Though he was no stranger to controversy in his lifetime, Truman Capote caused quite the stir in late 1957 with the publication of “The Duke in His Domain,” his stunning profile of the actor Marlon Brando for The New Yorker. The article was the product of an interview Capote landed with Brando earlier that year while the actor was on location in Kyoto, Japan, to star in the blockbuster film
In the article he eventually worked up for The New Yorker, Capote offered a withering assessment of Brando that laid bare some of the most intimate details of their hours-long conversation. He portrayed the film star as a tortured but somewhat vacuous, self-absorbed showoff who thrived on the attention of others but simultaneously pitied and rejected those closest to him. In Capote’s eyes, Brando was a poser: someone who claimed never to have read fiction but thought he could write it (and write it well), who told reporters he wanted to make films that would do some good in the world but was really just in it for the money, who waxed philosophical about all manner of subjects but more often just monologued to bask in the sound of his own voice.
The acerbic profile stunned Brando when it appeared in the magazine, Capote’s biographer Gerald Clarke explains. He thought he had shared some of his deepest secrets about his conflicted relationship with Hollywood, his longing for acceptance, and his painful memories of his unhappy childhood and his mother’s alcoholism with the author in confidence, but Capote aired all of them and more, unsparingly. According to Joshua Logan, the director of Sayonara, Brando apparently burst out with “I’ll kill him!” when he finished reading the profile—even though Logan had warned him before the interview to stay away from Capote. “Don’t let yourself be left alone with Truman,” Logan had advised. “He’s after you.” In the weeks following the publication of “The Duke in His Domain,” Clarke writes, prominent critics also weighed in on Capote’s takedown of the star in
The Kyoto setting and the famous actor at the center of “The Duke in His Domain” may have been new to Capote, but the thorny subjects of fame and self-invention were familiar territory for the author. At least as far back as his 1949 Mademoiselle short story “Children on Their Birthdays”—a darkly comic tale about the sashaying, twirling, ten-year-old Miss Lily Jane Bobbit and her dreams of making it in Hollywood—Capote broached questions about public image in his work, exploring the ways in which the illusion is invented and sustained, and how, as the persona grows bigger and bigger, the gulf between perception and reality tends to widen as well.
At the same time, from his splashy debut on the American literary scene in the mid-1940s until his death in 1984, Capote was himself an expert in self-promotion who seized on any opportunity at his disposal to stage the enthralling public persona for which he is now remembered. “No one wanted to be famous more than Truman,” Capote scholar Tison Pugh explains. “And he knew how to work into any situation that would advance that for him.”
“The Duke in His Domain” endures today as one of the more notorious examples of Capote’s abiding interest in the subject of self-presentation. All these years later, a far lesser-known work—an unpublished article by Capote preserved among his personal papers at the Library of Congress—shows us that, before the dust had a chance to settle in the aftermath of the infamous Brando profile, Capote set out to tackle the idea of self-presentation yet once more, and in the unlikeliest of places: in the Soviet capital of Moscow during the Cold War. Indeed, for nearly two years throughout 1958 and 1959, Capote worked intermittently on another profile for The New Yorker about a group of Russian twenty-somethings known as Moscow’s “jet-set” and their own fraught attempts to fashion a public persona out of the paltry means available to them in the Soviet Union.
Bolstered by a prominent last name, a limitless supply of money, and a fantasy of Western life and culture, Capote explains, Anna has deceived and contrived her way into remarkability out of nothing.
These jet-setters—the “sons and daughters of the Russian Revolution,” Capote called them—were the children of the politicians, artists, scientists, and public figures who rose to prominence in the country’s bloody unrest years earlier, when Bolshevik insurrectionists toppled the monarchy and established the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. They read The New Yorker and Vogue and relished smuggled recordings of Jelly Roll Morton and Jimmy Giuffre. They snuck into private screenings of foreign films like Eighty Days Around the World and Citizen Kane and swapped gossip about diplomats and celebrities visiting Moscow as though it were a precious good. Though some of them were employed as actors, directors, linguists, or junior diplomats, all of them were the beneficiaries of limitless capital and endless second chances who lived comfortably behind their parents’ distinguished reputations.
Capote took two trips to Moscow and drafted over 40 pages of his article on the jet-set, but set it aside, unfinished, in late summer 1959 and never again picked it up. Unless a new cache of Capote’s papers is rescued from trash collection off a street corner somewhere in Brooklyn—it’s happened before—the June 1959 draft at the Library of Congress, which Capote at one point titled “A Daughter of the Russian Revolution,” may be the last surviving version of his never-completed profile of the Moscow jet-set for The New Yorker. As with any unfinished or unpublished manuscript, it’s impossible to say with certainty what Capote intended for this piece.
