In part, the curiosity about the intersection of these two 20th-century cultural icons is due to the great differences between them. By 1957 Brando, through his portrayals of characters like Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire, Terry Malloy in On The Waterfront, and Johnny Strabler in The Wild One, was a living archetype of postwar American machismo, a monosyllabic tough guy and acting genius with the sculpted build of a prizefighter. In contrast, Capote—with his babykins voice, theatrical swish, and elfin stature (around 5´3”)—occupied the opposite end of the male spectrum, looking, as one writer put it, about “as dangerous as a chipmunk.”
But for all their apparent dissimilarities, aspects of their lives were remarkably similar. Both were the lone sons of alcoholic mothers and distant, troubled fathers. Both had been shipped off to military schools in their teens, which they had despised, and neither went to college. Both were known by friends and acquaintances for their skill in manipulating the lives of those around them.
And both were transformative figures in their respective artistic fields. “I’ve interviewed thousands of people,” Lawrence Grobel, a writer who spent many hours talking with both Brando and Capote, told me. “And just a few give off a real sense of power in person. Both of these guys were like that.” Still, if anyone was placing a bet on who would come out on top in a conflict between these two, all the money would have gone on Brando (with Brando probably placing the biggest bet of all).
But in the months following their encounter, it was Brando who grew increasingly desperate to stop publication of Capote’s story. By turns furious, distraught, threatening, and pleading, he tried in vain to get the story killed. “My soul is a private place,” Brando liked to say. But Capote would lay it bare. Gone was the dangerous mystique that fueled the early years of Brando’s stardom; in its place, a portrait of a deluded and confused man-child, overcome by his fame and haunted by the ghost of his alcoholic mother. “I’ll kill him!” Brando told Logan when The New Yorker profile came out. “It’s too late,” Logan shot back. “You should have killed him before you invited him to dinner.”
The encounter between brando and Capote came at a key juncture in both men’s careers. Born six months apart in 1924, they were both 32 when they met in Japan, each already burnished by a decade of fame. Both had made their names while still in their early twenties in the pulsing firmament of postwar Manhattan. In their youth, both were notorious for their physical beauty, incandescent talent, and odd mannerisms.
Brando arrived in New York in 1943, after being expelled from his military academy in Minnesota that spring (his list of transgressions was long). His sister was already living in Greenwich Village, studying painting with Hans Hofmann, the noted abstract expressionist. While living with her in the Village, Brando gravitated toward the dramatic workshop run by Erwin Piscator and Stella Adler, who had imported the acting techniques of Russia’s Konstantin Stanislavsky. “The Method,” in which actors draw on their own memories and experiences to create their character, would transform American acting and, in Brando, it had found its most potent initiate. Adler soon was predicting great things for the brooding Midwestern teenager, telling one of her young protégés, “Wait ’til you meet this kid. . . . This is a genius.” Though Brando’s previous experience in the theater was limited to a few school productions, within a year he was appearing on Broadway. By 23, he had landed the role that would make him a star. Though initially deemed too young and pretty to be convincing as the brutish Kowalski in Streetcar, Brando was championed by director Elia Kazan, who sent him to Tennessee Williams’s beach house in Cape Cod to audition in person. Brando later recounted he only had read for about 30 seconds when Williams told him he had the part. “Then he loaned me bus fare to get back to New York.”