Footsteps: Retracing Truman Capote’s Moment in the Mediterranean Sun

Long before the alcohol and depression, the drug-fueled nights at New York’s Studio 54 and the promise of a Proustian novel that would never fully materialize, Truman Capote was heralded as one of the country’s most promising young writers. It was this Capote who met fellow writer Jack Dunphy in 1948. The two would end up devoted companions for 35 years. But first, Capote needed to win him over. So he hatched a plan: they would head to Italy.

After brief stopovers in Venice, Florence, Rome and Naples, the couple headed to Ischia, a volcanic island off the coast of Naples. They trekked by horse-drawn buggy, with children clinging to their carriage, and bleating goats scurrying past, to Forio, then a small fishing village, where they stayed for nearly three months.

That time would reverberate: It cemented the still fragile legs of the new relationship, and it established for Capote a routine that would serve him well — escaping to the Mediterranean to write.

Truman Capote, with his bulldog, sits on a low wall in front of the small harbor of Portofino, Italy, in the 1950s.CreditGetty Images

“Jack was very much part of the equation. He wanted to travel, and Truman wanted to please him,” said Gerald Clarke, author of the authoritative “Capote: A Biography.

“But Truman was also pleasing himself. Though he came from a small town in Alabama, he loved New York, loved it so much that he found it hard to write when it was so tempting to go out on the town,” Mr. Clarke told me. “New York was a kind of addiction. He realized that if he wanted to write — and that’s all he wanted to do — he would have to do it elsewhere.”

While Capote would rise to become arguably New York’s greatest literary and social lion of the ’60s, whose iconic Black and White Ball at the Plaza hotel in Manhattan in 1966 would be called the “party of the century,” with boldfaced names from Frank Sinatra to the Maharani of Jaipur mingling behind costume masks, the Capote who bunked in Forio knew his best work could only be done in self-imposed exile.

His time living in the small coastal towns and villages of southern Italy and Spain allowed him to produce a remarkable output that matched his outsized ambition. Last spring and summer, I went in search of these seaside idylls, hoping to retrace a long ago golden boy’s moment in the sun.

On a cool, crisp morning last May, I boarded a ferry from Naples, watching the city’s pastel-colored buildings give way to the blur of glamorous Capri in the distance. An hour and a half later, I pulled into Forio, on Ischia’s western coast, and spotted the Pensione Di Lustro, the couple’s former residence, just opposite the small, palm-tree lined harbor.

“It is the pleasantest pensione in Forio, an interesting bargain, too,” wrote Capote in his 1949 essay “Ischia.” For about $200 a month, they had “two huge rooms with great expanses of tiled floor” overlooking the sea, along with two five-course meals a day.

At the Pensione Di Lustro in the fishing village of Forio on the island of Ischia, Italy, the guest register included Truman Capote.CreditSusan Wright for The New York Times

Ischia’s fortunes have risen markedly over the years, with a thriving tourism scene built on its natural thermal springs. Yet little has changed at the Pensione Di Lustro, where Capote and Dunphy were only the ninth and 10th American guests since the pensione was established, and where the playwright Tennessee Williams also joined them briefly.

No. 3, Capote’s, still looked much as he had described it, a large room with a high, vaulted ceiling, where I could imagine him toiling away on “Summer Crossing,” a previously tossed aside novel that he had once again picked up and was published posthumously in 2005.

In the small blue-and-white tiled kitchen of the 10-room pensione, I found Gioconda Di Lustro, who at 19 at the time of the couple’s stay was their cook and maid, and figured prominently in Capote’s “Ischia” essay. “Gioconda speaks no English, and my Italian is — well, never mind. Nevertheless, we are confidantes,” Capote wrote.

See where in the Mediterranean made the annual list

“He was very spirited and always animated,” Ms. Di Lustro told me in Italian, recalling how they would bake together in that very kitchen.

