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The Art of Betrayal

A movie about Truman Capote offers lessons for journalists -- and others.

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Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible. He is a kind of confidence man, preying on people's vanity, ignorance, or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse."

So wrote Janet Malcolm in a famous 1989 New Yorker essay (later a book -- The Journalist and the Murderer) about the journalist Joe McGinniss and the murderer Jeffrey MacDonald. McGinniss did a book on MacDonald, writing that he at first thought MacDonald was innocent, only to conclude that he was not. Malcolm concluded only that McGinniss had betrayed his subject without remorse. Could be.

This is pretty much what Truman Capote did to just about everyone, including the killers Richard Hickock and Perry Smith, who in 1959 murdered four members of a Kansas farm family. Capote noticed an account of the crime in The New York Times and decided to do a book about it. With his childhood friend in tow (Harper Lee, later of To Kill a Mockingbird fame), he set out for Holcomb, Kansas. He was a fey, gay New Yorker by way of the South, only 35 and already famous (for Breakfast at Tiffany's, among other things) and clearly the oddest thing ever to tumble into a Kansas farm community so remote that, as he wrote, "other Kansans call [it] 'out there.'" In Cold Blood was not only the best thing Capote ever did, it was virtually the last thing he ever did.

Capote is now a movie -- and a splendid one it is. It stars Philip Seymour Hoffman, who does not so much play Capote as inhabit him. My knowledge of Capote comes only from his late-night appearances on talk shows, but to me Hoffman does Capote better than Capote did, especially toward the end of Capote's life, when he became all show and little sense. It is an incredible performance, and it must alarm Hoffman that art in this case could imitate life. Capote never did better than In Cold Blood. It's hard to see that Hoffman can, either.

In his final days, Capote became pretty well known for betrayal. He published a short story in Esquire called "La Cote Basque 1965," in which he tattled -- a word that suits him perfectly -- on some of the New York ladies with whom he lunched. Of course they were furious. They cut Capote dead, but he was a dying man anyway, expiring at the home of Joanne Carson, the ex-wife of Johnny, in the tony Bel Air section of Los Angeles. By then (1984), he was a bloated alcoholic -- pills too. He was mean, occasionally incontinent, frequently incoherent, and a banal lesson, if you wanted one, in the perils of early success. He was 59 and had not written anything of much substance in about 20 years.

The theme of betrayal stalks Capote's legacy. The shrink in me thinks he turned on those he cared about fearing they would ultimately turn on him -- which does not excuse what he did, merely explains it. It certainly does not excuse his many journalistic betrayals involved in the writing and reporting of In Cold Blood. Among other things, he led the killers -- particularly Smith -- to think he cared about them and would assist in their defense and appeals. All he ever really cared about, however, was transfusing their lives onto the page -- writing and finishing his book.

The writing of it was one thing. For that he had talent in abundance. The finishing of it was another. He needed an ending. He needed his killers dead, and every appeal delayed their execution. They had to die for him to live. It was hardly Capote's fault if they did not understand the bargain. It is one, as Malcolm noted, that many a writer makes.

Capote does not reflect well on journalism, not that Capote was a journalist anyway. Even so, betrayal is not limited to my craft. It is inherent in the palaver of any salesman or womanizer or, for that matter, military recruiter or minister. They all promise what they know they can't deliver or, in the case of the minister, what no one can prove. Journalists just do their betraying publicly, and they often make victims of themselves as well. Capote sure did, but he knew that after the stench of betrayal fades, the work endures. In Capote's case, that is a promise kept.

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