In 1958, author Truman Capote began working on a novel he called Answered Prayers, a book inspired by true events that would tell the story of a writer’s journey through American high society. Capote believed it would ultimately be his “magnum opus.” But while other projects—like the acclaimed works Breakfast at Tiffany’s and In Cold Blood—materialized, Answered Prayers never did. Instead of becoming Capote’s masterpiece, the long-gestating novel turned out to be his undoing, and one of the most notorious unfinished books in the history of literature. Here are 11 facts about the novel Capote, who died in 1984, was never quite able to deliver.
1. The title Answered Prayers comes from a quote attributed to a saint.
The title Answered Prayers is taken from a saying attributed to the 16th century nun Saint Teresa of Avila: “More tears are shed over answered prayers than unanswered ones.” According to his biographer, Gerald Clarke, Capote was drawn to this aphorism because it mirrored his opinion on the cost of people getting what they wanted: “He had fastened on it because it expressed his own bleak vision of life, his belief that fate punishes those it seems to favor by giving them precisely what they desire.”
2. Capote was given numerous deadlines (and large advances) to finish the novel.
Capote initially came up with the idea for Answered Prayers in 1958, and signed a contract with Random House in 1966 to complete the book by January 1, 1968; he received an advance of $25,000.
The author didn’t meet that deadline, but he managed to negotiate an even larger advance for a new date—a pattern that would be repeated numerous times over the years, culminating in a $1 million deal with a March 1, 1981 deadline (which he also missed).
3. He published selected chapters in 1975 to prove it was still in progress.
As time went by, Capote felt the need to prove he had completed at least some of the book, so he decided to publish chapters of it in magazines. The first was “Mojave,” which appeared in the June 1975 issue of Esquire.
4. The chapter “La Côte Basque 1965” was set in a real New York restaurant.
The next chapter, “La Côte Basque 1965” appeared in the November 1975 issue of Esquire. The chapter took its name from a renowned French restaurant in New York City that Capote had visited himself; it’s where the story’s narrator, P. B. Jones, meets his friend, Lady Ina Coolbirth, for gossip about New York high society.
5. “La Côte Basque 1965” caused a scandal by fictionalizing Capote’s real friends.
While “Mojave” had been well received—according to Vanity Fair, “from those who read it [Capote] heard nothing but hosannas”; his inner circle reportedly loved it, and even Tennessee Williams sent a compliment—the publication of “La Côte Basque 1965” was highly controversial. This was partly because Capote based many of the characters on people he knew in real life: Names were changed, but it was clear who was being portrayed. Many thought that the character of Lady Coolbirth represented his friend Slim Keith, including Keith herself. (Capote, however, denied this, saying, “The truth of the matter is that Lady Ina Coolbirth is me!”) The most controversial case was the fictionalization of his best friend Barbara “Babe” Paley and her husband William as Cleo and Sidney Dillon, in a section that novelized William’s alleged infidelities.
6. The chapter included a fictionalized version of a real homicide case.
Another notorious aspect of “La Côte Basque 1965” was that it included material based on a real killing. In 1955, the businessman William Woodward had been shot in his home by his wife Ann, who claimed she had mistaken him for an intruder; however, there were suspicions that her actions were intentional. Capote embraced this theory in his story: He renamed William David Hopkins, but kept Ann’s first name, and painted her as having carried out the killing.
7. The real Ann died by suicide just before the chapter was published.
Shortly before the story was published, Ann Woodward died by suicide. While the real reasons she did so aren’t known for certain, it was believed by many (including the mother of her deceased husband) that she received advance notice of the story and it led to her death.
8. Capote’s social circle cut him off after the publication of “La Côte Basque 1965.”
Capote’s friends were furious about the story: “Never have you heard such gnashing of teeth, such cries for revenge, such shouts of betrayal and screams of outrage,” gossip columnist Liz Smith wrote. Many of them, including Slim Keith, ended their friendships with him, and Capote was particularly devastated that Babe Paley (who was terminally ill) never spoke to him again. Afterwards, he was reported to have been seen crying at his house, saying, “I didn’t mean to, I thought they’d come back.”
9. The completed manuscript of Answered Prayers has never been found (and may never have existed).
Following “La Côte Basque 1965,” two further chapters from Answered Prayers appeared in Esquire: “Unspoiled Monsters” in May 1976 and “Kate McCloud” in December that year. The book as a whole, however, never materialized: After Capote’s death in 1984, his friends searched for a completed manuscript, but nothing was found.
Most who knew him thought he had never finished it, though his friend Joanne Carson believed a completed version was hidden in a safe-deposit box somewhere. (Carson claimed he had even given her a key to the box, but neglected to say where the box was located.) Filmmaker Ed Burnough—who made the documentary The Capote Tapes about the novel—has theorized that Capote did finish Answered Prayers, but that “one night he got really smashed and something happened to the rest of it. I can easily imagine that, after those excerpts were published, and after the phone stopped ringing, he might have woken after a wild night and seen pieces of it in the fireplace. That’s what addiction can do to people.”
10. His publishers released an unfinished version of the book in the late 1980s.
Answered Prayers: The Unfinished Novel was published by Random House in the UK in 1986 and in the U.S. in 1987. It consisted of three of the four previously published chapters, with the exception of “Mojave,” which Capote had later cut from the plan for Answered Prayers and integrated into a different book, Music for Chameleons.
Critical opinion of the unfinished book at the time of its publication was mixed to negative: Tina Brown described it in The New York Times as a “rubbishy roman a clef” but acknowledged there were also “flashes of prose in Answered Prayers that bring the aching reminder of a more whole writer.” Kirkus Reviews said that although there were “glimmers of Capote’s storytelling talent,” the overall impression was that it was “shiny and shallow—with nothing to suggest that a completed Answered Prayers would have been anything like a masterpiece.” However, it has also been argued in more recent years that the book is better than its reputation; in 2009, Hilton Als described it in The New Yorker as “underrated.”
11. A lost chapter of Answered Prayers was eventually discovered and published in 2012.
Whether or not Capote ever completed the whole book is still an open question, but it turns out that more of the manuscript than had previously been published did actually exist. In 2012, it was revealed that a Capote story intended for Answered Prayers, entitled “Yachts and Things,” had been found among his papers at the New York Public Library. The six-page story was later published in the December 2012 issue of Vanity Fair.