Anyone who has ever set out to report a true story has discovered that it rarely ends up being what they first imagined. Like a strong current, once you enter you are no longer in complete control.
This was true of one of the first and most famous of the so-called “nonfiction novels,” Truman Capote’s remarkable (if journalistically tainted) In Cold Blood. He set out to find one story when he went to Kansas, and ended up with something else entirely, something that would ultimately reveal as much about him as it does about the killers at the center of his book—perhaps more.
More than a half century since it was published and 36 years after the author’s death, the book is considered a classic, and remains a strong seller. It has spawned three fine movie adaptations and one TV mini-series. But we are perhaps more fascinated today by Capote than by the story itself. Two of the feature films, Capote (2005) and Infamous (2006), are as much about him and his methods as the tragedy itself. Both depict the author being pulled under and undone by the task. How did the project come about? Why did a famous New York author, one more drawn to the tony precincts of gossip and celebrity, settle on a tawdry atrocity in western Kansas?
The story of Capote carefully snipping a small item from an inside page of The New York Times and proposing the subject to his New Yorker editor has become legend. Something in that bare-bones account, we are led to believe, summoned him, “deep calls unto deep,” as if he sensed the richness of the project from the beginning. I think his motivation was more pedestrian. Capote loved gossip, and like all such devotees, he relished stories that shocked. How would an insular, rural American community react to four inexplicable murders? Holcomb, Kansas, was not the sort of place where such things happened. It was, as Capote would later describe it, a place where people were “sufficiently unfearful of each other to seldom trouble to lock their doors.” No more. In the crime’s aftermath, what were people saying? What did people think?
Capote set out to find one story when he went to Kansas, and ended up with something else entirely, something that would ultimately reveal as much about him as it does about the killers at the center of his book—perhaps more.
This was the story Capote set out to write. Then something unexpected happened. The murderers were caught. The whodunit vanished with the prompt confessions of drifters Perry Smith and Dick Hickock. What remained then was the harder mystery, the why-dunnit. Why would these two ex-cons choose to invade the home of a perfectly ordinary family they did not know, and then, one by one, methodically execute them? Capote’s answer to that question would be “in cold blood,” his own best understanding, which would prove very particular indeed.
Serious authors are drawn to material that resonates with them, even if not always consciously. Just as novelists invent stories and characters to explore themes they find important, journalists are drawn to real stories that do the same. They work toward a personal understanding of what happened, and that understanding reflects who they are. To some degree we are always writing about ourselves, even when neither directly nor deliberately. Anyone who lives with a story as long as Capote did ends up coloring it subjectively, which is why no two tackling the same material will produce exactly the same story.
Capote was a gay man with a troubling early childhood in the Deep South. This background left him with a jaundiced view of life in the heartland, and, in particular, with its social and sexual conventions. His most famous work prior to In Cold Blood, the novella Breakfast at Tiffany’s, startingly skewed romantic convention (before Hollywood got hold of it). No standard boy-meets-girl, it was gay-man-meets-eccentric-female-quasi-hooker. Four grisly murders in the perfect American small town would surely shake up that community’s idea of itself.
But that narrative became secondary with the killers’ capture. Capote’s task narrowed. He would spend the next five years, while the court case and appeals were exhausted and the executions carried out, getting to know and understand these men. He clearly had a lot more success with Smith, who would carry on a dialogue with the author so intimate that it has prompted speculation (fleshed out directly in Infamous) that they had fallen in love. Hickock was a more difficult subject, more guarded and cynical. So it was Smith became Capote’s central character.
Serious authors are drawn to material that resonates with them, even if not always consciously.
And the closer he looked, the more this peculiar man came to resemble the author himself. Smith is portrayed as a dreamy romantic with an artistic bent, and a writer—he wrote songs and poems and sent long handwritten accounts of himself to Capote while awaiting execution. Capote describes him as a surprisingly diminutive man with an oversize upper body—“a more than normal-sized man [when seated],” but when he stood “he was no taller than a twelve-year-old child.” His feet are “tiny;” they “would have neatly fitted into a delicate lady’s dancing slippers.” Later in the book his voice is described by one witness as “lispy, whispery,” and Capote later describes “the whispery rush of [his] soft voice.” The author’s own voice was high-pitched and famously effeminate, and he likewise presented a different figure seated than standing; he was strikingly delicate and diminutive, five-three, with an oversize head—his childhood nickname had been “Bulldog.” Smith did not identify as a gay, but Capote notes his close attachment to another prison inmate, Willie-Jay, whom Hickock describes as a “faggot.” He also notes that Smith had had homosexual experiences as a young man in the merchant marine—albeit as the victim of older sailors.
It is the relationship of Smith and Hickock, however, that is the key to understanding the crime, and I am not the first to see a strong gay subtext in Capote’s portrayal, one that would very likely have outraged the two men. Smith is presented as slightly feminine, and submissive, while Hickock is aggressively masculine. There is no indication that they were lovers—indeed, both expressed disdain for “faggots” and Hickock was aggressively heterosexual—but Capote sees a connection between the two that went deeper than friendship. He presents them, essentially, as a couple, albeit one with the erotic strongly suppressed.
