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Truman's Aunt Tiny

[Times photo: Carrie Pratt]
"Truman always claimed that every story he ever wrote came out of his head. Well, that's a damn lie. The stories that came out of Truman's head were stories that were based on his childhood in Monroeville, Ala."


© St. Petersburg Times, published October 3, 2000

Truman Capote wrote what he knew, says his aunt Marie Rudisill, and what he knew was being brought up in a dysfunctional Southern family, unloved by his mother and unknown by his father.

HUDSON -- The stories draw people to Marie Rudisill. About her famous nephew, the writer Truman Capote. About her cousin Sook Faulk, who was a great friend to Rudisill and Capote as they grew up, whose fruitcakes went to the White House and whose secret recipe for an herbal dropsy cure went with her to the grave. About Harper Lee, Capote's childhood friend, who wrote To Kill a Mockingbird and traveled with him to Kansas as he researched In Cold Blood.

So many stories.

Rudisill has told some of them in print, in Truman Capote: The Story of His Bizarre and Exotic Boyhood by an Aunt Who Helped Raise Him, and in Sook's Cookbook: Memories and Traditional Receipts from the Deep South. Two more of her books are out this fall.

In one, The Southern Haunting of Truman Capote, with James C. Simmons, she lends context to her nephew's works.

"I have no system to writing," Rudisill says. "I can write a cookbook, and I can write children's stories. Now, Jim Simmons can come in here and weed out a lot of unnecessary things that I say. I write like I talk. It's like going into a feather mattress. The further you sit, the deeper you sink."

Rudisill, whom Capote knew as his Aunt Tiny, lives among bearded oaks and citrus trees off State Road 52 in Hudson. She moved to Florida with her husband, Jim, in 1989, because he had cancer and wanted to live near his brother, Dr. Jason Rudisill, whom he hoped could cure him. Jim Rudisill died in 1990.

Marie Rudisill's new book, The Southern Haunting of Truman Capote, lends context to the works of her nephew, shown here with his aunt Sook Faulk.
At 89, Marie Rudisill is the last living member of Capote's extended childhood family. She wrote Haunting at the suggestion of the late Joe Fox, his longtime editor at Random House, who wanted her to address "the Southern origins of some of your nephew's most popular early works."

They include A Christmas Memory, The Grass Harp, Children on Their Birthdays and Other Voices, Other Rooms. As Rudisill tells it, all were informed by Capote's dysfunctional upbringing in Monroeville, Ala.

Rudisill went to Monroeville when she was 5 to live at the home of a cousin, Jenny Faulk.

"My father and mother died," Rudisill says. "They died within a year of each other. My father died first, and my mother died a year later. They said she died of a broken heart. I don't know whether that's true or not, but that's what they always said. Then when they died, all of the children -- there were five of us -- went to live with Jenny, who was really the matriarch of the whole Faulk family."

Rudisill was 13 when her baby nephew Truman came to live there.

He was born in New Orleans. His mother, Lillie Mae, Rudisill's sister, took him to Monroeville almost as soon as she got out of the hospital. He hardly knew his father, Arch Persons, and later took the name of Lillie Mae's second husband, Joe Capote, who had represented himself to her as a Cuban millionaire.

Jenny Faulk owned a dry goods store on Monroeville's courthouse square that offered fabrics, hats, ribbons, lingerie and other goods. The profits put a roof over the heads of numerous relatives.

Her siblings Sook, Callie and Bud were living with her; along came Marie, Lillie Mae, Lucille, Mary Ida and Seaborn.

"Jenny took care of the whole family because not another member of that family worked," Rudisill says. "None of them. She was mean as she could be, but she was a remarkable woman."

In Haunting, Rudisill describes Jenny: "She had frosty blue eyes, hair the color of red oak leaves in autumn, and skin like a china doll, translucent in its dazzling whiteness. Her hands were strong and squarish with faint freckles, like a pear ready to be picked. She was born as stylish as a tomcat with white paws and waistcoat. She was on the short side, but her sharp tongue gave her added stature."

She rented rooms above the store. Those who fell behind on their rent, she yelled at "so all the town could hear."

Once, Jenny disapproved of a suitor who came to call on Callie. "He pulled up in a buggy to take Callie for a ride," Rudisill says, "and Jenny went outside and grabbed a horse whip and horse-whipped him right there in town.

"She was a holy terror, I'm not kidding you. She controlled the whole family. If it hadn't been for her, I don't know what would have happened to us. All of us."

Capote came to Jenny Faulk's house as an infant and lived there until he was 7.

"It was a strange family," Rudisill says. "I come from a real peculiar family. Maybe that's why I'm so peculiar. . . . We used to always have Sunday dinner at Jenny's house. One (brother) would sit at one end of the table and one brother at the other end. You know, they never spoke to each other all during their life. Nobody ever knew what their feud was about. To this day, I don't know."

