It is virtually impossible to find his Long Island home in the Hamptons, but that’s exactly the way he wants it. Hidden behind scrub pine, privet hedges and rows of hydrangea bushes is Truman Capote’s two-story, weathered-gray beach house near Sagaponack on the South Fork.
He lives in the heart of the Hamptons—a stretch of rolling potato fields and lush farmlands married to the nearby Atlantic Ocean. A year-round farming community and a summer place for city people, it is here that antique farmhouses vie with modernistic glass houses for the dunes and fields. Mr. Capote once called Sagaponack “Kansas with a sea breeze.”
It has actually become a rural Montparnasse with the likes of James Jones, Willem de Kooning, Marya Mannes, Jean Stafford, Joseph Heller and many other artists and writers living in the area. It is also the kind of sleepy sentimental town where the local bar—Truman Capote often lunches here or has a drink with fellow writers John Knowles or Willie Morris—runs an ad in the biweekly newspaper wishing him happy birthday. He can come and go as he pleases.
The best way to find Mr. Capote’s secluded house is with him at the wheel of his deep-green Buick. Then it is a short but bumpy ride down a dirt lane first opened back in 1670, a quick turn into a gravel driveway past a natural bird sanctuary and a friend’s cottage built on his property, before he jerkily pulls up in front of his box-shaped, flat-roofed wooden house. Wildflowers are still blooming, and the smell of the potatoes, almost ready for harvest, is pungent on the salty Atlantic Ocean air.
“I own these fields,” he says proudly, sweeping his left hand like a plantation owner over the six acres he has owned since 1962, when he had the house built to his specifications “by a local carpenter who’s dead now. He did it to my directions. It’s exactly the way I wanted it. I work at this untended look. It’s intentional. You can see how quiet it is here because you can barely see the top of another house. This is a place to be alone.”
Only a few friends have ever ventured up the overgrown path to the house hidden in the dune grass, and they have all been invited first.
“I’m here to work. I come here a lot in the autumn and winter, and I see almost no one. I don’t care for the Hamptons in the summer—it’s gotten too crowded. I don’t understand the way some people come out here and run themselves ragged every night. I just don’t think some of these writers are working.” This may seem an odd remark from Mr. Capote, who knows everyone from prisoners to princesses, socialites to sailors, and who simultaneously holds the reputation for being one of America’s greatest prose writers and another for being a social butterfly.
“I spend most of my time out here reading, writing, going for walks with my dog and talking on the telephone. I see people in New York; I don’t see New York people out here. I hardly see anyone when I’m here. In the past 14 years, since I’ve had this house, I’ve gone out six times for dinner. Now that’s quite a record for someone known for being so social, isn’t it? Besides, whom would I entertain? I only know about four people I’d really have over!”
Entering his house through the back kitchen door, he removes his loafers Japanese-style and walks into the living room. The barefoot Mr. Capote picks up a rag mop as delicately as Fred Astaire tapped his dancing cane and starts to dust the marine-blue floor, still not quite dry from its recent coat of boat deck paint. “I’ve just had it repainted, and this humidity doesn’t help it dry. You should see this room at night. The floor floats like a big blue-green lake.”
The author describes his house as a “raincoat,” referring to the method of its construction. Built with the exterior walls exposed to reveal vertical studs and horizontal bracings, the skin of the building protects the inside, just like a raincoat.
“I wanted a rustic house. I really think of it as one big room. Completely winterized, it’s been designed to look unfinished. I call it ‘run-down comfort.’ I like the effect of texture in rooms—the rawness of the wood plus the mirrors that line one end.” A floor-to-ceiling window with divided panes lets in the glorious morning sun and allows a view of the sea and sand some 200 yards beyond the house. A spiraling steel staircase leads to a balconied second-floor study lined with red sofas, wicker chairs and hassocks and a famed René Bouché sketch of Capote. Here he works or reads.
None of the furniture or furnishings have “Don’t Touch” signs. His possessions are comfortable, attractive and appear to be used rather than looked at. A priceless Tiffany lamp peeks over the shoulder of a worn yellow velvet easy chair. Upholstery has a few sun-faded patches, but the clusters of paperweights are shiny and sparkling. The wicker chairs and tables come from inexpensive import shops, or else they are rare antiques—like the round, claw-footed table downstairs where Mr. Capote writes. Needlepoint pillows done by friends are scattered about, as are silver-framed photographs of Lee Radziwill, an elegant-looking lady sitting primly in a bumper car, and Maggie.
Although she has left pale blond hairs around, Maggie—Capote’s celebrated English bulldog—is nowhere in sight.
“She’s next door visiting,” explains the writer, who loves to talk about his “sweet, quirky and huggy” pet who once ate Joanne Carson’s pink satin slippers and Charlotte Curtis’s poinsettias and who periodically raids picnickers’ baskets along Gibson Beach.
“Oh, she’s very munchy all right,” concedes Mr. Capote, pushing his Windex-blue-tinted prescription glasses up on his nose, shrugging and letting out his trademark, high-pitched giggle.
Off the enormous living room is a small screened-in porch, similar to ones in many southern homes, filled with his beloved wicker furniture. He uses it as a summer room when the breezes blow mildly from the sea. His bedroom, near the kitchen, is so stark and sparsely furnished it resembles a summer camper’s tent. Near his cot-size bed are a stack of detective magazines, a reducing machine and the usual pile of favorite books.
“I like to have my own things around me. Even when I travel to my other houses in Switzerland and in California, I take things of my own with me,” says Mr. Capote, whose permanent base is a sleek apartment in the U.N. Plaza in Manhattan.
“I’m a great houseguest. I only appear at mealtimes. However, I really don’t like people staying with me. It’s interrupting.”
His Sagaponack schedule is uncomplicatedly regular. “I get up around 7:00 a.m. and work until 11:00, stopping to read the papers. I work again until 1:00 p.m., when I have my lunch. Then I drive to the post office, do my errands, go for a walk. I fool around in the evenings, reading, walking Maggie. I have my dinner by 7:00 p.m., and I’m usually in bed around 9:30 with a book.”
Currently at work on his long-awaited novel, Answered Prayers, the author recently finished his first film role, in Murder by Death, a Neil Simon script.
He is a collector, and he knows it. There’s a wonderful photograph taken several years ago by society photographer Slim Aarons of a youthful Capote perched on a Victorian sofa surrounded by many of his favorite things. “I like to collect things, Victorian things, and mix everything together. I enjoy looking for and at all of them. I’m not sure I need them. I’ve got too much, and I haven’t edited myself lately!”
He designs his own interiors. “For me, it’s a bore to use a decorator. I know exactly what I want. I just don’t care to have someone come in and tell me what I need to live with. I know.”
His philosophy of good interior design? “Something that’s not immediately offensive when you walk into a room. Of course it may be, eventually.”
Born in New Orleans and raised in the South, he began Breakfast at Tiffany’s, his famous classic, with the line, “I am always drawn back to places where I have lived, the houses and the neighborhoods.” Sagaponack, in many ways, reminds him of home. “I moved around so much as a child, I never had a sense of home. Maybe I did when I was 11 and I lived in a rural town in Alabama.”
Eyeing a hat rack above his bricked fireplace, the writer capriciously points to his assortment of rumpled panama hats.
“Home is where I hang my hats,” he laughs. “However, I keep leaving them when I go visit people. I don’t have as many as I used to because I don’t recover them all. People always promise to send them back, but they don’t.”