Truman Capote's ground-breaking "non-fiction" novel about the murder of a Kansas farm family. We take the position that the book is not only flawed, but dishonest.
by J.J. Maloney
The publication of In Cold Blood, in 1966, launched Truman Capote firmly into the top rank of American writers. It was – and is – widely heralded as a masterpiece -- not only a masterpiece of writing, but as a brilliant insight into the criminal mind.
After publication of the book, Capote told George Plimpton, in an interview for the New York Times published in January, 1966, that he had been watching for an event that would allow him to write a "non-fiction" novel – in his definition, a factual book written using the literary skills of an accomplished novelist.
The murder of the Herbert Clutter family in Holcomb, Kansas, on Nov. 15, 1959, caught Capote’s eye. The case received a blurb in the New York Times because Herbert Clutter, during the Eisenhower administration, had been a member of the Farm Credit Board, and was founder of the Kansas Wheat Growers Association.
The murders were brutal, unsolved, and apparently without motivation, since nothing appeared to be missing from the house.
Three days later, on assignment from the New Yorker, Capote arrived in Kansas with Harper Lee in tow. Lee, a childhood friend of Capote’s, had just completed her first (and only published) novel, To Kill A Mockingbird (which would win the Pulitzer Prize). Lee had some time to kill, so she’d agreed to help her old friend.
Although widely known now, Capote wasn’t nearly as well known in 1959. Prior to going to Kansas, Capote had achieved literary celebrity with, at age 23, his first novel, Other Voices, Other Rooms (1948). The young Capote, only five foot four, was openly – some would say outrageously -- gay at a time when other gay writers chose the security of the closet. He went to Europe for some time and, by 1954 he had achieved sufficient recognition – and social connections -- to co-write, with John Huston, the film Beat the Devil (Humphrey Bogart). In 1958 he published the celebrated Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1958). But as the New York Times said in Capote’s obituary in 1984: "…the book that perhaps solidified his claim to literary fame was In Cold Blood, his detailed, painstakingly researched and chilling account of the 1959 slaying of a Kansas farm family and the capture, trial and execution of the two killers."
The book concerned two Kansas petty thieves, Perry Smith and Richard Hickock, who’d known each other at Lansing Penitentiary. Not much is known about Hickock in prison, other than he kept his nose clean. Smith, on the other hand, dabbled at painting and had artistic aspirations. A charcoal drawing of Christ, done by Smith on a bed sheet, hung for 25 years in prison chaplain James Post’s Kansas City, Kansas, church.
Hickock had heard from a fellow convict about a wealthy farmer, Herbert Clutter, in Holcomb, Kansas, who allegedly kept $5,000 in a safe in his house. This convict had worked for Clutter 10 years earlier.
After getting out of prison, Smith and Hickock met in Kansas City while Smith was trying to look up a homosexual friend from prison. The night before the murders they visited Rev. Post at his home. They were looking for an ex-con who’d been Post’s clerk at the prison, but Post didn’t know where the man was. Post would say later that, had he been able to connect Smith and Hickock with his ex-clerk, the murders might not have occurred.
The next day, almost broke, Hickock and Smith drove to Holcomb to rob Herbert Clutter.
According to Capote – and virtually everything we know about the interactions of Smith and Hickock comes from Capote – Hickock had been bragging continuously about how he was going to splatter the walls with hair, how he was going to massacre the Clutter family.
At the Clutter residence, late that night – after cutting the telephone line – Hickock and Smith confronted the family – one by one – and each was tied up, with some pains made to make them comfortable. The clutter son, 15-year-old Kenyon, was tied up and laid on a sofa in the basement, where his father was also tied up. Bonnie Clutter and 16-year-old daughter Nancy were tied up in separate beds. Herbert Clutter was taken to the basement and tied up, but Smith placed a cardboard pallet under his head.
The seminal event leading to murder, according to Capote, was when Perry Smith walked into 16-year-old Nancy Clutter’s room, and found Hickock trying to have sex with the girl. Smith, at that time, pressed Hickock on the issue of killing the Clutters, but Hickock, for all of his prior tough talk, wasn’t up to it.
Smith went to the basement, where Herbert Clutter was laying tied, and shoved a knife through Mr. Clutter’s throat. One by one, Perry Smith then murdered each member of the Clutter family. Although Capote implied in the book that Hickock may have killed two of the Clutters, he later conceded that Smith killed all of them. Capote attributed Smith’s actions to a period of dissociation – that he was subconsciously striking out at "them," them being whoever his subconscious blamed for his miserable life.