Nevertheless, in their present state, these handwritten, obsessively line-edited pages of this draft of “A Daughter of the Russian Revolution” give us a rare glimpse of Capote in progress, working out a response to something that fascinated him throughout his life and in his work: the ease with which someone can invent, and get others to believe in, a fiction of the self that glimmers on the surface but is, deep down, hollow. And although he does not hide his criticism of this type of deception in this draft—just like he didn’t shy away from exposing this same impulse in Brando—Capote offers us something more than just a cheap broadside against superficiality and self-invention. Instead, by pausing on this tendency, Capote raised tough questions about what drives the fictions of self we create, what mechanisms sustain them, and what it might take to sympathize with—or at least try to understand—the purveyors of these fictions when we know the fronts are false.
Capote’s examination of self-invention hinges on his depiction of a woman named Anna, the ringleader of the Moscow jet-set. (Anna is a pseudonym, Capote tells us. More on that later.) She is 20 years old and the daughter of an esteemed Russian scientist. After only a year in attendance, we learn, Anna was kicked out of her university in Moscow for an “arrogant” attitude and “willful sloth”—a “tragic” event, Capote explains, that caused her scientist father to mourn for a week “as if his daughter had died.” Through Capote’s eyes, we begin to see that everything about Anna seems carefully orchestrated to convey some level of importance, from her coquettish manner of speaking, smoking, and flirting to her plucky asides about the Soviet political establishment (“bloodless cold cuts”) and the masses (the “humbles,” or, “a tiresome lot of sausage links”) to her abiding fixation on Western fashion and culture.
Though Anna seems to have successfully convinced her jet-set acolytes otherwise—not to mention the foreign journalists who track her every move—Capote recognizes Anna’s performance for the front that it is, and he offers up his own searing evaluation of her in response. Bolstered by a prominent last name, a limitless supply of money, and a fantasy of Western life and culture, he explains, Anna has deceived and contrived her way into remarkability out of nothing and “invented a Moscow version of the sphere in which she wished to orbit.” Her coquettishness comes across as little more than vain, sometimes mean-spirited, prattling. Her jokes about the Soviet government are merely jabs recycled from foreign diplomats, and the gossip she and the jet-set breathlessly trade is tepid and uninteresting. Her clothing is shabby and “mediocre,” lifted from the pages of outdated Western fashion magazines. Her educational and intellectual aspirations, not to mention artistic or literary talents, are, in Capote’s eyes, nonexistent, and instead she comes across as a bit of an airhead who bides her time aimlessly getting drunk on Courvoisier while she waits for her next social engagement.
Capote doesn’t let us forget just how astonishing it is that a person like Anna can even exist in an environment so hostile to her lifestyle.
Capote does admit to one impressive talent of hers—fluency in French, Italian, German, and classical Latin and a “freakish” grasp of English—but notes that she has left the Soviet Union only once, and the chief use to which it seems she can put this linguistic dexterity is to making fun of the “humbles” in a language they can’t understand. (“[S]howoff razzledazzle with a serviceable side,” he calls it.) True to form, Capote offers up an assessment of Anna that is simultaneously dazzling and devastating: Anna is “snobbish,” he writes, “her tongue savoured a lie as much as it might a peppermint, a talent for quiet cruelty trickled through her like a cold underground creek, conceit was her constant attendant.”
And yet, tempting though it may have been to pounce on Anna’s blatant vanity and call it a day, Capote stops short of dismissing her and her ilk altogether and gives us something a little more complex. Indeed, throughout “A Daughter of the Russian Revolution,” Capote displays a fascinating tendency to undercut his own assessment of Anna: to walk the harsh critique back and invite us—challenge us, even—to feel something bordering on sympathy for Anna, even in her most arrogant or objectionable moments. Capote tried out this move a handful of times in the Brando piece, interjecting his ruthless portrait of the actor with revelations of some of his most guarded secrets. Here, in his depiction of Anna, he cleverly refashions this technique for an altogether more unsettling effect.
For one, Capote doesn’t let us forget just how astonishing it is that a person like Anna can even exist in an environment so hostile to her lifestyle. The article begins with Capote and some Moscow jet-setters killing time in a room overlooking the city’s imposing Red Square, where the infamous Lenin-Stalin tomb “loom[s]. . .like an Army tank made of marble.” This Moscow backdrop comes into focus in the article as a gloomy, dull place where a state-mandated ethos of blunt pragmatism manifests in practice in the form of nightmarish inefficiencies and the routine suppression of any distinctive self-expression or ambition. “[W]orkable soap and wearable shoes and breathable living space” are, he explains, “a Soviet scarcity,” and everyday activities like shopping for groceries demand “exasperating effort” and several hours of valuable time. “[I]t is as though a war-time rationing system existed [in the Soviet Union] that made of everything, from filling stomachs to fueling stoves, an ordeal demanding stoic discipline,” he observes.
