Marie Faulk Rudisill. Truman Capote. William Morrow & Co., 1983.
By Harriet Swift
Vol. 5, No. 6, 1983, pp. 21-23
Marie Faulk Rudisill, Truman Capote’s aunt, has succeeded in accomplishing what most people thought was impossible: she has brought her nephew and the homefolks in Monroe County, Alabama, into complete agreement. Both Capote and Monroeville are deeply offended by Rudisill’s new book, Truman Capote, and are united in their opinion of the memoir: It’s all wrong.
The book, subtitled “The story of his bizarre and exotic boyhood by an aunt who helped raise him, “tells of Capote’s childhood, filtered through the history of lore of his mother’s family. Rudisill, now seventy-two and living in Beaufort, South Carolina, wrote the book with the help of James C. Simmons, a California writer with an academic background in Southern literature.
Rudisil1 opens her story with the 1954 suicide of Lillie Mae Faulk Persons Capote, her sister and Truman’s mother. After an intimate pre-funeral chat with her nephew about his homosexuality and her dashed hopes for a match with his childhood friend and Monroeville neighbor, Nelle Harper Lee (author of To Kill a Mockingbird), Rudisill settles down for one of those languid, repetitive family brooding sessions that every Southerner is acquainted with from birth. AII family closets and cupboards are emptied and ruminated over, underlining the favorite themes of love, love lost, betrayal, the inevitability of hardship and the evil in the hearts of men, women and small children.
Rudisill chronicles the fortunes of the Faulk tribe from the time of the War between the States, which she says devastated the huge family plantation and left the family destitute. One daughter, in the best Scarlette O’Hara tradition, grasps that King Cotton’s rule is over and determines to build a new life. She parlays her sewing talent into a small shop that offers hats, lingerie and other feminine finery to the town carriage trade. Jenny Faulk, who never marries, is a woman of iron will and razor-sharp business instincts. She builds a house in Monroeville and becomes head of a family which includes her widowed mother, a brother and two spinster sisters. Later, two young cousins from Mississippi are added to the household when their parents’ deaths leave them orphans.
One of the orphans begins a family of his own at eighteen, briefly bringing his sixteen-year-old bride to Miss Jenny’s house before striking out on his own as a horse trader. When he is mortally injured while breaking a horse, Miss Jenny brings his widow and five children to her house. The young widow grieves herself to death and Miss Jenny takes on the raising of the children. The eldest is the beautiful and spirited Lillie Mae. She and Jenny fight constantly.
In the middle of this unending battle of wills is Lillie Mae’s younger sister Marie, nicknamed Tiny, who is alternately Lillie Mae’s confidante and victim. The imperious Lillie Mae sets her cap for a rich husband and fetches up one Archulus Persons, the unattractive and unambitious son of a Fine Old Alabama Family from Troy. Their son Truman
is born in 1924 and is more or less consigned to Miss Jenny’s household until Lillie Mae acquires a second mate in 1931, a wealthy Cuban businessman who lives in New York City. There are regular visits back to Monroeville but Truman has been molded by growing up amidst a family headed by a stern matriarch, an indifferent mother, an obsessively devoted older spinster (Sook, the model for the sweet, simple-natured cousin in A Christmas Memory), and the other “bizarre and exotic” members of the household and citizenry of Monroe County.
Although Truman Capote now issues a blanket “no comment” through his literary agency on his aunt’s book, he was quoted in The Washington Post shortly after its publication as saying “If there are twenty words of truth in it, I will go up on a cross to save humanity.” Monroeville, always more circumspect in its pronouncements than its most famous son, puts its feeling another way: “Why would she do this to her family?” is the first response when the home folks are asked about Rudisill’s book. “Why would she do this to Monroeville?” is almost always the next comment.
Capote’s discomfort is easy to understand. No matter how uninhibited one has been about coming out of the homosexual closet and making literary hay of an unorthodox family background in the mysterious South, it can only be painful to have childhood foibles and parental indifference committed to the printed page. Especially when the story is being told by a relative one has not seen or spoken to in fifteen years.
Monroe County’s unhappiness with the book is part of a larger problem. This dignified, tranquil Black Belt community prides itself on an unremarkable gentility that prized good manners, bland opinions and unbroken calm. There were no civil rights demonstrations in Monroe County, no “incidents” that made their way to the six o’clock news. There was no Ku Klux Klan to speak of, and the county has remained a bastion of temperance to this day. Into this peaceful Southern Eden came unwanted and distasteful celebrity through the successful writing careers of Capote and Nelle Lee. To Monroeville, Marie Rudisill’s memoir is yet another cross to bear.
Although the hometown reaction is rooted in a code that believes in keeping family skeletons in the closet and settling disputes behind locked doors, the predictable wail of “It’s not true! That isn’t the way it happened!” seems justified. There are some odd errors and omissions in the memoir that nod darkly toward hazy memories of half a century ago shaped for publication by, say, a California writer with a background in Southern literature. For the reader unfamiliar with Alabama and Monroe County, Rudisill stretches her credibility with supposedly verbatim quotes of long conversations that took place over fifty years ago and, in some cases, before her birth. For the reader who does know anything about Monroe County, the story is riddled with inaccuracies and puzzlements.
