Reading the Holly Golightly piece (“Forever a Gamine at Tiffany’s”) in today’s New York Times revived a thought I had lodged in my mental “to do” file a few weeks ago when I had the pleasure of meeting Thurber biographer, Burton Bernstein.
Listening to Mr. Bernstein expanding upon a passage from his biography concerning (the nearly blind) Thurber being led around The New Yorker’s offices and elsewhere by Capote, got me to thinking about the legend of Capote throwing away cartoons while assisting in The New Yorker’s art department.
Before we get to that, here’s a very brief look at Capote’s earliest days at the magazine. In late 1942 or early 1943, he was hired, while still attending school, as a New Yorker copyboy – a catch-all job that apparently included sharpening pencils, running errands (and yes, leading Thurber around). After a time he was given the plum job of assisting in the art department (according to some, this came out of his close friendship with office manager, Daise Terry).
Capote’s new duties included sorting through incoming envelopes of unsolicited cartoons and attending the art meeting where his job was to place selected drawings on an easel. Each drawing would be examined and discussed by Harold Ross, Rea Irvin, fiction editor, Gus Lobrano, and the temporary art editor, Albert Hubbell (filling in for James Geraghty who’d gone off to serve his country). Daise Terry would take notes on the comments.
Albert Hubbell told Gerald Clarke that up until Capote worked the easel, all previous assistants were like “automatons” — Capote, however, would laugh, make faces and comment on the cartoons. This led Ross to instruct Hubbell: “Tell him to stop that.”
Capote’s copyboy/art assistant days at The New Yorker lasted until the summer of 1944 (his leaving came on the heels of an oft told misunderstanding between Capote and the poet, Robert Frost that eventually led Harold Ross to ban Capote from the offices).
And now on to throwing away cartoons. I’d first come across the story in Brendan Gill’s Here At The New Yorker:
The story goes that after Capote’s departure from the magazine, it was discovered that he had been serving as a sort of self-appointed art editor. One of his tasks was to open the envelopes that contained drawings sent in by artists from all around the country; when Capote didn’t like a drawing, he dropped it over the far edge of the big table at which he worked. Years passed, and someone thought to move the table. Behind it were found hundreds of drawings that Capote had peremptorily rejected, instead of sending them along to Geraghty or Ross. True or false? Nobody knows, for Capote anecdotes are hard to check.
So did he, or didn’t he? This morning, in a stab at clarity, I gathered the Capote material* at hand on these premises and came up with a couple of puzzle pieces.
During many many hours of conversation, conducted over the last two years of Capote’s life, writer Lawrence Grobel had this exchange with Capote about the disappearing cartoons:
Grobel: Is there any truth to the story… that you appointed yourself an art editor, rejecting submitted drawings you didn’t like by dropping them behind a table where you worked?
Capote: No. Where’d you hear that?
Grobel: It’s in Brendan Gill’s book.
Capote: “Well, I was in the art department but I wasn’t throwing away people’s cartoons.”
And, Capote told his biographer, Gerald Clarke:
Sometimes I would get the cartoons all messed up and confused. Then I would throw them into one of those holes and say to myself, ‘Well, I’ll straighten that out later.’ I somehow happened to lose about seven hundred of them that way. I didn’t deliberately destroy them, and I don’t know how I lost track of them.
Despite it being a more colorful story that Capote appointed himself editor and/or destroyed or threw away cartoons, it’s far more believable that the 17 year old Capote was overwhelmed by the volume of unsolicited cartoons (reportedly thousands a week) coming into the office and inadvertently lost track of many of them. But of course, as Brendan Gill suggested, we’ll never really know.
Bernstein, Burton Thurber (Dodd, Mead, 1975)
Clarke, Gerald Capote: A Biography (Simon & Schuster, 1988) pp. 71 – 73.
Clarke, Gerald Too Brief A Treat; The Letters of Truman Capote (Random house, 2004)
Gill, Brendan Here At The New Yorker (Random House, 1975) p.317
Grobel, Lawrence Conversations with Capote (New American Library, 1985) p.56
Inge, M. Thomas Truman Capote: Conversations (University Press of Mississippi, 1987)
Plimpton, George Truman Capote (Nan A.Talese/Doubleday, 1997)