In Cold BloodTruman Capote
IN COLD BLOOD
A TRUE ACCOUNT OF A MULTIPLE MURDER
AND ITS CONSEQUENCES
About the Author
THE LAST TO SEE THEM ALIVE
The Modern Library
Truman Capote was born Truman Streckfus Persons on September 30, 1924, in New Orleans. His early years were affected by an unsettled family life. He was turned over to the care of his mother’s family in Monroeville, Alabama; his father was imprisoned for fraud; his parents divorced and then fought a bitter custody battle over Truman. Eventually he moved to New York City to live with his mother and her second husband, a Cuban businessman whose name he adopted. The young Capote got a job as a copyboy at The New Yorker in the early forties, but was fired for inadvertently offending Robert Frost. The publication of his early stories in Harper’s Bazaar established his literary reputation when he was in his twenties, and his novels Other Voices, Other Rooms (1948), a gothic coming-of-age story that Capote described as “an attempt to exorcise demons,” and The Grass Harp (1951), a gentler fantasy rooted in his Alabama years, consolidated his precocious fame.
From the start of his career Capote associated himself with a wide range of writers and artists, high-society figures, and international celebrities, gaining frequent media attention for his exuberant social life. He collected his stories in A Tree of Night (1949) and published the novella Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1958), but devoted his energies increasingly to the stage—adapting The Grass Harp into a play and writing the musical House of Flowers (1954)—and to journalism, of which the earliest examples were Local Color (1950) and The Muses Are Heard (1956). He made a brief foray into the movies to write the screenplay for John Huston’s Beat the Devil (1954).
Capote’s interest in the murder of a family in Kansas led to the prolonged investigation that provided the basis for In Cold Blood (1966), his most successful and acclaimed book. By “treating a real event with fictional techniques,” Capote intended to create a new synthesis: something both “immaculately factual” and a work of art. However its genre was defined, from the moment it began to appear in serialized form in The New Yorker the book exerted a fascination among a wider readership than Capote’s writing had ever attracted before. The abundantly publicized masked ball at the Plaza Hotel with which he celebrated the completion of In Cold Blood was an iconic event of the 1960s, and for a time Capote was a constant presence on television and in magazines, even trying his hand at movie acting in Murder by Death.
He worked for many years on Answered Prayers, an ultimately unfinished novel that was intended to be the distillation of everything he had observed in his life among the rich and famous; an excerpt from it published in Esquire in 1975 appalled many of Capote’s wealthy friends for its revelation of intimate secrets, and he found himself excluded from the world he had once dominated. In his later years he published two collections of fiction and essays, The Dogs Bark (1973) and Music for Chameleons (1980). He died on August 25, 1984, after years of problems with drugs and alcohol.
BY BOB COLACELLO
In Cold Blood: A True Account of a Multiple Murder and Its Consequences riveted the nation’s attention when it was first published as a four-part series in The New Yorker in the fall of 1965 and then in book form by Random House in early 1966. I met Truman Capote several years later. Although Truman and I sometimes spent entire days together, he almost never mentioned the work that had brought him fame and fortune. Occasionally, he’d remark that Norman Mailer—who had published his tour de force of novelistic journalism, Armies of the Night, two years after In Cold Blood—was receiving far too much praise for exploiting the hybrid form Capote claimed he’d invented: the nonfiction novel. (“But no matter how hard Mr. Mailer tries,” he’d say, “he will never beat me at my own game.”)
Capote’s early “fiction” novels—Other Voices, Other Rooms (1948), The Grass Harp (1951), and Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1958)—were gems of style, charm, and character. But it was only when he turned to journalism in The Muses Are Heard, his acutely observed, amusingly told 1956 report of a tour of Russia by a troupe of American actors performing Porgy and Bess, that his work became modern. He later noted, “The Muses Are Heard” had set me thinking on a different line altogether: I wanted to produce a journalistic novel, something on a large scale that would have the credibility of fact, the immediacy of film, the depth and freedom of prose and the precision of poetry.”
