By James Barron
May 13, 2018
Writers can get grumpy when they get letters from clueless readers. When Susan Akers discovered an irritated reply from Truman Capote among some papers she was going through, what surprised her was the identity of one clueless reader who had sent Capote a note after his first published story appeared in Mademoiselle magazine.
That clueless reader was her mother, a junior in college at the time — which was mid-1945.
Ms. Akers discovered the letter among papers her father had set aside after her mother’s death at 91 in 2014. The letter was a brush with not-yet greatness: Capote was 20 when he tapped it out on a typewriter in his mother’s apartment on Park Avenue. “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” was 13 years in the future, “In Cold Blood,” 20. The story in Mademoiselle, “Miriam,” would win an O. Henry Prize the following year.
Ms. Akers’s mother was Katherine Warner then, but Capote began the letter “Dear Miss Warren.” There is no way to know whether he misread her name or mistyped the right letters in the wrong order, but there is no question that it was Capote at the keyboard. A secretary would not have sent the letter looking the way it did: Three words were marked out with X’s, the way fumble-fingered typists fixed mistakes when they did not bother to retype an entire page.
Just as prehistoric was the typewriter’s inability to correct misspellings. Capote had to write in a missing letter here or a missing word there — “understand” needed an s, “experienced” needed a d and a sentence needed a “was.”
Ms. Akers did not picture her mother as someone who would fire off a letter to an author. “Mother always painted a portrait of herself as a wallflower,” Ms. Akers said, “but it turns out she was quite a social butterfly. She had more confidence than she confessed to me. Who thinks to write an author and say, ‘I don’t get your story, explain it to me’?”
“Miriam” was about Mrs. H. T. Miller, a widow who, Capote wrote in the opening line, “lived alone in a pleasant apartment (two rooms with a kitchenette) in a remodeled brownstone near the East River.” There is a second character, a girl with strange-looking hair — “a demon child,” as Capote described her in the letter to Miss Warner.
“I take it you do not understand Miriam’s relation to Mrs. Miller,” Capote wrote in the letter. “Well, Miriam IS Mrs. Miller, or rather that evil element in her (as there is some degree of evil in all humans) that has never had a chance to expand, or flower as it were. In other words, Miriam is a projection.” Capote said there were clinical terms for what was actually wrong with Mrs. Miller. He mentioned schizophrenia.
Puzzled as to why her mother had not figured out “Miriam” on her own — or why, after Capote became famous, she did not say much about her letter and his answer — Ms. Akers sought clues.
Her mother’s stored-away belongings yielded evidence that Miss Warner might not have been the sharpest reader at Wellesley College. In the spring semester of 1945, just before she wrote to Capote, she received B’s in every subject except one, English. She got a C-minus, according to an entry in her mother’s diary. (The C-minus made Ms. Akers laugh. “My mother used to edit all of our papers before we handed them in,” she said. “She prided herself on English, but we didn’t know about this.”)
Miss Warner had all but predicted that she would have trouble with literature. In a short autobiography written when she was a freshman, Miss Warner declared: “I know myself to lack the feeling for serious high-toned writing which I consider to hold the place of honor in college.” (Grammarians would say she also lacked the feeling for punctuation and would probably put a comma before “which.”)
Ms. Akers’s conclusion? “Maybe ‘Miriam’ was not her cup of tea,” she said.
In the wider world, however, “Miriam” caused “something of a sensation,” the Capote biographer Gerald Clarke said in an interview, and got Capote’s career going.
“In those days, the best fiction in America was published in women’s magazines,” Mr. Clarke said. “Mademoiselle and Harper’s Bazaar, those were the magazines. They had published Virginia Woolf, really avant-garde stuff, whereas The New Yorker was publishing suburban manicured stuff.” Capote, who had been a copy boy at The New Yorker, had been rejected by that magazine. “Part of it was he was trying to imitate The New Yorker style, which he couldn’t do very well,” Mr. Clarke said.
Ms. Akers sent him a scan of Capote’s letter, seeking advice on its significance. “It doesn’t change anything in the interpretation” of “Miriam,” Mr. Clarke said, but it is important because it was contemporaneous, “not something he’s remembering 30 years later.”
“This sounded like him, but I didn’t know him when he was 20 years old, which makes it interesting,” Mr. Clarke said. “I knew him starting in his early 40s. There’s a difference. When he wrote this letter, he was not a famous person. I think it’s charming that he sat down to write the letter. I’m not sure how many fiction writers would do that. Fiction writers don’t like to explain their stories. They like to think people can interpret them, and if they have to explain them, it’s a bit much.”
Ms. Akers decided to donate the letter to the New York Public Library, which has Capote’s papers but will keep the letter separate, as it does with material acquired from sources other than Capote’s estate. Thomas Lannon, the library’s assistant director for manuscripts, archives and rare books, said the library accepted the letter because “there’s not much correspondence” from Capote.
“He didn’t keep copies” of letters he sent, Mr. Lannon said. “To find other Truman Capote letters, you don’t go to the Truman Capote papers, you go to other people’s papers.”
In a folder from the papers of Diana Vreeland were postcards Capote had sent her — one from Leningrad in 1956, another from somewhere in Greece in 1958. From a folder of the papers of Irving Berlin, Mr. Lannon pulled a letter Capote had written to the composer of “God Bless America” in 1948. That is the year he wrote the novel “Other Voices, Other Rooms,” and he told Berlin it was one of four accomplishments that year.
But Ms. Akers’s letter was striking, he said: “The Capote of that letter is so young.”
Ms. Akers’s mother was young herself — she was 10 months older than Capote.