Books / Movies

Did Truman Capote have a photographic memory?

There’s a quote in the 2005 movie Capote that always stuck in my mind. The late Philip Seymour Hoffman, playing author Truman Capote in an Academy Award-winning performance, announces, “I have ninety-four percent recall of all conversation. I tested it myself.”

Did Truman Capote really say that? Did the author of In Cold Blood and Breakfast at Tiffany’s have a photographic memory?
Photographic MemoryCapote charts the twentieth-century writer’s mission to get the story behind the brutal slaying of an entire family during a robbery-motivated home invasion, and interview the killers themselves, for a book that would eventually become the seminal “non-fiction novel” In Cold Blood. ­The claim that Capote had a prodigious ability to retain the spoken word was so compelling to me it eventually made its way into my own novel, False Memoir: Based on an Untrue Story.

Whether or not Truman Capote really informed the good folks of Holcomb, Kansas, that he had perfect recall is unclear. But he did go on the record with his belief that he had a photographic memory. In a 1973 interview with Rolling Stone’s Jann S. Wenner, he stated, “I have both a photographic memory and it’s almost 100% reliable, and I also have an audio memory … I can focus on two things. Now there are quite a few people who have an audio memory, and there are quite a few people who have a photographic memory. But the two things combined are rather unusual. … I can re-create a conversation as long as up to six hours which is over 90% accurate and have done it.”

In the interview, Capote not only asserts that he can recall six hours of speech, but that he has done so in the past. This is a bold declaration. Especially since the only instance he cites is his interview of Marlon Brando for his 1957 profile of the actor in The New Yorker … and because many experts believe there’s no such thing as perfect recall.

As journalist Joshua Foer writes of Capote in Slate, “I suspect his memory claims were just a useful cover to invent dialogue whole cloth.”

The Columbia Journalism Review seems inclined to agree. “Capote wasn’t interested in adopting the traditional tools of [journalism]. To achieve the intimacy necessary for his work, he eschewed the use of tape recorders or even note-taking. … This technique, in Capote’s estimation, allowed him to ‘live inside the situation, to become part of the scene I was recording and not cut myself off from them in any way.’ It also, Capote’s critics would later claim, allowed him to fictionalize key facts in his work.”

False Memoir_KindleYou can see what Capote’s claim looks like to the person on the other side of the interview in False Memoir, a novel that combines the high stakes of a gritty psychological thriller with the guilty pleasure of a sensational true crime tell-all. Check it out — don’t forget!

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