In Cold Blood began with a one-column story, datelined Holcomb, Kansas, on page 39 of The New York Times of November 16, 1959. Its headline read “WEALTHY FARMER, 3 OF FAMILY SLAIN.” Two weeks later, Capote was on his way to Kansas. “He bought a new Dior suit for the trip,” says Phyllis Cerf Wagner, the widow of Random House chairman Bennett Cerf. “That was the first thing he said to the professor Bennett sent him to at the University of Kansas: ‘Have you ever seen a man in a Dior suit?’ The professor replied, ‘Not only have I never seen a man in a Dior suit, I’ve never seen a woman in a Dior suit.’ ” Yet, within a month, the New York City slicker in his Paris wardrobe had succeeded in winning over not only the upstanding citizens of Finney County who re-created the life and personalities of the murdered Clutter family, but also the killers themselves, Dick Hickock and Perry Smith, who poured out their ragtag tales of woe.
Over the next six years, after Hickock and Smith were quickly convicted, sentenced to death, and then granted five stays of execution, Capote grew increasingly close to them. Too close, his friends would say afterward, particularly to Perry Smith, who was almost as short as Truman, and like him, the son of an alcoholic mother who had abandoned him and a father who had disappointed him. Diana Vreeland liked to tell a tale she said Truman had told her: During one of his death row interviews with Smith, “Perry grabbed Truman’s ballpoint pen and pressed it right against his eyeball, while he held him by the back of his head for something like fifteen minutes. Can you imagine, poor Truman? But it was an act of love you see, as well as an act of terror.”
At Hickock and Smith’s request, Capote was witness to their execution by hanging on April 14, 1965. “Truman told me he always felt guilty about not doing enough for them, about using them,” recalls Bianca Jagger. Another friend, C.Z. Guest, says, “I begged him not to go to the execution. He felt he should. I think it affected him more than he ever realized. That book took everything out of him. He was so sensitive. He wasn’t a tough nut.”
By the time I met him, Capote was obsessed with novel-in-progress Answered Prayers—which he said, again and again, would be the American equivalent of Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past—and after a chapter from it, “La Cote Basque, 1965,” was printed in Esquire in December 1975, with defending himself from the snubs and insults of the rich and powerful friends who found themselves insufficiently fictionalized. But Answered Prayers was never finished. It was during that time that Capote turned to the downtown world of Andy Warhol’s Factory, where I was then working as editor of Interview magazine. Capote’s association with Warhol turned out to be surprisingly productive.
The ever-practical Andy gave Truman a tape recorder so that he could, as Andy put it, “Write without writing,” and offered to do Truman’s portrait for free if he’d publish the results in Interview as “Conversations with Capote.” During 1979, while Interview contributing editor Brigid Berlin sat beside him in his raspberry-lacquered dining
room, heaping praise and making sure he kept writing, Truman completed ten pieces for the magazine that purported to be transcripts of tapes but were actually highly structured compositions of recorded and remembered dialogue. At least three of them—an extraordinary profile of Marilyn Monroe entitled “A Beautiful Child”; the hilarious and heartrending “A Day’s Work,” in which he followed a Caribbean-born cleaning woman on her Manhattan rounds, and “Hand-Carved Coffins,” “a nonfiction novella” about a series of bizarre murders in Nebraska—were as compelling as anything he had previously written. All ten pieces were included in the collection Music for Chameleons (1983), his first book of new work since In Cold Blood, and the last one before his death, at age 59, in 1984.