Gray-haired yet still quite sturdy at 88, Ms. Di Lustro now owns the hotel with two daughters, Maria Teresa and Giuseppina Di Lustro. The five-course lunches have been done away with, but that evening, I sat down to a lengthy meal similar to what Capote and Dunphy would have enjoyed — starting with a delicious tomato-and-eggplant risotto and ending with a traditional pastiera cake — all cooked and served by Ms. Di Lustro and her middle-aged daughters. (The cost? Still, as Capote had remarked, “an interesting bargain” at 70 euros, or $79, for dinner and a room that night.)

But Capote did more than just work and eat well in Ischia. He was also mesmerized by the island’s primitive beauty, whose appeal, he wrote in his essay, was in its “straight-dropping volcanic cliffs,” with rocks below like “sleeping dinosaurs.”

Armed with a map dotted with markings made by Ms. Di Lustro and her two daughters of where they thought Capote and Dunphy might have gone, I headed off to see how much of it remained.

On a sloping path toward the sea, where spotted green lizards darted by my feet, I found that I had Cava dell’Isola, a small beach that’s often crowded in summer, all to myself.

The stunning Isola Bella was Capote’s favorite beach, a curving slip of pebbly shoreline that overlooks a beautiful nature preserve of the same name in Taormina, Italy.CreditSusan Wright for The New York Times

But my favorite spot was further south, past small citrus groves heaving with lemons, near the pretty, car-free village of Sant’Angelo. While a number of sprawling thermal parks have sprung up along the island, the hot springs of Sorgeto, frequented since Roman times for its naturally heated waters, remains its most dramatic.

Situated at the bottom of a vertigo-inducing set of steps, its splendor comes all in a rush, with the crashing of the waves amplified by immense cliffs that enclose the bay on three sides. My timing turned out to be off, though — the high tide rendered the waters stone-cold — but wading knee deep into a nearby grotto, I found small pools of steaming hot water, an inkling of Sorgeto’s famed lures.

Capote’s time in Ischia established a productive routine, one that his Random House editor, Robert Linscott, recognized. A year later, Capote and Dunphy headed back to Italy in April, this time to Taormina on Sicily’s eastern coast. But when the editor got wind that Capote wanted to leave the island, Linscott practically forbade him from doing so without a completed book manuscript.

That manuscript about an unlikely group of outcasts hiding out in a treehouse in the Deep South, which Capote wrote in its entirety in the hilltop town of Taormina, would be published as “The Grass Harp” in 1951. Looking closely, glimpses of Capote’s Taormina come through in the book.

Read more on Truman Capote

These days, the Italian resort town draws both the international jet set and flag-carrying tour guides. But the seaside town to which Capote and Dunphy arrived was far quieter, still recovering from the aftermath of World War II.

On a visit last June, I found Taormina’s small center teeming with crowds, but their numbers dissipated as soon as I walked out of the Porta Messina, the town’s historic northern gateway. Past two more stone arches, I found Villa Britannia, whose young owner, Louisa Vittorio, has a unique claim to Capote’s literary heritage here: Various family members including her father, Nino Vittorio, are among the colorful characters in Capote’s 1951 essay “Fontana Vecchia,” and still live on the same narrow street.

That essay takes its name from Capote and Dunphy’s residence in Taormina, a rose-colored house situated diagonally above Villa Britannia. While Fontana Vecchia is a private residence, long owned by Ms. Vittorio’s cousin, Salvatore Galeano, and not normally open to the public, they gave me a special tour.

And when I stepped out onto its terrace, clung precipitously off the hillside, it struck me: While Capote, as a young boy in Alabama, often escaped with his childhood friend, the writer Harper Lee, to a backyard treehouse — the obvious model for the treehouse in “The Grass Harp” — here, too, perhaps, was another inspiration, a soaring sanctuary far removed from the social demands of his Manhattan life.

At Villa Britannia, I tried to slip into Capote’s writing-and-sea routine, working in the morning on the private terrace of my “Truman Capote” suite, surrounded by cypress trees and their cones, with a view of the Calabrian shores in the distance.

