookshelf each November. “A Christmas Memory” is not only a holiday classic, but certainly one of the most accomplished and heartbreakingly lovely short stories ever written; it speaks from, and to, the deepest core of a person’s being—that place where we acknowledge that we are solitary and alone in this world, except for the times we are able to experience a shared wonder in the world with a companionable soul. In “A Christmas Memory,” that companionable soul takes the form of Miss Sook Faulk, the elderly spinster cousin who was young Truman’s closest friend during his childhood; a woman so shy and innocent of heart as to appear simpleminded, but who gave him what he might never have received otherwise: “the gift of a dignified love—a gift he’d received from no closer kin,” novelist Reynolds Price states so eloquently in his introduction to the collection of Capote’s stories.
Capote, as many familiar with his biography know, was born in 1924, the only son of a beautiful, self-absorbed mother and a father who proved inept at providing for the needs of a wife and child. His mother, Lillie Mae Faulk, was only seventeen when she gave birth to her son, and not long into her marriage she embarked on a number of promiscuous affairs, perhaps spurred by the disappointment of learning, as early as her honeymoon, that her husband was a poseur: a man of flashy gestures and “an appetite for elegance,” as Capote once described him in a story, but with little in the way of real wealth. He was always running out of funds, such that midway through his honeymoon, he sent Lillie Mae back home to her family because he could not afford the remainder of their trip. At one point in their marriage, he was even jailed for financial fraud. By the time Truman was four, his parents had abandoned him to the care of Lillie Mae’s relatives, her elderly, unmarried cousins—three sisters and a brother—who lived together in a big house in small-town Monroe, Alabama. Lillie Mae took off for New York City, where she met a wealthy Cuban businessman, Joe Capote, whom she married after divorcing Truman’s father. In 1933, she sent for Truman to come live with them, which he did, eventually adopting his stepfather’s surname. However, by then his childhood had been thoroughly scarred by his parents’ desertion.
Those scars surface in several of Truman Capote’s short stories, and in two such stories, neither of which are autobiographical in nature, there is nonetheless the symbol of Lillie Mae, the absent mother, within each of them: that symbol being Evening in Paris perfume. I came to realize this after reading snippets of Gerald Clarke’s authoritative and engaging Capote: A Biography, published in 1988, in which the biographer wrote:
…none of the Faulk sisters, even the beloved Sook, could take the place of his real parents. Lillie Mae, it is true, would appear occasionally from some distant place, her stylish, expensive clothes exciting envious glances from her friends. But she soon disappeared in a fragrant cloud of Evening in Paris, her favorite perfume. Truman was always desolate when she drove off; once, finding a perfume bottle she had forgotten, he drank it to the bottom, as if he could bring back the woman with her scent. On one visit he convinced himself that she was going to take him away with her. “But after three or four days she left,” he said, “and I stood in the road, watching her drive away in a black Buick, which got smaller and smaller and smaller. Imagine a dog, watching and waiting and hoping to be taken away. That is the picture of me then.”1
Clarke also revels in his biography that Lillie Mae had a weakness for men of the hot-blooded, Latin lover stereotype. Her brother-in-law, complaining of her dalliances in a letter, noted: “Invariably, they are Greeks, Spaniards, college sheiks, foolish young city upstarts, or just as immature small-town habitants.” Is it mere coincidence, then, that in Truman Capote’s stories, “A Diamond Guitar” (from 1950) and “Mojave” (from 1975), both of which involve abandonment, the guilty characters include two young men of Spanish descent who share the same last name and have a thing for Evening in Paris cologne?
