Paul McCartney told me never drop names, but…

Hi. Barb here.

This post gets its title from something Vince Gill said on the NPR radio program, “Wait, Wait…Don’t Tell Me.”  It’s such a perfect segue that now everyone in my family uses it whenever we are about to…drop a name.

My sister-in-law got me thinking about this topic.  After attending a dinner party with me she said, “You know what you should write about?  A mystery writer who murders everyone who comes up to him and says, ‘You know what you should write about?’”

Truman Capote by Jack Mitchell

I’m astonished by the number of people who approach me, a new and relatively unknown author, and say exactly that. I always brace myself a bit, particularly when the question is preceded by the disclaimer that the speaker doesn’t read a) mysteries, b) fiction or c) at all.  But then I remember (here comes the name drop) Truman Capote.

The summer between my junior and senior year in college, I waited on tables at Herb McCarthy’s Bowden Square in Southamption, Long Island.  I’d been eating there since I was a child.  My grandparents and their friends had closed down the place so often Herb was considered a family friend.  Though he hired me as a favor to my grandparents, I was not without waitressing experience.  I’d already spent one summer at a resort in the Poconos (think Dirty Dancing, but all the guests are Irish Catholic) and another at the lunch counter at Gimbels Department Store in Philadelphia.

Herb McCarthy's Bowden Square

Herb McCarthy’s wasn’t one world.  It was multiples.  In the front of house in the evening, diners like Lee Radziwill and the Gabors (mother and sisters) ate Long Island duckling and porterhouse steaks.  On the other side of the swinging kitchen doors, all the employees from head chef to dishwasher were African-American.  Back there, Radziwill was known as “Princess Razzle-Dazzle” and the ribs and hash served as dinner for us help was better than anything ever delivered out front.  Another world consisted of the full-time, professional employees–Herb, his omnipresent second wife, two bartenders, the captain, and Vada, the only waitress who worked days all year round.  The college student waitresses and busboys were the lowest of the low.

At lunchtime, there was also the world of the bar, where many of Southampton’s year-rounders–lawyers, insurance men, merchants and bankers–gathered every weekday.  Truman Capote ate his lunch there every Monday in a corner booth.  I was his waitress all that summer.  He didn’t much like it.  He and Vada were close.  He’d even bought her new patio furniture when a storm blew hers away.  But she didn’t work Mondays in the summer, so he was stuck with me.

Me in my waitress uniform, 1974

I wasn’t a great waitress, I admit.  I’d been trained not to hurry people through their cocktails, to wait until they’d settled in with their drinks to take their orders.  Once, when Truman lunched with John Knowles, author of A Separate Peace, the cocktails flowed so continuously I couldn’t figure out when to take their order and Capote finally yelled at Herb about my incompetence.  But over the summer, we figured out how to get along.  For years I kept an Amex carbon with his signature on it in my wallet, which I’m quite sure both the restaurant and Amex would have frowned on had they known.

Whenever Capote walked into the bar, the locals would call out “Truman!” in a way a decade later I would associate with Norm entering Cheers. And then it would start,  “You know what you should write about?”  Capote was unfailingly polite and engaged, as if the tall tales from their world were as interesting to him as the gossip from his own.  He was as tiny, high-voiced and effeminate as he appears in the video clips you’ve seen, but the bar patrons treated him as one of their own and he responded with the same courtesy.

So now, decades later, I think of Capote whenever someone approaches me with, “You know what you should write about?”  The ideas I hear are sometimes excellent, though I’ve never used one. But maybe I should. Capote never wrote the stories from Herb’s bar. He never completed another novel, publishing only portions of the unfinished Answered Prayers.

About Barbara Ross

Barbara Ross is the author of the Maine Clambake Mysteries and the Jane Darrowfield Mysteries. Her books have been nominated for multiple Agatha Awards for Best Contemporary Novel and have won the Maine Literary Award for Crime Fiction. She lives in Portland, Maine. Readers can visit her website at www.maineclambakemysteries.com
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12 Responses to Paul McCartney told me never drop names, but…

  1. Ramona says:

    Barb, you know what you should write about?

    Sorry, couldn’t resist. What you just did write is fabulous. Love Truman Capote, but too right that you kept that Amex carbon.

    Is it tacky to say, I read through this and kept wondering if he was a decent tipper? That says a lot about a person.

  2. Marilyn says:

    Another beautifully written story. I felt like I was at a table watching Truman and the regulars.
    Always felt so sad that he never completed another novel.

  3. Brenda Buchanan says:

    This is a great story, Barb.

    After a summer of waiting on a celebrity who you knew was partial to Vada, gauging when during the life of his cocktail to sidle up with your order pad, you are entitled to drop his name.

    Brenda

  4. Pj Schott says:

    I love Truman Capote. Thank you for this wonderful story about him.

  5. Carol-Lynn Rössel says:

    Back when I was in high school in Tottenville, Staten Island, Truman Capote’s step-parents Joe and Marge moved from Manhattan to our little town and began to attend St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church, where we first encountered them. For some reason they bonded with Mom, who was a writer and soon I’d be going to Very Strange Tea Parties involving rose hip tea (I never have liked tea made from flowers) and guava paste on crackers and occasional literary imports from Manhattan like Harrison Cady, who was (to me) Very Old. This was before anyone much had heard of Truman Capote. One day, Marge gave a reading (another Really Odd literary ‘do’) to the honors English class at Tottenville high, and this was the first time I’d heard “dear Truman”‘s work. She always told us he was, any day, coming down to Tottenville to see her, but this never happened, of course. Anyhow, this was when I was getting my ideas of what the world was like and I just accepted that everyone in the world was a writer. It didn’t hit me until I was in college that this was not the case. I worked for Joe Capote one summer, and didn’t know anything about his Very Strange Business Dealings. Then. Mrs. Capote had a problem with the FBI. She’d duck down below the windows when cars would go by so the ‘blue light’ would not get her. Then there was a time when she suspected my father was a government spy who was going to turn her in. We saw little of the Capotes after that. Mom was crushed.

  6. Barb — very cool post! Herb McCarthy’s must have been an amazing place to soak up ideas, and to have someone like TC there every week — wow. And I thought I was cool because I babysat for some of the NE Patriots’ kids…

  7. Lovely, story, Barb. Thanks for giving us a glimpse into those multiple worlds.

  8. Somewhere I have a copy of “The Potato Book” by Myrna Davis, which has a foreword by Truman Capote lauding the potato fields of Long Island. Capote even included a recipe of his own: a baked potato slathered with sour cream and caviar, paired with a bottle of chilled vodka. Anyway, it’s a neat little cookbook – a library discard that I couldn’t resist picking up at a booksale – and a tribute to what was then farm country.

  9. Edla says:

    Has anyone ever mentioned either Ruth or Michael to you?

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