In the first of the book’s four parts, these two are presented in short chapters as they travel across the flat Kansas landscape toward Holcomb, scenes interspersed like dark drumbeats in an account of the Clutter family’s last day. These are written with cinematic detail, with dialogue that Capote at least partly invented. Both primp for their long drive like “two dudes setting off on a double date,” but they aren’t meeting women. There is a peculiar intimacy between them. Smith reassures Hickock about his appearance—his face had been disfigured by a car accident—telling him, “You have a wonderful smile. One of those smiles that really work.” In their banter during these scenes, Dick refers to Perry as “honey” and “baby” and “sugar,” and they bicker like a married couple. Indeed, later in the story, when Hickock contemplates deserting Smith, Capote writes, “He was like a wife that must be got rid of.”
The closer Capote looked, the more this peculiar man came to resemble the author himself. Smith is portrayed as a dreamy romantic with an artistic bent, and a writer.
Smith forms strong attachments to other men. We learn that he had actually come to Kansas, defying an order to stay away, in hopes of meeting Willie-Jay on his release from prison. Disappointed in that effort, he latches onto Hickock, whom he had also known in prison, and with whom he now longs to form a “team.” He travels to Holcomb with him to participate in a “big score,” Hickock’s belief that Herb Clutter has a safe filled with money in his house. Instead of splitting up after committing the murders, which would have made sense, they stay together, with Perry’s attachment to his teammate growing more and more obsessive. He dreams of running away with Dick to hunt for treasure. He is disturbed whenever Dick shows an interest in the other sex—particularly his desire for young girls. Perry threatens to fight him when Dick suggests he might rape teenage Nancy Clutter, is disgusted when he flirts with a girl on a Miami beach, and is annoyed when he has sex with a prostitute in Mexico. Perry becomes so distraught in Kansas City when Dick fails to return at the appointed time that he ends up retching “like a drunk with the dry heaves.” Even in prison, awaiting the hangman, Perry fantasizes a plan in which he and Dick escape together—notably, Hickock’s fantasy is of escaping by himself.
Perry’s obsession with Dick is Capote’s answer to the why-dunnit. Dick’s interest in him ignited after Perry told him an invented story about having killed a man. Dick admires him as a “natural killer,” and Perry, whose connection to Dick becomes obsessive, apparently feels the need to live up to this. When we finally learn what happened inside the Clutter house on the night of the murder—a long confession by Smith that is the only passage in the book written in the present tense—Perry cements his connection to Dick in blood. There is no other compelling reason for murder. Having failed to locate the safe full of money that Dick hoped to find, his “score,” they might have fled with only a breaking-and-entering charge. Perry even suggests it. The Clutters had seen their faces, but they didn’t know who they were. Having done no harm, it’s unlikely the state of Kansas would have exerted much effort to catch them. Instead, Perry begins the slaughter, slicing Herb Clutter’s neck—“I thought he was a very nice gentleman.... I thought so right up to the moment I cut his throat.” They then methodically kill each of the others. Why? In Perry’s case, to impress Dick, or, we might even say, as I believe Capote suggests, out of his love for Dick.
Is it true? As much as I like the book, I doubt it, and not just because of Capote’s notoriously slippery reporting methods. If I were given the same story and had access to all the same records and people, my take would probably have been much different. I would likely have given more weight to Hickock’s evident sadism. In Smith’s statement to the police, he said that they lingered in the Clutter house because Dick was “excited” by “the glory of having everyone at his mercy.” But Hickock was a harder nut to crack. I would have been struck by Smith’s strange submissiveness, but without reading Capote’s book, I doubt I would have divined—perhaps the right word would be “noticed”—the gay subtext. That doesn’t mean I would be right, and Capote wrong. Different journalist, different story.
The bare facts of In Cold Blood do tell a true story, and despite his inventions, Capote’s version is defensible. Freud’s notion that repressed sexuality underlies psychosis, and can manifest as irrational violence, was a prevailing psychological belief in the mid–20th century, and is still respected by many today. In the film Capote, the author’s sin is to betray the killers, pretending to befriend them while demeaning them to his Manhattan friends, and then portraying them as cold-blooded killers. He acts out Janet Malcolm’s questionable dictum that in-depth journalism is, at heart, “morally indefensible.” The film Infamous is more clever; it does to Capote, in effect, what he did to Smith and Hickock. It reads a romantic subplot into the author’s relationship with his primary subject. In each case, the book and the two recent films, the story told reflects the values and inferences of its makers. What you get with In Cold Blood is Truman Capote’s best understanding of what happened, no more and no less.
Mark Bowden is the author of 13 books, including The Last Stone: A Masterpiece of Criminal Interrogation