Capote’s Masterpiece ‘In Cold Blood’ Still Vivid at 50

He’s had his critics, but none of the naysayers can diminish Truman Capote’s towering achievement in his gripping account of a gruesome quadruple murder on the Kansas plains.

In the controversial true crime book Fatal Vision, author Joe McGinniss writes of his anguish over realizing his subject, Jeffrey MacDonald, was guilty, and whether he could continue with the project. “I wanted very much for it to be over,” McGinniss writes. “I still do. But by now I have come to accept that it is not over for me—nor anyone else whose life has been touched by the tragedy of the MacDonald murders or by the seductive and destructive personality of Jeffrey MacDonald.”

Fatal Vision was published in 1983. MacDonald sued McGinniss in 1984 for breach of contract. In 1990, Janet Malcolm published The Journalist and the Murderer, which originated as a series of essays for The New Yorker on the legal battle between McGinniss and MacDonald. The opening sentence of the book reads: “Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible.”

On November 15, 1959, four members of the Clutter Family, a well-respected farm family who lived in Holcomb, Kansas, were brutally murdered in the middle of the night. Truman Capote, at home in New York, read about the murders in a brief report in The New York Times. Though he initially traveled to Holcomb to write a piece for The New Yorker, it was obvious to Capote by the time he arrived that there was enough material for an entire book. Today, In Cold Blood is the most famous true crime novel ever written. Capote’s record has entirely eclipsed the crime itself. If you search for “Clutter murders,” you’ll get the Wikipedia page for In Cold Blood.

Legend has it that Capote (and his companion Nell Harper Lee) took over 8,000 pages of notes in their research for the book. Lee traveled with Capote to help him interview the locals—the idea being that Lee, a woman from small town Alabama, was a less threatening presence than Capote, an eccentric, gay celebrity writer.

Most of these notes, many of which Lee probably transcribed on a typewriter for Capote, rest in the Truman Capote collection at the New York Public Library. There are mountains of notebooks, hotel stationery, even napkins on which Capote scribbled his observations on the town, its people, and the murders themselves. He even sketched jurors during selection, perhaps to remember who was who, and made sure to get a copy of Nancy Clutter’s recipe for cherry pie. He also kept track of the case through every single mention of it in the local papers. The day on which the murderers Perry Smith and Dick Hickock were apprehended is labeled in Capote’s childlike scrawl: “Red Letter Day.”

The NYPL smartly photographed and converted these paper archives into microfiche some time ago. I can confirm that it is no legend that copious notes were taken—I scanned through them myself. I was in the library basement for five hours, and I barely cracked the tip of the iceberg. I noticed that as early as a few days after his arrival in Holcomb, Capote had already started writing “vignettes,” or scenes that would later appear, mostly in full, in the finished book. For instance: the scene in which we visit the funeral home to see the four bodies, their heads encased in thick cotton. One touching aspect of the archive is Capote’s reliance on photographs—one notebook’s first page is simply an image of Herb and Bonnie Clutter, with no corresponding notes, as if he wanted to remind himself of the crime’s very real victims.

After In Cold Blood was published in 1966, it became an incredible success. To date, the book is second only in true crime sales to Vincent Bugliosi’s Helter Skelter. Critics swooned, and there was talk of a Pulitzer Prize. The film version was on the table as early as 1960, long before the book was finished. It was made in 1967, and received four Academy Award nominations.

But not all was positive. Soon after the book’s publication, accusations concerning its validity began and never really stopped: in ways big and small, Capote was accused of embellishing and stretching the truth, creating scenes out of convenience to make a good story even better. When veteran true crime writer Jack Olsen claimed it was all a ploy to make money, Capote replied, “Jack Olsen is just jealous.”

As that Janet Malcolm quotation indicates, the truth was more complicated. In Cold Blood reads like a novel, leaving readers to wonder over the legitimacy of the events it portrays. One notorious example is the scene when Herb Clutter feeds an apple to his horse, surveying his land the day of his murder. With no one else to witness this, how did Capote write this scene? After surveying the frankly insane research that Capote did to write this book—including many interviews with those who knew the Clutters, with peripheral townspeople who were shocked by their murders, and with the police who worked the case—it’s easy to see how Capote wrote this scene. I have no doubt that Herb Clutter walked to the barn that morning and fed his horse that exact apple.

The larger question, rather than his “fictionalization” of the story, is Capote’s own intimate involvement with the killers. Not one but two films have been made about the creation of In Cold Blood and its effect on Capote’s reputation and his mental health. Capote (2005), starring Phillip Seymour Hoffman, assumes that Capote worked to secure better lawyers for both Perry and Dick, and that Capote was particularly close to Perry, who he identified with as an outsider. (For the record, there’s no evidence that Capote ever spent much time with Perry alone, or that he tried to get them better lawyers, as the film portrays.) This is perhaps what Janet Malcolm is calling Joe McGinniss out for when she says that what journalists do is “morally indefensible”—that journalists must ingratiate themselves with their subjects, gain their trust, only to turn around and do what journalists do: tell the truth.

