“A Christmas Memory,” Truman Capote’s Classic, Handwritten at the Library

Cover of "A Christmas Memory" showing a young Capote standing next to his beloved

The cover of “A Christmas Memory,” with young Truman Capote standing next to his beloved cousin “Sook,” Nanny Rumbley Faulk. 

“A Christmas Memory,” Truman Capote’s story about his Alabama childhood with an eccentric elderly cousin, has been one of the nation’s most beloved tales in the holiday canon for more than half a century.

First published in Mademoiselle magazine in the winter of 1956, it starts this way:

“Imagine a morning in late November. A coming of winter morning more than twenty years ago. Consider the kitchen of a spreading old house in a country town.”

His cousin, Nanny Rumbley Faulk, soon arises to exclaim, with her sherry-colored eyes, her breath smoking the windowpane, “Oh my! It’s fruitcake weather!” They were two misfits in a no-nonsense Southern household in the 1920s and ’30s. He called her “Sook.” She called him “Buddy.” They were cheerful co-conspirators at the opposite end of their lives; each delicate, sensitive and adoring of one other.

Since then, the story has been issued and reissued in books and anthologies, over and over again, adapted to television at least twice, staged as an off-Broadway musical and even as an opera. Sook has been portrayed on camera by legendary actresses Geraldine Page and Patty Duke; the musical featured Tony Award-winner Alice Ripley. It’s around every Christmas, as dependable as holly and mistletoe.

Capote was an icon to me as a young writer, also growing up in a tiny Southern town lost among the pines, so you can imagine my delight when I discovered that the Library has Capote’s original, handwritten copy of the tale as part of his early papers. It is penciled into two thin brown notebooks marked with his neat, tiny script. “A Christmas Memory 1” he wrote on the cover of one, and “A Christmas Memory 2” on the other.

The story fills just a few lines on each page. There are several word edits, but only a couple of crossed out passages. The image that features in the story’s famous ending popped into his mind midway through the second notebook. He wrote it at the very top of the page: “kites like a pair of mingled hearts hurrying toward heaven.” A few pages later, he dropped it in for the story’s heartbreaking conclusion, exactly as it appears in the published version: “As if I expected to see, rather like hearts, a lost pair of kites hurrying toward heaven.”

Just like that, the entire piece seems to have emerged from his hand in a single sitting.

Stone ruins a foot or two high in a grassy yard show the outlines of where a house stood.

Brick ruins show the outlines of the “spreading old house” in Monroeville, Alabama, where Capote lived with his extended family, the setting for “A Christmas Memory.” Photo: Carol M. Highsmith

Today, the notebooks rest inside in a green folder tucked into a beige box, part of his collection in the Manuscript Division. Taken together, these early stories are a marvelous insight into his working technique and personal style.

He bought the occasional leather-bound journal for note-taking. He used a black one for his interviews with Marlon Brando on a movie location in Japan, which would become the classic 1957 New Yorker piece “The Duke in His Domain.” (More than two decades later, when I was a college journalism student, the professor taught that article as “how the masters wrote a profile” lesson. And here, lo and behold, was the actual notebook from the interview.)

His papers show he bought other fancy, hard-bound ledgers every now and again, say, from Italian bookshops during his vacations there. The first notebook he took with him to Kansas for reporting what would become “In Cold Blood” is one of these. Given his high-flying style, it’s about what one would expect.

But mostly, he worked with flimsy grade-school notebooks that cost a nickel or 10 cents. One is actually “Schooltime Compositions,” with a blank spot on the cover for one’s name, school and grade. He rarely filled out complete pages, but usually just a few paragraphs. His handwriting was precise and almost indecipherably miniscule.

And so it was with “Christmas.”

It’s written in two small “Double Q” notebooks “(Quality! Quantity),” which cost 10 cents each.

On top of the first line of the first page, he wrote his title, like a kid composing a high-school essay. Then, on the next line, he took a swing at the opener. The finished version is quoted above. Here was his first take: “Imagine a morning in late November, a last day of autumn, brown-leafed blowing morning more than twenty years ago.” The next line is crossed out, before picking up with “Consider the kitchen of a rambling old house in a country town.”

A sheet of lined notebook paper, with small cursive handwriting

The opening page of “A Christmas Memory.” Manuscript Division

He crossed out his very first word, replacing it with “Imagine.” It appears, under the scratching, to be “This is,” as if he was starting the story in the present tense.

That’s about as much editing as you’ll see on any page. The story as it is written here is very close to the finished text. It’s tempting to think that the story came to him this cleanly, this clearly, and that we are looking at his first draft. Certainly he went through it again for a typewritten manuscript to send off for publication.

But I doubt there were many drafts. This was a  deeply felt story for Capote. He was 32 when it was published — almost certainly a year younger when he wrote it — and was known only as the author of a daring debut novel, “Other Voices, Other Rooms.” He had yet to publish “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” the novella that would make him a star. (“Christmas” would first be published in book form as collection of stories with “Breakfast” two years later.)

Reading these pages, looking at his pencil moving carefully across the page, you don’t get the idea he’s copying earlier notes. You get the idea that the story is flowing, his mind is focused and that a moment of youthful innocence, a long-lost period when he felt safe and happy and loved, was upon him once more.

It was so short, so sincere and so touching that audiences called upon him to give readings from it for the rest of his life. In the wake of “In Cold Blood,” his mammoth success, crowds still wanted “Christmas.” After one such posh Manhattan gathering in the winter of 1966, audience members had tears in their eyes when he finished, writes Gerald Clarke in his biography, “Capote.” “It was a very moving moment for me,” Barbara Paley, the socially powerful wife of CBS founder William S. Paley, is quoted as saying.

Later that year, when publishers announced “Christmas” was going to be reissued as a special boxed set, Capote was ecstatic about the cash flow. “It’s forty-five pages long, and it’s going to cost five dollars and be worth every cent,” he chortled. That’s about $43 in 2021 dollars for a book the width of your little finger. It sold phenomenally well.

Capote died in 1984 after long years of drug and alcohol abuse, often in the public eye. He had become a caricature of himself, his talent and drive long since dissipated. He was only 59.

But here, on these youthful pages, there is not a teaspoonful of anything artificial and there’s nothing diluted, either. The sincerity of his emotion and the surety of his vision is in every line. On his deathbed, his mind wandering, his final words? “It’s me, it’s Buddy.” As if he was reunited with Sook at last.

It was, at the end, where he always wanted to be.

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9 Comments

  1. Mary Wootton
    December 20, 2021 at 9:11 am

    Such a lovely essay! Thank you! It’s a great testimony to the value of looking at primary materials!

  2. Arthur Dunkelman
    December 20, 2021 at 12:50 pm

    Thank you Neely … for this beautifully written piece … & a glimpse of your heart.

    Arthur Dunkelman
    Curator, Jay I. Kislak Collection
    University of Miami

  3. Mary Bongiorno
    December 20, 2021 at 2:07 pm

    It is my favorite Christmas story. It was presented on PBS for several years and I looked so forward to it.

  4. JO Hudgins
    December 20, 2021 at 9:24 pm

    Much thanks for your lovely blog! It made my day, and I am sure many other’s as well. Beautiful story!

  5. Marion C. Neal
    December 26, 2021 at 10:29 am

    Thank goodness Truman Capote had a min of his own. His body of work leaves little doubt of his literary gifts.

  6. Barbara Rohrer
    December 26, 2021 at 5:59 pm

    Thank you for adding depth to my understanding of and appreciation for this beautiful short story.

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