Jenny's brother Bud, she says, kept a walking stick by the table. When the children would "hold our heads back and let the moist, slimy okra slide down our throats," he would "bust us over the head. Right there at the dinner table. We had a horror of that cane."

In Haunting, she writes: "All Southern children got whacked for doing this disgusting thing at the dinner table, and we Faulk kids (and later Truman) were certainly no exception."

"Truman always claimed that every story he ever wrote came out of his head," Rudisill says. "Well, that's a damn lie. The stories that came out of Truman's head were stories that were based on his childhood in Monroeville, Ala."

Sook figures prominently in Capote's short story A Christmas Memory and is the model for Dolly Talbo in Capote's favorite story, The Grass Harp, about three whimsical characters who escape to their own reality by living in a treehouse on the edge of the woods. Verena is the spitting image of Jenny. Collin Fenwick is a self-portrait of the young Capote; Catherine is based on the family cook.

"That's the No. 1 book as far as I'm concerned," Rudisill says. "That's the book he loved the best."

Capote, sublimely brilliant and supremely tortured, never knew love, Rudisill says, although some of his stories have been criticized for their sentimentality.

"He wrote about hate, never wrote about love. He wrote about loveless characters all his life, because Truman was never loved. . . . He is rejected completely, not wanted by his mother; his father never saw him.

"Lillie Mae (Capote's mother) left him there until he was 7. . . . And he came there every summer until Sook died in 1946. He had just written A Christmas Memory. She didn't live to know anything about it."

In Haunting, Rudisill says, "I'm going to try to convey to people the real Capote. . . . The only problem we've heard from everybody is the book is too short. They wanted more. Because many people do not understand Truman Capote's writing. Some of (his stories) are very hard to understand. Christmas Memory is easy to understand, but when you get into (others), they're complicated. You've got to know the background.

"Really, nobody understands Truman Capote like I do. They don't know how devious he was, and how tricky. It's like I told Random House; they kept on about Answered Prayers," which reputedly was Capote's last work. "Poor old Joe Fox would call up every day: "Truman, we need the manuscript.'

"Truman would say, "Oh, it's right here on my desk, I'm getting you out one this week.'

"Then he'd call me on the phone and laugh like hell. He'd say: "I haven't written a word of that thing, and I don't intend to write it.'

"He never wrote it, you see. That's the bad thing he did.

"And when he died, God, they were tearing his house up. I mean, looking in dresser drawers, looking in cars and all that. They swore that somebody stole the manuscript and all that. It was never written, and I kept telling them: "There is no manuscript.'

"So I told Joe Fox one day: "My God, don't you understand your writer better than that? Don't you know how devious Truman is?'

"He was kidding everybody. He did that all through his life to everybody."

Even his Aunt Tiny.

In the early '70s, he visited her in Charlotte, N.C., where she was then an antiques dealer, specializing in paperweights. Capote had his own collection, begun when the French writer Colette gave him one called the "White Rose" on a visit to Paris in 1948.

In Charlotte, he took a pillowcase off the bed and began filling it with Baccarat paperweights Rudisill had bought on speculation. Their presence in cold hotel rooms made the space more warm, he said, and he promised to return them.

Rudisill says she never saw them again and lost her account with Baccarat. Her husband, Jim, never fond of Capote to begin with, was furious. On business trips, and unbeknownst to Rudisill, he began sending Capote vicious telegrams, signing her name.

In vain, she attempted to communicate with her nephew for many years, until she found out about the telegrams and wrote to Truman to mend the rift. By the time he died in 1984, at the home of Joanne Carson in California, they had reconciled.

"I was not grieving for the famous literary celebrity, the pint-sized man with the voice that was the delight of dozens of mimics," she writes in Haunting.

"Rather, my thoughts were of a small boy of 6 or 7 who had been brought up in the land of . . . collard greens. . . . I could not relate to that puffy-faced man whose face was flushed with defeat that I saw on the television screen. Rather, in my mind's eye, I saw another person, little Truman Persons . . . with his jaunty walk, who strode confidently past the Lady Bankshea rosebush in our back yard toward the treehouse, carrying a monstrous Webster's dictionary under one arm.

"Nelle Harper Lee, his friend and constant companion, was usually at his side, carrying a fruit jar filled with glass marbles that sparkled with more colors than a dozen rainbows. In my mind's eye I watched the two of them climb the trunk of the tree and disappear into their treehouse, where none of us adults were ever allowed to enter."

Today, Rudisill says: "Somebody said to me one time: "Has being Truman Capote's aunt affected your life?'

"My God, it sapped my life.

"It's a weird family, I kid you not. But it's a fabulous family. We took care of our own, there's no question about that."

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