Though the jet-set may be shielded from some of these more oppressive strictures by virtue of their last names and their wealth, Capote shows that the regime’s stifling pressures exert themselves on even their most rarefied sliver of Soviet life. In mentioning his choice to use pseudonyms in place of their real names, for example, Capote implies the potential of repercussions, possibly even violent ones, against the jet-set for their defiant lifestyle. (In fact, Capote would later explain to Clarke that the possibility of violence against his subjects for their “pro-Western views” was a big reason why he never finished the piece.) Anna may be “unremarkable,” and her lifestyle contrived, Capote demonstrates, but “the insertion on the Soviet scene of so unsoviet a personality. . . made one marvel.” Who wouldn’t want to escape this harrowing sociopolitical reality with a bit of fanciful self-invention?
It’s not just these reminders of so unforgiving a context that bid us to look beyond Anna’s vanity and self-conceit. Capote also muses on a more private—and universal—suffering at the heart of Anna’s deception. He observes that though on the surface she seems to relish the “sense of exceptional apartness” her lifestyle creates, deep down, “in the seclusion of her heart,” she loathes it, because it gives rise to “feelings of remorse and doubt, tremors of quiet that she should be in such disagreement with her milieu.” We catch glimpses of Anna’s insecurity throughout the article in her solicitous attempts to win over Capote and assure him—and herself—that he is, in fact, enjoying his time with the jet-set.“
We have had fun, haven’t we?” she asks, but sits in quiet disbelief “with an unconvinced demeanor” when Capote tries to assuage her. Even if Anna’s idea of herself is a falsehood, who hasn’t felt that painful twinge of doubt or disloyalty that comes when we step out from our family, or our friends, or familiar ways of being in the world and try to make a name or build a life for ourselves? Given that much of Capote’s insight on this particular matter seems to stem from assumptions about Anna’s innermost thoughts—not to mention the fact that he was not opposed to bending the truth in his nonfiction to serve his own objectives—this aspect of “A Daughter of the Russian Revolution” may tell us as much about Capote’s own conflicted relationship to public image, celebrity, and fame as it does about Anna or the jet-set or Moscow in the Cold War.
Lest we start to feel overly tender towards Anna, however, Capote soon depicts her in a moment of unsparing cruelty, as she flicks a cigarette at her on-and-off beau Dmitri and then gaslights him into acceding that it is merely her form of playful teasing. And just like that we are back in the register of critique, as Capote once more punctures her inflated sense of self by exposing all of the performing and preening and pretending required to sustain it. Capote oscillates like this—between reveling in her unmasking and ruminating on the painful and more universal dimensions of her plight—often enough that as the article nears its end our allegiances are scrambled and it’s not clear just how we’re supposed to feel about Anna and her situation. The final pages of the draft only confound the matter: Capote drops the plotline involving Anna entirely and pivots to an account of an afternoon spent with her cousin, Natasha.
In almost every way, Natasha is Anna’s foil, a far cry from the restless, jet-setting pretender she calls kin. Here, as Capote reports the details of Natasha’s humdrum life, the draft ends abruptly, midsentence, and we’re left to wonder just how he planned to bring the story of Anna and the jet-set to a close. (A few reasons might explain why Capote abandoned the article in this unfinished state. On top of his concern about potential violence against his subjects, Capote admitted to his editor that he “lost faith” in the piece, and in August 1959 he canned it for good, sending
Capote was one to resist easy conclusions in his work, though, so it could be that leaving the question of how to relate to an enigma like Anna an open one was a strategic move in “A Daughter of the Russian Revolution.” To suspend us in that uncomfortable tension—as much a party to her gleeful unmasking as we are forced to reckon with its more sympathetic origins—may very well have been the point. Sixty years ago, and halfway around the world, Capote wrote his way into an enduring truth that has only become more relevant in the intervening years: that the pursuit of remarkability for its own sake is rarely satisfying or fulfilling, yet we continue to strive for it anyway, with whatever means we have at our disposal, driven to it by our insecurities, a sense of despair or suffocation at our surroundings, or a little bit of both.
It’s a notion plenty of great writers wrestled with long before Capote ever took off for Moscow in 1958, but it’s one we seem perpetually unable to grasp, all the more so now as our lives, relationships, work, and leisure become increasingly yoked to digital platforms that urge us to contrive, create, disseminate, and monetize digital fictions of ourselves. Capote never lived to see the internet age, of course, but based on this glimpse into his attitude about self-invention in “A Daughter of the Russian Revolution,” it’s a sure bet that he’d have something to say—maybe a tweet—about our curious obsession with our online selves.
Quotations from Capote works used with permission of The Truman Capote Literary Trust.