One of the strangest assertions concerns the love of Lillie Mae’s life, a proud Indian doctor from a nearby reservation. There are no Indian reservations in Monroe County and never have been, according to those familiar with the generally unimpressive history of the county. Rudisill places the reservation on the edge of town, Claiborne (consistently misspelled as “Clairborne), at the edge of the Alabama River. The names of families and institutions are misspelled (including her own college) and well-known facts are scrambled. She says, for instance, that Nelle Lee’s only brother died at birth, when he in fact was the model for To Kill a Mockingbird’s Jem.
Monroeville’s indignant howls of “how could she do this!” go to the heart of the book’s purpose and the town’s annoyance. Actually, it’s easy to see how Aunt Tiny could do this to her family (two sisters, reportedly very unhappy over the memoir, still live in Monroeville). The book is less about Monroeville and the shaping of a literary legend than it is about the settling of old scores. Lillie Mae Capote has been dead almost thirty years, but the wounds she inflicted on her younger sister have never quite healed. Lillie Mae, the egotistic beauty, delighted in humilating others and her apparently eager to please young sister was a target too easy to pass up. The guileless Tiny even followed Lillie Mae to New York, but complains bitterly about being used and manipulated by her sister. The sins of the mother are visited in the son, who seems never to have properly appreciated all that Aunt Tiny did for him.
“How could she do this to Monroeville,” is a bit more complex. Although Rudisill spins yarns that she knows go against Monroe County’s grain, telling of wanton young white women (Lillie Mae), interracial alliances producing children acknowledged by white fathers (in one case her uncle), wild bucks who rode horses into stores and staid businesswomen with secret lovers from New Orleans (shudder), she emphasizes her family’s refinement, uniqueness and charm at every chance. Her father’s horses weren’t just horses, but “magnificent white stallions,” they all attended “prestigious” schools, ordered clothes from “the finest stores,” and were included among the “gentry” of Monroe County. The Faulks, one is supposed to see, were a Fine Old Family of charming eccentrics in the best Southern tradition. Even without the notoriety bestowed by Truman Capote, the Faulks were an impressive and intriguing bunch, her book insists. Aunt Tiny may have been an overlooked middle child, but she is emphatic that her family was counted among the aristocracy.
Monroeville, however, is having none of it. Tiny has captured some of the atmosphere of the time, those who have read the book say politely, citing her descriptions of 1920s and ’30s which recount the long summers of heat and ennui, the insular life in the Black Belt. But the balance of the book is not credible, they add, taking special exception to Rudisill’s depiction of the Faulks as a leading family. She has “flowered up” the family’s story, to use the words of one Monroeville matron who hated the book. “The Faulks were rather common,” she says calmly, “not our kind of people.” There was no Taraesque plantation, say others who knew the family, vaguely recalling some acreage outside of town. The general consensus paints Miss Jenny and her clan as hardworking country people who took care of their own but were regarded as a peculiar bunch and relegated to the edges of the “nicest” circles.
Truman Capote (the book) has garnered so-so to hostile reviews in the literary world, causing only a small ripple of interest. In Monroe County, it is being received with a sigh of resignation. There’s a waiting list for the town library’s one copy. Those who have ordered personal copies from bookstores in Birmingham and Atlanta are plied with requests from family and frieds for a look-see. The town
that Nelle Lee described in To Kill a Mockingbird as a “tired old” place in 1935 has grown and even prospered a bit. There’s a big Vanity Fair (lingerie) sewing factory, a junior college and several large pulpwood mills on the Alabama River. But it’s still a very conservative place, completely satisfied with itself. A little probing convinces one that the oft-stated indifference to celebrity is genuine. Even if Nelle Lee were not obsessive about her privacy (she has not published since the huge success of Mockingbird in 1960, she does not give interviews and cuts off anyone who is quoted in print about her) and if Truman Capote did not live what is delicately referred to as “an unusual lifestyle,” Monroeville would still not be interested in being known for its writers.
There is a market for Monroeville. Ann Pridgen, the town librarian, reports a steady stream of letters and visitors from all over the United States and several foreign countries seeking information about the town and its famous son and daughter. Steve Stewart, editor of the county’s excellent weekly newspaper, The Monroe Journal, is often called on by visiting writers and journalists who single out Monroe County when writing about the South. Yet there are no To Kill a Mockingbird T-shirts to be had in Monroeville, no signs proclaiming this the childhood home of Lee and Truman Capote, only a mimeographed handout available at the library of Chamber of Commerce office explaining that the Lee house is now the site of a Dairy Queen and Boo Radley’s tree does not exist. The reading room in the musty museum in the old courthouse is the Nelle Harper Lee-Truman Capote Room, but even that concession to fame seems unenthusiastic and underplayed. Something was expected of the town, and that seems to be [unclear]response.
“We’re the safest folks in the world,” explains one shrewd character in To Kill a Mockingbird to the disillusioned Jem and Scout. The safest folks are nice to know and pleasant to visit but ill at ease with the world of ideas and mystified by fame that seems to them based on stories that are not “true” and images that are distorted. Monroe Country, which did not choose to run for literary immortality, has nevertheless been elected, but firmly refuses to serve.
Harriet Swift, currently a reporter with the Oakland Tribune, is a native Alabamian who spent her childhood summers on her grandfather’s farm in Monroe County.