The Church of San Giuseppe in the Piazza IX Aprile is in the town center of Taormina.CreditSusan Wright for The New York Times

It was hard to peel myself from the exquisite villa and its tiny garden of jacaranda and oleander blooms to go to the sea. But I was rewarded for making the trek downhill — made infinitely easier by cable car, installed in 1992 — with the stunning Isola Bella, Capote’s favorite beach, a curving slip of pebbly shoreline that overlooks a beautiful nature preserve of the same name.

Seven years later and back in New York, Capote stumbled across a headline in this paper — “Wealthy Farmer, 3 of Family Slain” — in November 1959. With the help of his childhood friend, Lee, Capote spent roughly three months in the high plains of western Kansas to research what was originally conceived as a relatively short article for The New Yorker. When that limited scope soon gave way to what would run as four installments in the magazine and become “In Cold Blood,” his “nonfiction novel” much praised for its atmospheric, filmic detail, Capote once again headed across the Atlantic.

With Dunphy by his side and suitcases of typed notes, Capote in April 1960 arrived in Palamós, a vibrant seaside town north of Barcelona long considered a retreat for city dwellers.

On a searingly hot sunny morning in early August, I met Maria Àngels Solé, a tour guide at the Fishing Museum, which offers a “Palamós of Truman Capote” tour most summers.

We walked up the pedestrian-only Carrer Major, the town’s bustling main street, where she pointed out the locations of the shops Capote frequented. Near the port, we found the plaque that marked the location of Capote’s first villa, a five-story apartment complex in its place.

Two of Capote’s other homes are similarly long gone, said Josep Colomer, the longstanding owner of one of Palamós’s most storied and oldest hotels, Hotel Trias. I had arranged to meet him and his wife, Anna Maria Kammüller, in the lobby, where they said Capote often came in the mornings to read his newspapers over a gin martini.

Fishing boats moored in the port of Palamós, a vibrant seaside town north of Barcelona.

While the town of Palamós is much changed, Castell-Cap Roig, a protected area spread over 2,700 acres of red granite cliffs, towering pine trees and secluded coves, remains much the same. Among its smattering of houses is a large villa, above the cove of Sanià, which Mr. Colomer said he had arranged for Capote to rent during his last spring and summer in Palamós.

The next day, that’s where I headed, hearing only my own footfall on dried pine needles, and the incessant siren song of humming cicadas along a forest path.

Then after about a 20-minute trek, with pine trees giving way to a field of wispy yellow and pink wildflowers, I saw it, Capote’s last — and grandest — home on the Mediterranean, a whitewashed villa with a dark green gate. Here he had toiled on the third, and longest, portion of “In Cold Blood,” and entertained the occasional famous friend, including Gloria Vanderbilt, whose yacht was anchored in the cove.

The novel would be far lengthier and more complex than anything Capote had ever attempted before. Researching such a gruesome subject, getting so emotionally close to the murderers — and watching their executions — would take a psychological toll.

Sanià cove isn’t accessible to the public by foot, so I headed down a steep, stone path to Canyers, a cove adjacent to Capote’s private sanctuary. There, I found water so crystal clear I could see straight through to the seashells on the rocks as I waded in. Gazing out at the endless blue-green of the sea, I felt an utter stillness and calm that I imagined Capote, too, must have felt looking out onto the water.

Capote considered purchasing either the Spanish villa or another house nearby but acquiesced to Dunphy, who loved to ski and was eager to return to Verbier, Switzerland where they had previously spent several winters. After they left the Spanish coast in the fall of 1962, they never lived together along the Mediterranean again. In 1966, In Cold Blood” became a best-selling book, marking both the height of Capote’s fame and achievement, but also the beginning of his eventual downfall.

Before all that, though, he had his craggy cliffs, his secluded beaches, the exquisite sensation of cool seawater on sun-warmed skin — but above all, his great love — the charmed contours of the private life of a public writer still in his prime.

Ratha Tep, based in Dublin, is a frequent contributor to the Travel section.

Follow NY Times Travel on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. Get weekly updates from our Travel Dispatch newsletter, with tips on traveling smarter, destination coverage and photos from all over the world.

Leave a Reply