The Truman Capote Auction

Truman Capote, who's been dead since 1984, has been having a big year. There are the dueling movies: Bennett Miller's "Capote," which won an Oscar for actor Phillip Seymour Hoffman, and this fall's much-praised "Infamous" by Douglas McGrath. Both cover the years Capote spent writing "In Cold Blood," and the book itself is now selling like crazy again—more than half a million copies since the first film opened. And this week, an eclectic assortment of Capote's personal belongings came up for auction, attracting the kind of fan who would pay, it turned out, $2,750 for the author's plastic MasterCard or $400 for half a dozen matchbooks (four embossed with his name and one from the restaurant La Cote Basque). You can't make this stuff up, even if you're Truman Capote.

But Capote would have understood perfectly the lure of the celebrity auction, a way for ordinary people to glimpse the lives of the rich and famous after they're gone—even if poking through the detritus of someone else's life can be a little creepy and, in the case of Capote, less than spectacular. The contents of this sale—titled "The Private Life of Truman Capote"—were put on auction by Joanne Carson, the second wife of Johnny Carson and one of Capote's closest friends. She met the author in the 1960s at a party given by his publisher, Bennett Cerf, and when she divorced the famous talk-show host, Capote stuck by her. "When we split, everyone moved to Johnny," she recalls. "I had one person stay with me, and that was Truman. He took care of me when I was down, and I took care of him." Her Los Angeles home became Capote's West Coast base. And after his New York socialite friends—the swans, he called them—dropped him for revealing their secrets in an excerpt from his unfinished novel, "Answered Prayers," Joanne remained loyal. He died at her house. Afterward, she kept many of his things and even bought back books and furniture that had been dispersed from his New York apartment. "He said, I don't want my treasures scattered to the four winds," she says.

His "treasures" are now being scattered, according to Carson, to benefit her favorite cause, animal welfare. During the auction at Bonhams in New York, Carson, 75, who was wearing black slacks, pearls and big glasses, enthusiastically thanked successful bidders from her seat and kibitzed with the auctioneer as he described certain lots. "Truman really loved this," she said loud and clear of a Baccarat crystal obelisk, a gift to Capote from Halston. (It sold, cracks and all, for $300.) The small salesroom was nearly filled with a few dealers (for the books), people who'd known Capote and people who wished they had. Lisa Ketcher of Fairfield, Conn., who described herself as a homemaker and voracious reader, paid $9,000 for one of six "collage" boxes Capote made—hers has a picture of Emily Dickinson, among other cutouts, pasted on it, along with the words EMILY'S SNAKEBITE KIT in Capote's handwriting. Ketcher never met Capote but says, "I really love Truman. He was a real tortured soul. For me, it's very heartfelt."

Bonhams & Butterfields

The Truman Capote Auction | News