There was no cache of money. The killers got away with less than $50 and a small, portable radio.
According to Capote, the crime was the brainchild of Hickock. In fact, Capote told Plimpton that one of Hickock’s prime motivations in going to the Clutter farm was that Hickock wanted to rape 16-year-old Nancy Clutter (whom he’d never seen).
However, early on I’d like to raise the question of Capote’s basic honesty in writing this book. He set out to write a masterpiece, yet he took no notes. He recounts lengthy, complex conversations – sans notes.
Capote told Plimpton that he had trained himself to do this – that, for a year and a half prior to embarking on the book, he had a friend read passages from a book to him, for an hour or two a day, then he would write down what he had heard – and in his estimation he had a unique facility for accurately remembering interviews, with an accuracy quotient of 95 percent. Which any newspaper reporter can tell you is horse feathers.
Capote, who never finished high school, also had no training whatever as a journalist. He told Plimpton that the process of taking notes – or tape recording an interview – would change the parameters of the interview itself. That people would become self-conscious. All of which is true – but none of which has prevented trained journalists the world over, for as long as there have been newspapers, from religiously taking notes during interviews.
The reasons are simple. During an interview the attention leaps from one revelation to another – one "fact" to another – so that, by the conclusion of the interview, you have often covered much ground, with the interview taking twists and turns. To say that you can go back to your room and, verbatim, regurgitate that interview is to deceive yourself.
On those occasions where a journalist finds himself unexpectedly in a conversation that divulges important information – he might later, better sooner than later – write down what he remembers of the conversation. He might have a vivid memory of some isolated quote or two, because the quotes were so memorable, for instance, but for the most part he can only paraphrase what he remembers.
That is the first problem with the book. However, choosing to concede the accuracy of much of the book – those portions dealing with the details of the murders, the flight of the killers, the capture of the killers and their trial – we come to the most troublesome aspects of the book, the motivation for the murders and the intellectual integrity of the author.
Throughout the book we are struck by the intimacies of thought between Hickock and Smith. Although having killed four people, Smith is portrayed as the gentler, more passive of the two – Capote calls him a dreamer and an artist.
Capote denied, adamantly, that Smith was a homosexual, or even a jailhouse punk (the passive member in a prison sexual relationship). Capote said that Smith, prior to getting out of prison, had had a deep, loving relationship with another con, but that it was never consummated physically.
He also denied there had ever been a sexual relationship between Hickock and Smith – partly, in Capote’s estimation, because Hickock was a lady’s man, and a strong masculine type.
Capote thoroughly misunderstood the dynamics of prison sexuality. It is not uncommon in prison for some thoroughly tough, thoroughly masculine convict to have a "punk" – someone who satisfies his sexual needs.
It is also not uncommon for such men to get out of prison and revert to strict heterosexuality. It’s known as "situational homosexuality" – to be found in prison, or other places where men find themselves in a monosexual society for long periods of time. In fact, many ‘punks’ revert to heterosexuality upon their release from prison.
Based on the facts as we know them, it is more likely than not that Smith and Hickock had a physical homosexual relationship at some point.
There are certain tip-offs to this: a) Smith’s furor at catching Hickock trying to have sex with Nancy Clutter; b) Smith’s great discomfort in Mexico, while Hickock was having sex with a prostitute (an activity Smith chose to forego); c) Smith’s fury toward Capote (as related to Plimpton) over Capote sending girlie magazines to Hickock on death row.
Over and over, Capote interprets these actions by Smith as a puritanical streak, or moralizing as Capote put it. The more obvious interpretation, the one Capote shied desperately away from, was that Smith, having been Hickock’s lover, was jealous.
And, somewhere along the way, Capote fell in love with Perry Smith – the little bow-legged con (his legs were so short that when he sat in a chair, his feet dangled above the floor), with good looks and an artistic bent, who had lived a damaged life and yearned for love. This is everywhere evidenced by Capote’s determined effort to portray Smith sympathetically (at the expense of Hickock), even though Smith personally – and alone -- slaughtered the Clutters.
There have been allegations that Capote paid money to death row guards at Lansing, so he could be let into Smith’s cell to have sex with the convict.
Harold Nye, former assistant director of the Kansas Bureau of Investigation, has claimed the KBI received information that Capote paid $10,000 to death row guards to be let into Smith’s cell. Charles D. McAtee, a Kansas lawyer who was director of the Kansas penal system when Hickock and Smith were hanged, adamantly denies this allegation, saying it’s not possible.