It seems fitting that Capote’s final testament was a work of reportage, because, as In Cold Blood made magnificently clear, journalism was his true calling. In fact, he was among the first writers—Joan Didion and V. S. Naipaul also come to mind—to realize that as our culture rushed headlong into the Age of Information, it was no longer as interesting or as vital to imagine reality as to report, shape, and define it. In Cold Blood, it is now apparent, was the compass pointing the way to much of the most exciting writing that has since followed, on both sides of the border between fiction and nonfiction, from the New Journalism of Tom Wolfe and Gay Talese to the Literary Journalism of Bruce Chatwin and Ryszard Kapuscinski, from James Ellroy’s American Tabloid to John Berendt’s Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.
Capote was one of the first who dared to elevate journalism to the level of art. In Cold Blood is a work of great discipline and even greater restraint, a tale of fate, as spare and elegiac as a Greek tragedy, as rich in its breadth and depth as the classic French novels of Stendhal and Flaubert. “We all have our souls and we all have façades,” Truman Capote told his friend Kay Meehan a year or so before he came upon the news that would inspire his masterpiece, “and then there’s something in between that makes us function as people. That’s what I have the ability to communicate.”
For Jack Dunphy and Harper Lee
with my love and gratitude
All the material in this book not derived from my own observation is either taken from official records or is the result of interviews with the persons directly concerned, more often than not numerous interviews conducted over a considerable period of time. Because these “collaborators” are identified within the text, it would be redundant to name them here; nevertheless, I want to express a formal gratitude, for without their patient co-operation my task would have been impossible. Also, I will not attempt to make a roll call of all those Finney County citizens who, though their names do not appear in these pages, provided the author with a hospitality and friendship he can only reciprocate but never repay. However, I do wish to thank certain persons whose contributions to my work were very specific: Dr. James McCain, President of Kansas State University; Mr. Logan Sanford, and the staff of the Kansas Bureau of Investigation; Mr. Charles McAtee, Director of the Kansas State Penal Institutions; Mr. Clifford R. Hope, Jr., whose assistance in legal matters was invaluable; and finally, but really foremost, Mr. William Shawn of The New Yorker, who encouraged me to undertake this project, and whose judgment stood me in good stead from first to last.
Frères humains qui aprés nous vivez,
N’ayez les cuers contre nous endurcis,
Car, se pitié de nous povres avez,
Dieu en aura plus tost de vous mercis.
Ballade des pendus
IN COLD BLOOD
TO SEE THEM ALIVE
The village of Holcomb stands on the high wheat plains of western Kansas, a lonesome area that other Kansans call “out there.” Some seventy miles east of the Colorado border, the countryside, with its hard blue skies and desert-clear air, has an atmosphere that is rather more Far West than Middle West. The local accent is barbed with a prairie twang, a ranch-hand nasalness, and the men, many of them, wear narrow frontier trousers, Stetsons, and high-heeled boots with pointed toes. The land is flat, and the views are awesomely extensive; horses, herds of cattle, a white cluster of grain elevators rising as gracefully as Greek temples are visible long before a traveler reaches them.
Holcomb, too, can be seen from great distances. Not that there is much to see—simply an aimless congregation of buildings divided in the center by the main-line tracks of the Santa Fe Railroad, a haphazard hamlet bounded on the south by a brown stretch of the Arkansas (pronounced “Ar-kan-sas”) River, on the north by a highway, Route 50, and on the east and west by prairie lands and wheat fields. After rain, or when snowfalls thaw, the streets, unnamed, unshaded, unpaved, turn from the thickest dust into the direst mud. At one end of the town stands a stark old stucco structure, the roof of which supports an electric sign—DANCE—but the dancing has ceased and the advertisement has been dark for several years. Nearby is another building with an irrelevant sign, this one in flaking gold on a dirty window—HOLCOMB BANK. The bank closed in 1933, and its former counting rooms have been converted into apartments. It is one of the town’s two “apartment houses,” the second being a ramshackle mansion known, because a good part of the local school’s faculty lives there, as the Teacherage. But the majority of Holcomb’s homes are one-story frame affairs, with front porches.
