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Protocols of the Editors

Truman Capote spread fears of a literary cabal. So what to make of his forgotten first novel?

Ben Birnbaum
March 01, 2006

Once upon a time in America, when the Playboy “Interview” was a cultural laurel, Truman Capote used the occasion of his preferment (alongside pictorials on body-painting and “Hollywood Honey Jane Fonda”) to warn of a “Jewish literary mafia,” a “clique of New York-oriented writers and critics who control much of the literary scene through the influence of…Jewish dominated” publications and who “make or break” careers in letters by bestowing or rewarding attention.

It was March 1968, and Capote was at his apotheosis, having published what would turn out to be his most eminent book, In Cold Blood, in January 1966, and having hosted what would turn out to be his most eminent party, a masked ball for New York City’s cultural elite, in December 1966. Here he is, the triumphant and daring oracle of society and civilization, the butterfly full-sprung from the chrysalis of the willful writer on the make of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Oscar-nominated performance in Capote.

Capote avoided naming the cabal’s members, though he did offer a list of the writers the clique had made—Bernard Malamud, Saul Bellow, Phillip Roth, I.B. Singer, and Norman Mailer—and the poor souls it had broken—John Knowles, Vance Bourjaily, James Purdy, Donald Windham, Reynolds Price, James Leo Herlihy, Calder Willingham, John Hawkes, and William Goyen. As regards the second group, he said, “The odds are you haven’t heard of most of them, for the simple reason that the Jewish Mafia has systematically frozen them out of the literary scene.” And then to prove that this projection of secret Jewish editorial power was not like other projections of secret Jewish editorial power—which is to say, anti-Semitic—Capote declared that “the Jewish Mafia is based more on a state of mind than on race.” To buttress this peculiar statement, he appended the uncircumcised Dwight Macdonald to the list of figures made by Jews, and added Irwin Shaw, a Jew, to the catalog of Jew-editor victims.

Capote’s Playboy remarks occasioned no contemporary outcry that I can find—not in newspapers or literary journals—and they never came up in his 1984 obituaries, either. This may be because the introduction made clear that Capote was sustained during the lengthy interview by champagne (the only source of nourishment in his refrigerator, Playboy breathlessly reported); or it may be because his 500 or so words on the Jewish literary mafia were part of a 15,000-word pile of runny notions about the Warren Commission, the sexual proclivities of prostitutes, capital punishment, and Capote’s own genius. In any case, his thoughts about Jewish control of the literature business seem not to have been seen as evidence of anti-Semitism—a view later ratified by no less an authority than Norman Podhoretz, who in a 1972 Commentary article recalled the Playboy remarks and declared, “Now Truman Capote is certainly not an anti-Semite.” Although—Podhoretz finished the thought—others who express the same views might very well be.

The Playboy interview remains Capote’s most prominent articulation of the “Jewish literary mafia” hypothesis, but it was not his last. As his ability to write and eventually to live grew weak (both declensions greased by drink and drugs), Capote relied more and more upon extreme statements to gin up the attention due a literary idol. In 1974, in Ishmael Reed‘s Quilt magazine, Cecil Brown, a marginal figure in the Black Arts Movement, published a transcript of an interview with Capote in which Brown spun the drunken writer (this time it was shots of B & B, according to Brown’s introduction) from “What is Bianca Jagger like?” (A: She’d like to bed Michael York) right into “Let’s talk about Saul Bellow.”

Capote takes the leash’s tug like a yearning pup, offering up a story about telling Bellow, the then three-time winner of the National Book Award, that he was “created” by the Jewish Literary Mafia and warning him, “They will destroy you.” And then, like a fifth grader boasting of a brush with the neighborhood bully, Capote sniffed, “I said that to Saul Bellow and then I just walked away.” Further tugs from Brown elicited more rollovers: “All Black ghettoes—all of Harlem was exploited by Jews,” Capote opines, and then, after Brown asks him for an explanation of “JLM” malevolence (“But why?” Brown simpers), Capote says, in a sentence that Julius Streicher would not have laid a pencil to: “They create a thing which can’t be what they want it to be, and then they destroy it.”

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Still, I’m willing to go along with Podhoretz’s assessment, and not because he apparently knew Capote (who believed Podhoretz was one of the cabal’s victims) but because I’ve now read Capote’s Summer Crossing, a first novel that he left behind in draft in a basement apartment in Brooklyn in 1948 and was not discovered and published until 2004.

With the exception of the sad social climber who represents William Paley in Answered Prayers, his last novel, Capote did not write fiction about Jews as Jews. His imagination, formed in the small towns of the South and in the WASPy precincts of the Upper East Side, was otherwise furnished, and nicely. Summer Crossing, however, features a Jew whose ethnicity is an important element of the plot, which pivots upon Grady McNeil, a feckless teenage girl of Upper East Side vintage who is left alone in the summer of 1945 to work out her fate between the twin poles of Clyde Manzer, her Brooklyn-based, parking attendant lover, and Peter Bell, a fey and sexually ambiguous preppy friend from preppy school who hopes to preserve Grady for a sexually ambiguous and preppy future.

Summer Crossing is not a great book, but the panel of editors and writers who said it ought to be published after all those years, in spite of what seems to have been Capote’s intention, made the right literary judgment. Grady may not be a full-blown Holly Golightly, but she’s tartly and complexly drawn. Fifth Avenue between the Plaza and 72nd feels real and drained by war, and Clyde’s Brooklyn family and friends are sadly and generously made. If Peter is more a symbol of something than something itself, and if the ending is phony and histrionic, and if the prose sometimes flashes like distant heat lightning, well, Capote was 20 years old.

As for Clyde Manzer, he has to be among a very few plot-significant Jewish characters drawn by gentile novelists of the 1940s whose character and actions take no sustenance from the hardy anti-Semitic nutrients of the time. Admittedly libidinous, he is just a tool, however; it’s Grady who’s predatory. And when he beds a daughter of Fifth Avenue, it’s only to conquer her, not her father or mother or Mayflower ancestor. And when he marries Grady, it’s only because she tells him to, and it never seems to occur to him that doing so will bring him money and advantage. In the end, it’s the gentile Grady who bends the Jew Clyde to tragedy—a denouement more suited to my Grandma Sadie’s stories of the-world-out-there than to stories made by a man who believed Jews were more malevolent than other kinds of people.

Yes, it’s possible to read this book and say that Capote feared the degradation of WASP purity and privilege at the hands (so to speak) of Jews, but it would be a false reading. For one thing, Grady destroys herself because she finds that Fifth Avenue (not Brooklyn) is no place to live. For another, Capote was too good at hatred and too self-important to have denied himself an opportunity to be cruel. The clever mind, sneaky charm, or overweening aspirations of the Jew, while well established in America’s imagination, were clearly nothing to Capote when he wrote this book. Muscled parking lot attendants were another matter, however.

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So what happened to Capote? Literary ambition happened, and smacked up against other, better-realized literary ambitions. For a writer who invariably called himself a “genius” and who claimed “50 perceptions a minute to everyone else’s five,” admiring good writers like Knowles, Bourjaily, Purdy, and Windham was easy. But admiring Bellow, Roth, Mailer, Singer, or, for that matter, Updike (“a gifted fellow . . . although he doesn’t write about anything”) was impossible.

Capote did not hate Jews. It was worse; he hated a world in which he was a good writer and others were very good or even great writers. When Gore Vidal famously and nastily said of Capote’s death from Valium, codeine, and a wrecked liver at age 59, “good career move,” he was surely right to use the word “career.”

Ben Birnbaum is a writer and editor in Brookline, Massachusetts.