McAtee says the death row cells were open faced, with plywood partitions between them.
I tend to agree with McAtee – that the guards did not let Capote into Smith’s cell to have sex. They didn’t have to. As long as the guards did not walk back to the cells for a period of time – and you can usually hear them coming -- Capote and Smith could have sex through the bars – a practice that is common in American prisons. With plywood partitions between the cells, they would be shielded from the view of the guards and other prisoners.
Although this thought – as did the allegation of sex in the cell – might horrify Rev. Post and Harper Lee, and many others, it is entirely possible. When Capote was in Kansas City – frequently in the years prior to the execution of Hickock and Smith, he cut a swath through the gay community, and was known to give blow jobs in parking lots and other odd places.
It was Capote who told Plimpton that, shortly before Smith was taken out to be hanged, Smith kissed Capote on the cheek. It’s the only time I’ve ever heard of a condemned man doing such a thing.
Whether or not they had a physical relationship (it’s not necessary to the premise of this piece), there’s no doubt Capote fell in love with Smith during the five years he visited with him on death row. His book reeks of it.
And that is why Hickock was portrayed so mercilessly in the book – not only as a child rapist, but down to the point of saying that Hickock swerved his car in an effort to hit a dog walking down the road.
Capote – in the tortured logic peculiar to those in love – blamed Hickock for Smith being on death row.
That is why, on the dreary, rain-swept night of April 14, 1965, Capote stood stoically and watched as Richard Hickock was hanged. But when it came time for Perry Smith to be hanged, Capote couldn’t watch (according to Rev. Post).
On the drive back to Kansas City, Capote wept (according to Ray Cosgrove, the Muehlebach Hotel bellboy who drove him, and who described the incident to the Kansas City Star).
The Motive For Murder
On Nov. 11, 1968, I was serving four life sentence in the Missouri State Penitentiary. I was also reviewing books for the Kansas City Star, and reviewed The Crime of Punishment, by Dr. Karl Menninger. On that date, I received a letter from Menninger, and in my response, I set out my thoughts on In Cold Blood. My discussion of the case is as valid now as it was then:
Dear Dr. Menninger:
I was pleased to here from you, and to hear that you enjoyed my review – although the credit for the review is not mine, but yours, for you wrote the book.
There is much I wanted to say about the book – things that I think need to be stressed. But reviewers are limited – one could, in fact, write a second book about your book and even then, after publication, think of things he should have said but didn’t.
There was, however, one particular passage in your book that I wanted to discuss with you, and perhaps hear your reaction to.
On page 8 you quoted an excerpt of a review of Truman Capote’s book In Cold Blood. The reviewer sums up that, because of several episodes of criminal behavior many years before, that he felt a special sense of empathy with Richard Hickock and Perry Smith, killers of the Herbert Clutter family. His closing words, "the beast is in charge," have been disturbing me – because it seems that almost no one has surmised what I believe to be the true reason that Perry Smith killed those four people. Everyone seems willing to attribute it to the arcane workings of the criminal mind.
Capote glossed over the motivation of this crime by depicting Smith as being in what one might call, for lack of a better definition, a moment of schizophrenic dissociation in which Herbert Clutter was perceived as the authoritative ‘them’, and therefore summarily killed because of a convergence of resentments on Smith’s part.
Then, Capote theorizes, the other three murders followed as an anti-climactic defensive maneuver. He further, because of his rather obvious sympathy for Smith, feels compelled to insist that Hickock killed at least two of the victims, a theory with which I vigorously disagree, and for good reason.
In order to place this crime in proper perspective, we have to conjecture on the nature of Smith and Hickock’s relationship – which I believe was the result of a prison homosexual relationship.
Throughout Capote’s book one is struck by the intimacies of thought – approaching feminine ‘intuition’ – threading through this relationship. Hickock was obviously the more aggressive and masculine of the two – evidenced by his hard-talking, and his affectedly bitter intention to kill the Clutters.
Smith, on the other hand, in his very passivity would lead one to conclude he had resolved the issue of masculinity assertion – by relinquishing total masculinity in favor of a dependent role – or a feminine role in the case of homosexuality (this correlates with the fact that he met Hickock while in Kansas City, trying to trace down a homosexual friend from prison).
If my conjecturing is correct, then I feel confident that Hickock and Smith had been sexually involved in prison – further, that in any such relationship that Smith would have taken the feminine role, and psychologically leaned on Hickock because of Hickock’s facade of rough-hewn masculinity.