Down by the depot, the postmistress, a gaunt woman who wears a rawhide jacket and denims and cowboy boots, presides over a falling-apart post office. The depot itself, with its peeling sulphur-colored paint, is equally melancholy; the Chief, the Super-Chief, the El Capitan go by every day, but these celebrated expresses never pause there. No passenger trains do—only an occasional freight. Up on the highway, there are two filling stations, one of which doubles as a meagerly supplied grocery store, while the other does extra duty as a café—Hartman’s Café, where Mrs. Hartman, the proprietress, dispenses sandwiches, coffee, soft drinks, and 3.2 beer. (Holcomb, like all the rest of Kansas, is “dry.”)
And that, really, is all. Unless you include, as one must, the Holcomb School, a good-looking establishment, which reveals a circumstance that the appearance of the community otherwise camouflages: that the parents who send their children to this modern and ably staffed “consolidated” school—the grades go from kindergarten through senior high, and a fleet of buses transport the students, of which there are usually around three hundred and sixty, from as far as sixteen miles away—are, in general, a prosperous people. Farm ranchers, most of them, they are outdoor folk of very varied stock—German, Irish, Norwegian, Mexican, Japanese. They raise cattle and sheep, grow wheat, milo, grass seed, and sugar beets. Farming is always a chancy business, but in western Kansas its practitioners consider themselves “born gamblers,” for they must contend with an extremely shallow precipitation (the annual average is eighteen inches) and anguishing irrigation problems. However, the last seven years have been years of droughtless beneficence. The farm ranchers in Finney County, of which Holcomb is a part, have done well; money has been made not from farming alone but also from the exploitation of plentiful natural-gas resources, and its acquisition is reflected in the new school, the comfortable interiors of the farmhouses, the steep and swollen grain elevators.
Until one morning in mid-November of 1959, few Americans—in fact, few Kansans—had ever heard of Holcomb. Like the waters of the river, like the motorists on the highway, and like the yellow trains streaking down the Santa Fe tracks, drama, in the shape of exceptional happenings, had never stopped there. The inhabitants of the village, numbering two hundred and seventy, were satisfied that this should be so, quite content to exist inside ordinary life—to work, to hunt, to watch television, to attend school socials, choir practice, meetings of the 4-H Club. But then, in the earliest hours of that morning in November, a Sunday morning, certain foreign sounds impinged on the normal nightly Holcomb noises—on the keening hysteria of coyotes, the dry scrape
of scuttling tumbleweed, the racing, receding wail of locomotive whistles. At the time not a soul in sleeping Holcomb heard them—four shotgun blasts that, all told, ended six human lives. But afterward the townspeople, theretofore sufficiently unfearful of each other to seldom trouble to lock their doors, found fantasy re-creating them over and again—those somber explosions that stimulated fires of mistrust in the glare of which many old neighbors viewed each other strangely, and as strangers.
The master of River Valley Farm, Herbert William Clutter, was forty-eight years old, and as a result of a recent medical examination for an insurance policy, knew himself to be in first-rate condition. Though he wore rimless glasses and was of but average height, standing just under five feet ten, Mr. Clutter cut a man’s-man figure. His shoulders were broad, his hair had held its dark color, his square-jawed, confident face retained a healthy-hued youthfulness, and his teeth, unstained and strong enough to shatter walnuts, were still intact. He weighed a hundred and fifty-four—the same as he had the day he graduated from Kansas State University, where he had majored in agriculture. He was not as rich as the richest man in Holcomb—Mr. Taylor Jones, a neighboring rancher. He was, however, the community’s most widely known citizen, prominent both there and in Garden City, the close-by county seat, where he had headed the building committee for the newly completed First Methodist Church, an eight-hundred-thousand-dollar edifice. He was currently chairman of the Kansas Conference of Farm Organizations, and his name was everywhere respectfully recognized among Midwestern agriculturists, as it was in certain Washington offices, where he had been a member of the Federal Farm Credit Board during the Eisenhower administration.