Tuesday, July 10, 2018
Truman Capote and the Legacy of "In Cold Blood" First Edition by Ralph F. Voss (University of Alabama Press)
Author Ralph Voss was a teenager in Kansas in 1959, when the Herbert Clutter family was murdered in their home in another quiet Kansas community. Parents and two teenagers were gunned down in the peace of their farm house by two recently-released convicts, Perry Smith and Richard Hickock. The crime, subsequent manhunt, trial, and execution, was immortalised in the book, "In Cold Blood", by infant-terrible Truman Capote.
More than 50 years have passed and the Clutters have been joined in death by their murderers, Truman Capote, and many of the members of Kansas law enforcement who apprehended and tried Smith and Hickock. But the crime lives on, in Capote's book and subsequent books and movies. I'm sure most - if not all - of the readers of this review have read "In Cold Blood" and have seen at least one of the movies about Truman Capote. Ralph Voss takes a look at how both the cold-blooded murder of a family of four and the books and movies have affected the Clutter's Kansas neighbors and Truman Capote's life and place in society.
Truman Capote was already a well-known and respected writer in New York City when in November, 1959, he read a small article in the New York Times, telling of a home-invasion/murder in the small Kansas farm community of Holcomb. He was looking for a "project" and persuaded his boss at the "New Yorker" to pay for him to travel to Kansas to write what he first thought would be a magazine article. He also convinced his old friend from Alabama - Nelle Harper Lee - to accompany him and act as his assistant. Nelle - better known as "Harper Lee" - had just published her first - and only - novel, "To Kill a Mockingbird" and the book was beginning to garner praise and sales. Certainly an article on a murder-in-the-farmlands would be a change from Capote's previous writing; the novel, "Breakfast at Tiffany's", several highly-regarded books of short stories, as well as a couple of movie scripts. Capote was the toast of New York society but was somewhat bored by "the ladies who lunch".
Truman and Nelle arrived in Garden City, Kansas and settled in to interview and write a true-crime article. People in Kansas didn't quite know what to make of Truman Capote - clearly a gay man - and the "interesting" Nelle Lee. But the two finally became accepted into the community where they began to work. Interviewing the Clutter's neighbors and friends and the Kansas law enforcement officers, the two were there when the murderers - Perry Smith and Richard Hickock - were apprehended in Las Vegas after five weeks on-the-lam and returned to Garden City to face trial for their crimes. And it was looking at Perry Smith, a short, violent, childish-looking man, from a highly dysfunctional family, that Truman Capote fell in love. The original article length piece Capote was planning to write for the "New Yorker" gradually expanded into book-length.
Truman Capote's writing expanded because he was now writing about the killers as well as the victims. He also wrote about the police and law-enforcement community. He was given access to the jails, the Kansas Bureau of Investigation's (KBI) files and records, and the prison where Hickock and Smith spent five years awaiting their executions. Those five years - between trial verdict and the gallows - were painful for Capote. He couldn't finish and publish his book (actually first published as four magazine articles) until Hickock and Smith were executed but he didn't want them - particularly Perry Smith - to die. He told the two murderers that he would hire appellate attorneys to represent them, but never followed through. He maintained a sort of "prison romance" with Perry Smith, the exact details of which have never been completely substantiated. Capote always said he and Perry Smith were two very similar men from similar dysfunctional families who took completely different paths in life. Smith's life ended on the gallows in a Kansas prison, while Capote's ended at Joanne Carson's guest house in California. He never achieved the literary or social success after his fame of "In Cold Blood" and never published another novel.
Ralph Voss recounts Capote's life both before and after his time in Kansas writing "In Cold Blood". He critiques the book and also the movies that were made from the book, and the movies made of Truman Capote's life. He also returns to the scene of the crime - Holcomb, Kansas - in 1959 a small rural town that has grown into a much larger community as economic prosperity came to that part of Kansas. Voss is an excellent writer and researcher. The book, "Truman Capote and the Legacy of 'In Cold Blood'" is a worthwhile read if you want to know more about the hideous crime and its aftermath in that small Kansas town more than 50 years ago.