The thing that few people would suspect is that Smith would quite possibly be the more dangerous of the two.
There are two types of prison homosexual (passive) – those who are passive because they cannot be aggressive, and those who are passive because they choose to be. I feel Smith was of the latter type. He had a strong need for affection, even in prison, and in order to gain that affection – in this case from Richard Hickock – he had to structure the relationship so that it would be acceptable to Hickock. Hickock, being far less confident of himself, would never accept any relationship in which his already shaky manhood was further compromised. Therefore, Smith had to make the sacrifice and was better suited to do so.
After leaving prison, Smith and Hickock probably discontinued the physical aspect of their relationship, but the psychological relationship remained intact.
So, we have a situation in which Smith has surrendered his body and his mind (manhood) to Hickock – because of a facade of toughness and masculinity that Smith never suspected was over-compensatory in nature.
When Smith and Hickock arrived at the Clutter home I don’t believe that either of them really expected a mass murder to take place. Smith, I believe, took it for granted that Hickock would find some face-saving reason not to kill the Clutters, and Hickock, of course, took it for granted that Smith – being ‘pussy’ – wouldn’t or couldn’t do anything so supposedly masculine as cold-bloodedly blow someone’s brains out with a shotgun.
Inside the house they encountered Herbert Clutter, took him into the basement, tied him up – and Smith, believing no one would be killed, took time to make Herbert Clutter comfortable by providing him with a cardboard pallet. Smith, of course, thought Herbert Clutter would have to lay on that basement floor alive all night. They then tied up the Clutter boy, placing him comfortably on the couch in the basement. The mother and daughter were left in bed.
Then, Smith caught Hickock trying to make love to Nancy Clutter. He must have been furious! Here, beneath his very eyes, the man he had surrendered himself to so totally was spurning him in favor of Nancy Clutter. Capote romantically theorizes that Smith prevented the seduction of Nancy Clutter on moral grounds. No, it was nothing so lofty as that. Smith was simply jealous, and he interfered as any lover would.
At this point Smith was irked, jealous, and he wanted to humiliate Hickock. So he pressed Hickock on the issue of killing the Clutters. Hickock couldn’t do it and, confronted in this manner, was prevented from saving face. As Shakespeare said, "Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned."
The moment Hickock showed ‘cowardice’ – the inability to kill – the fate of the Clutter family was sealed. If Smith backed out at this point, nothing would have been proved, and the issue of Hickock’s pride and masculinity would be unresolved. This of course was not a calculated sequence on Smith’s part, he was reacting instinctively.
The ultimate blow to Hickock’s pride would be if Smith showed more heart (nerve, guts) than Hickock. This would make Hickock weaker than a ‘punk’ – and in the value system prevailing among criminals, that would be a crushing blow to Hickock’s pride and self-esteem.
Smith, in his confusion, jealousy, anger, disappointment – and spite – reactively and instinctively thrust that hunting knife into Herbert Clutter’s throat (Smith may also have simultaneously been displacing his anger onto the victim, thereby symbolically killing his feckless paramour).
The other three murders were then both defensive – and, perhaps and probably unrecognized by Smith, an excuse to go upstairs and kill Nancy Clutter – an act which would be doubly traumatic to Hickock and satisfying to Smith.
This theory is reinforced by Capote’s portrayal of the extreme discomfiture experienced by Smith after he and Hickock went to Mexico, and Hickock slept in the next room with a woman.
This also, to some degree, explains the spite displayed by Smith toward Hickock following their capture, a spite which lasted until shortly before their deaths. But Smith could not completely escape the affection he felt for Hickock, and he relented toward the end, to the extent of admitting that he had personally killed all four of the Clutters.
Plimpton’s interview with Capote serves up other useful nuggets. Asked if he had shown his manuscript to Hickock and Smith, Capote said he’d shown them bits and pieces. Of particular interest is his statement:
Dick’s reactions to the book was to start switching and changing his story . . . saying what I’d written wasn’t exactly true. He wasn’t trying to flatter himself; he tried to change it to serve his purposes legally, to support the various appeals he was sending through the courts. He wanted the book to read as if it was a legal brief before the Supreme Court.
In the very next paragraph, in response to a different question, Capote says: Dick had an absolutely fantastic memory – one of the greatest memories I have ever come across.
I find it significant that Hickock challenged Capote’s rendition of the story. Capote says it was because of Hickock’s desire to keep anything unflattering from influencing the outcome of the case – but that raises large red flags about almost everything Capote did and wrote.