“A Diamond Guitar” is a poignant love story, of sorts, that takes place on a prison farm in the deep south, out in the middle of nowhere, on forested land where the convicts labor at tapping trees for turpentine. Mr. Schaeffer is a prisoner who has earned the title of “mister” for his ability to read and write, his talent at carving wooden dolls that are sold in the town’s general store, and by virtue of his long residence there. He has survived his sentence rather peaceably by forgetting what life was like before he came to the farm—in other words, by forgetting what it was like to feel alive—and then along comes a new young prisoner:
Tico Feo was eighteen years old and for two years had worked on a freighter in the Caribbean. As a child he’d gone to school with nuns, and he wore a gold crucifix around his neck. He had a rosary too. The rosary he kept wrapped in a green silk scarf that also held three other treasures: a bottle of Evening in Paris cologne, a pocket mirror and a Rand McNally map of the world. These and the guitar were his only possessions, and he would not allow anyone to touch them. Perhaps he prized his map the most. At night, before the lights were turned off, he would shake out his map and show Mr. Schaeffer the places he’d been—Galveston, Miami, New Orleans, Mobile, Cuba, Haiti, Jamaica, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands—and the places he wanted to go to. He wanted to go almost everywhere, especially Madrid, especially the North Pole. This both charmed and frightened Mr. Schaeffer. It hurt him to think of Tico Feo on the seas and in far places. He sometimes looked defensively at his friend and thought, “You are just a lazy dreamer.”2
Most of the time, Tico Feo is a lazy dreamer, but, of course, he knows how to successfully dream up an escape—one that involves Mr. Schaeffer and then leaves him behind.
Capote’s “Mojave” is actually a story-within-a story, in which we meet a stripper named Ivory Hunter and her quarry, a seventy-year-old blind man named George Schmidt. George is widowed and living in a trailer court when he meets the aging Ivory, who is well past her stripping days and appears to be somewhat reformed—the type of good woman who reads the Bible and “good magazines like Reader’s Digest and The Saturday Evening Post,” when she is not plying him with her other feminine wiles. Things are going real well for George and Ivory, so he marries her, turns his bank-savings into a joint account, and puts the trailer in her name. Then he gets word from his friend Hulga, his neighbor in the trailer park, that Ivory has been cheating on him with Freddy Feo.
‘Now see, Freddy Feo was an itinerant Tex-Mex kid—he was just out of jail somewhere, and the manager of the trailer park had picked him up in one of those fag bars in Cat City and put him to work as a handyman. I don’t guess he could have been one-hundred-percent fag because he was giving plenty of the old girls around there a tickle for their money. One of them was Hulga. She was loop-de-do over him. On hot nights him and Hulga used to sit outside her trailer on her swing-seat drinking straight tequila, forget the lime, and he’d play the guitar and sing spic songs. Ivory described it to me as a green guitar with his name spelled out in rhinestone letters. I’ll say this, the spic could sing. But Ivory always claimed she couldn’t stand him; she said he was a cheap little greaser out to take Hulga for every nickel she had. Myself, I don’t remember exchanging ten words with him, but I didn’t like him because of the way he smelled. I have a nose like a bloodhound and I could smell him a hundred yards off, he wore so much brilliantine in his hair, and something else that Ivory said was called Evening in Paris.’3
Ivory denies accusations of an affair, and after a spell, she convinces George that what she really wants is for the two of them to pick up the trailer, leave California, and head for the cool Northeast. He concedes, and in no time at all, she’s got the trailer uprooted and their savings converted into traveler’s checks. With Ivory at the wheel, they hit the open road and George falls immediately asleep—but when he finally awakens, his blood-hound nose detects the smell of brilliantine and dime-store perfume wafting from the back of the trailer. And when Ivory gets keen to George’s awareness, she leaves him standing by the side of the road in the middle of the Mojave Desert.
“We all, sometimes, leave each other out there under the skies, and we never understand why,” one of Capote’s characters later concludes in the story—which is not only a universal truth, but evidence, I think, that the author was trying to come to grips with his own abandonment. Still, as late as 1975, whether consciously or not, he was attaching a specific name—and a specific scent—to that feeling of desertion: Evening of Paris, his mother’s favorite perfume.
1. Gerald Clarke, Capote: A Biography (New York: Carroll & Graf Publishers, 1988), p. 24.
2. Truman Capote, The Complete Stories of Truman Capote (New York: Random House, 2004), p. 189.
3. Truman Capote, The Complete Stories of Truman Capote (New York: Random House, 2004), p. 281.
Image: photo of Truman Capote in 1947 by Henri-Cartier Bresson/ Magnum Photos.
Posted by Suzanne Keller, 12/8/2008.
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