Music for Chameleons

Music for Chameleons
Music for Chameleons  
First edition cover
Author(s) Truman Capote
Country  United States
Language English
Genre(s) Short story collection
Publisher Random House
Publication date 1980
Media type Print (Hardback & Paperback)
Pages 262 pp
ISBN 978-0394508269
OCLC Number 6223424

Music for Chameleons (1980) is an anthology by the American author Truman Capote, which includes both fiction and non-fiction. Capote's first offering of new material in 14 years, Music for Chameleons spent an unheard of (for a collection of short works) 16 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list.[1]



The book is divided into three sections. Part one, headed "Music for Chameleons", includes the title piece and five other stories ("Mr. Jones", "A Lamp in a Window", "Mojave", "Hospitality", "Dazzle"). Part two, the core of the book, is Handcarved Coffins, a supposedly "nonfiction account of an American crime" that brings to mind certain parallels with his best-known work, the difference being that Capote did not include himself in the narrative as a character when he wrote In Cold Blood.

In the third section, "Conversational Portraits", Capote recalls his encounters with Pearl Bailey, Bobby Beausoleil, Willa Cather, Marilyn Monroe and others. These seven essays are titled "A Day's Work", "Hello, Stranger", "Hidden Gardens", "Derring-do", "Then It All Came Down", "A Beautiful Child" and "Nocturnal Turnings."


In the preface of the collection, Capote claims to have suffered a drug and alcohol-induced nervous breakdown in 1977, at which point he ceased working on his highly anticipated follow-up to In Cold Blood, Answered Prayers, portions of which had elicited a riotous reaction in the jet set when excerpted in Esquire magazine throughout 1975 and 1976. This is most likely the truth, although Capote would often contradict that statement and claim that the publication of the novel was imminent until his death in 1984.

Publication history

In 2001, Music for Chameleons was reprinted in a Penguin Modern Classics edition with a Jamie Keenan cover design and a cover photograph showing Capote dancing with Marilyn Monroe.[2]

Literary significance and reception

Debates abound on the degree of fictionalization in Capote's nonfiction, but that viewpoint is usually tempered with comments on the mood, atmosphere and range of human emotions Capote captured when creating such character studies. Writing in the New York Times, Christopher Lehmann-Haupt reviewed Music for Chameleons on August 5, 1980:

In short, the pieces in "Music for Chameleons" have freed him to write about himself--even to confess, without a trace of self-pity or bravado, the agony he felt as a child over his secret desire "to be a girl." Yet these pieces can hardly be called an egotistical celebration of his personality. He does what he does with art. That art is a sort of music. We gather to listen and to blend ourselves into the composer's background. Just like the chameleons.[3]

According to Gerald Clarke in his biography Capote, many of the pieces contained in this book were written during what was inarguably the author's last burst of productivity in 1979. Locking himself in his First Avenue apartment for days and spending very little time partying or carousing, this burst of creativity gave brief hope to those who felt that Capote's addictions were beyond help. Ten of the fourteen pieces had been commissioned for Andy Warhol's Interview magazine and initially published in the then-regular "Conversations with Capote" feature. By this juncture Warhol was one of Capote's few champions, likely necessitating the completion of the material in an atypically speedy fashion for the author. The artist reluctantly submitted to Capote's demands for full creative and editorial control, though editor Brigid Berlin proved capable of charming Capote over when changes were necessitated. After the publication of the collection Capote all but terminated his relationship with Interview and continued to decline.[4]

In a 1992 piece in the London Sunday Times, which had earlier serialized "Music for Chameleons", reporters Peter and Leni Gillman investigated the source of "Handcarved Coffins", the piece Capote subtitled "a nonfiction account of an American crime". They found no reported series of American murders in the same town which included all of the details Capote described—the sending of miniature coffins, a rattlesnake murder, a decapitation, etc. Instead, they found that a few of the details closely mirrored a case on which Al Dewey, the investigator portrayed by Capote in In Cold Blood, had worked. Their conclusion was that Capote had invented the rest of the story, including his meetings with the suspected killer, Quinn.[5]


  1. ^ Clarke, Gerald. Capote: a Biography (1998) Carroll & Graff. ISBN 0-7867-1661-4 p. 527
  2. ^ "Penguin Modern Classics".,,capote,00.html?id=capote. Retrieved 2011-09-24. 
  3. ^ "Books of The Times". New York Times. August 5, 1980. 
  4. ^ Plimpton, George. Truman Capote: In Which Various Friends, Enemies, Acquaintances, and Detractors Recall His Turbulent Career (New York: Doubleday, 1997), page 401.
  5. ^

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