Under those circumstances, Hickock would never have admitted to wanting to rape Nancy Clutter, for example. In addition to the possibility that Capote misrepresented Hickock’s actions and role, those quotes indicate Capote thoroughly misled Hickock and Smith. Had Capote been honest – had he told them the book wouldn’t be published until after they were hanged – then Hickock wouldn’t have had to worry about whether the book would impact his appeals. I suspect Capote didn’t tell them the truth because he feared they would quit cooperating with him.
Although Capote said later that he held up publication of the book because he didn’t want to adversely impact their appeals, it is just as likely that he wanted the dramatic ending of a double hanging.
I also suspect Capote didn’t get that much cooperation from Hickock – that most of his conversations were with Smith. As Capote told Plimpton:
Perry never meant to kill the Clutters at all. He had a brain explosion. I don’t think Dick was surprised, although later on he pretended he was. He knew, even if Perry didn’t, that Perry would do it, and he was right. It showed an awfully shrewd instinct on Dick’s part. Perry was bothered by it to a certain extent because he’d actually done it. He was always trying to find out in his own mind why he did it. He was amazed he’d done it. Dick, on the other hand, wasn’t amazed, didn’t want to talk about it, and simply wanted to forget the whole thing: he wanted to get on with life. (Emphasis added).
Capote had to engage in mental gymnastics to arrive at the conclusions he did. If Hickock ‘pretended’ to be surprised at what Smith had done, Capote would have none of it. And we are to believe that Hickock spilled his guts to Capote – while Capote simultaneously says Hickock didn’t want to talk about it, and wanted to forget the whole thing (one can only imagine the bitterness Hickock felt, at being sentenced to die when Smith did all the killing).
Capote would never have admitted that he’d bamboozled these two guys, letting them believe that he was going to help them – all the while needing them to hang, so his book would have an appropriately dramatic ending – yet that appears to be precisely the case.
I also suspect Capote wanted to wait until they were dead – so they couldn’t dispute what he had written – at least insofar as Hickock was concerned.
Capote told Plimpton that he wrote twice a week to Smith and Hickock for five years – separate letters since the two were jealous of each other – or, rather, that Smith was jealous of Hickock.
Later in the interview Capote tells how Smith had left all of his belongings to Capote, since he had no family: "…it was miserably little, his books, written in and annotated; the letters he received in prison…not very many…"
What happened to the 500 or so letters Capote allegedly wrote to Smith?
In the book, and in his interview, Capote goes to great lengths to convince us that Perry Smith was a dreamer, an artist, a man who’d had all the bad breaks, but who, nonetheless, was quite a moralist – getting furious at Capote for sending girlie magazines to Hickock – a man who studied Santayana and Thoreau. Hickock, meanwhile, is portrayed as a shifty-eyed sociopath whose intellectual heights reach no higher than girlie and car magazines. All of this as filtered through Capote.
However, the way a man dies may tell us something about the man – and there were independent witnesses to the hangings of Hickock and Smith.
Rev. Jim Post accompanied both men to the gallows. He has said that, prior to going to the gallows, Perry Smith gave him some of his belongings – including Smith’s hand annotated copy of Man & Nature by Thoreau.
Hickock died first. Rev. Post told the Kansas City Star, in 1997, that Hickock’s last words were: "I want to thank you for all that you’ve done to make this as easy as possible for everybody. Actually, we don’t deserve very much, and you’re sending me to a far better place than I’ve ever known."
When it came time for Smith to die, Rev. Post said: "Perry gave them a speech telling them what he thought of them. He just kind of rambled."
The ultimate question is whether Capote knew of his own deceptions – were they conscious. For the most part the answer would be yes.
As to why he put off publication of the book until after the hangings, Capote was in full possession of his faculties on that one. I suspect he may have confided more in Smith than in Hickock.
Smith, after all, would have little reason to dislike the manner in which he was portrayed – considering the fact he did all the killing, he came off smelling like a rose.
It was the masterful way in which Capote demonized Hickock that has always bothered me. I do not believe Hickock would ever have admitted wanting to rape Nancy Clutter, or, for that matter, liking them a lot younger than 16, as Capote put it.
A guy like Hickock, who feigns a tough front, would never, ever, admit to being a child molester, which is how Capote portrayed him. As a literary device, Capote chose to do good-guy/bad-guy. He picked Smith, the actual murderer, to be the good guy – a great literary twist, but not necessarily true.
The problem with analyzing In Cold Blood is that the book is not honest.