Malcolm assumes that McGinniss thought MacDonald was guilty from the beginning of their relationship, and to have acted otherwise to gain his trust was ethically wrong. After reading Fatal Vision several times, I believe McGinniss when he writes he did not think MacDonald was guilty when he was hired to write the book. He claims that during the process of getting to know MacDonald, and being presented with the evidence against him during the trial, he came to the realization that he had in fact killed his wife and two young daughters. This change of heart seems perfectly logical. Capote’s situation is different. From the beginning, he knew that Perry and Dick had killed all four members of the Clutter family. They had confessed to the crime. But Capote still needed their goodwill, and ultimately, their friendship, to write about their motivation and to finish his book. It’s also worth pointing out that McGinniss, at the time he wrote Fatal Vision, was an established journalist who wrote nonfiction. Capote was a celebrated writer ... of fiction.

Capote enjoyed a solid relationship with Alvin Dewey, the KBI investigator who ran the case, and his wife and children. He relied heavily on the Deweys for information regarding the case after he had left Kansas. On October 10, 1960, he wrote them from Switzerland, “Question for Foxy [Capote’s nickname for Alvin Dewey], who found Nancy’s wristwatch in her shoe, Beverly, or Eveanna?” It was an intimate friendship—Capote even gave Dewey’s teenage son advice and feedback on his fiction writing, and a list of reading to do, including The Catcher in the Rye, but alerting him to check with his parents first.

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The problem for Capote was that while the first three sections of the book had come pouring out, thanks to his copious notes and research and the huge help of Harper Lee, the fourth and final section was basically impossible to write, given that Perry and Dick were still awaiting appeal. Three execution dates passed ... Capote waited in agony, always having to tell his publisher and The New Yorker to wait for the case to be finished.

“My only regret is that I have spent $8,000 on research, which I will not be able to recover,” he wrote his friend Donald Windham as early as October 1960. “But I shall go right on with the book, regardless: I suppose it sounds pretentious, but I feel a great obligation to write it, even though the material leaves me increasingly limp and numb, and well, horrified—I have such awful dreams every night. I don’t know now how I could have ever felt so callous and ‘objective’—as I did in the beginning.” The book would not be finished for another six years.

By this time, Capote already struggled with substance abuse. His overall health was not good. He wrote Marie Dewey about his constant weight fluctuation, and once, during the course of their correspondence, he had a cancer scare. He suffered from terrible pain from a crushed nerve in his back. Doctors recommended he stop smoking, but then he drank excessively. “I drink by the gallon,” he wrote Cecil Beaton, and “my finances are not in very good shape at the moment.”

All the while, Dick and Perry languished in prison, hopeful that one of their appeals would result in a new trial. Perry wrote Truman long letters in elegant cursive script. Capote replied to one, including a capsule biography, signing off “I do not mind telling you anything.” But as he wrote to Alvin and Marie Dewey, the reality of the situation was clear: “Every morning of my life I throw up because of the tensions created by the writing of this book.” One cable sent to a friend on January 19, 1965 has “fingers crossed” that the execution will be carried out. The next letter, sent just five days later, on January 24, makes many apologies to Perry that the appeal has been denied. This two-faced back and forth between writing letters of support to the doomed murderers while at the same time praying that they would be executed as soon as possible, must have been a sort of agonizing emotional game of Russian Roulette.

Finally, on April 14, 1965, Perry Smith and Dick Hickock were executed, six years after the murders. Capote wrote to Cecil Beaton: “Perry and Dick were executed last Tuesday. I was there because they wanted me to be. It was a terrible experience. Something I will never really get over.”

This letter proved to be prophetic. When Capote finally finished In Cold Blood, it launched him into literary superstardom. He became friendly with Lee Radziwill, sister to Jackie Kennedy Onassis, and Katherine Graham, the publisher of The Washington Post. He launched his extravagant and cliquish Black and White Ball at the Plaza Hotel. He did little writing. A screenplay for a film adaptation of The Great Gatsby was rejected. His long-time relationship with Jack Dunphy faltered. He entered into a dysfunctional relationship with a married father of four. In the ’70s, his eccentric behavior became a staple of the talk show circuit. By the ’80s, he had basically become a recluse. He died, from complications due to alcoholism, at the home of his friend Joanne Carson. He was one month shy of his 60th birthday.

In the years before his death, he often remarked on the enormous damage In Cold Blood had inflicted on his mental and physical health. “No one will ever know what In Cold Blood took out of me,” he said. “It scraped me right down to the marrow of my bones.” Did he feel this way because what he had done was “morally indefensible”?

By nature, true crime books are complex. One only has to look at the controversy surrounding Netflix’s Making of a Murderer to know that what a writer (or showrunner) chooses to include or not to include will come back to haunt him or her. How many of us watched the show, certain of Steven Avery’s innocence, only to read the many subsequent articles that claimed to present the real truth? In Cold Blood captures why true crime is still so appealing. It’s not the “truth” of the matter so much as it is the story of the crime, and the story of the people who lived it. Confronting the fact that people are capable of these horrifying crimes is a difficult pill to swallow—perhaps even more devastating to those writers who must confront these so-called monsters face-to-face and find that they are in fact human, just like everyone else. What could be more terrifying?

In the end, Capote’s masterpiece ultimately destroyed him. But it remains a masterpiece. It’s difficult to imagine the immense popularity of true crime classics like Helter Skelter or Fatal Vision without In Cold Blood—or even Erik Larson’s Devil in the White City, not to mention true crime series like Serial, Making a Murderer, or The Staircase. William Shawn, then editor of The New Yorker, sent Capote a telegram in 1963 upon reading the third part of the book. “A masterpiece stop A work of art stop people will be reading two hundred years from today.” There’s still a ways to go, but surely Capote would be happy to know the first 50 years are in the bag.