Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood is an icon of modern popular culture. First published over four consecutive weeks, in 1965, in the New Yorker and then by Random House on 1 January 1966, In Cold Blood became an instant bestseller, swiftly garnering for Capote the then—and even now—extraordinary sum of US$2 million for paperback, foreign and movie rights. The book won an Edgar award for best factual crime book but unlike any of the award’s previous seventeen winners it legitimised a sub-genre—true crime, as it is now called. Since 1966, In Cold Blood has been released in 250 editions, translated into thirty languages and is easily available today in the Penguin Modern Classics edition.
The book is an account of the apparently senseless murder of four members of a farming family, the Clutters, in Holcomb, Kansas, in 1959 by two drifters, Perry Smith and Richard Hickock, and of their subsequent capture, conviction and execution. The account of the murders is shocking to read but the book depicts them as an example of life in America rather than as extraordinary.
In Cold Blood has been adapted for film twice, and the writing of the book has been picked over in two recent films, Capote and Infamous. Among literary critics, In Cold Blood is generally seen as Capote’s most important work, and in journalism it has been canonised. It sits twenty-second on the New York University’s list of the top 100 works of twentieth-century American journalism, and is reverently passed around in newsrooms from one generation of hacks to the next as the exemplar of gritty, on-the-ground reporting and words that sing on the page.
Jonathan Harr, author of a fine 1995 journalistic book later adapted for film, A Civil Action, has said he tried to imitate Capote’s opening description of Holcomb that is ‘so vivid and clean, with no characters other than the town itself’ but despite re-reading the scene a dozen times ‘I didn’t come close to him.’ Another leading American journalist interviewed by Robert Boynton for his 2005 book The New New Journalism, Alex Kotlowitz, says: ‘You read that book and have to remind yourself constantly that this is all true. What better, more gripping way to write non-fiction?’ Helen Garner, one of Australia’s leading literary journalists, describes it as ‘a sensational book’.
And here we come to the nub of the problem: first, it is not all true, and, second, how does a journalist of Kotlowitz’s calibre turn a blind eye to the problems with In Cold Blood that were documented as early as the year of its release? These need to be looked at in some detail, because while questions about the book’s accuracy were raised early, it is only in recent years that Capote’s real views have been revealed through publication of his letters by his biographer. And it is only when all this material is laid out that you can see how seriously Capote deceived his readers and his principal sources, the two convicted murderers.
Capote certainly opened the door to misunderstandings by describing his book as a ‘non-fiction novel’ but the subtitle ‘A True Account of a Multiple Murder and Its Consequences’ and the numerous media interviews in which he attested to the book’s factual accuracy show he was not echoing the approach of early eighteenth-century writers such as Daniel Defoe and Henry Fielding who described their novels Robinson Crusoe and Joseph Andrews as a ‘just history of fact’ and ‘copied from the book of nature’; nor was his subtitle playful, as is novelist Peter Carey’s title of his recent reimagining of the story of Australian bushranger Ned Kelly, True History of the Kelly Gang.
Phillip K. Tompkins challenged the accuracy of In Cold Blood in an article written for Esquire magazine in mid 1966 after he visited Kansas to re-interview several of Capote’s sources and examine the court record of the case central to the book. Tompkins’ most serious charge is that Capote altered facts and quotations to substantially skew his portrait of one of the killers, Perry Smith, making him look less like a cold-blooded murderer than a victim whose considerable potential had been crippled by a miserable childhood. A number of literary critics have cited Tompkins’ article and to my knowledge none has seriously contested its factual grounding, but that does not necessarily diminish Capote’s book in their eyes. One, Melvin Friedman, writes that he believes Capote ‘cheated’ but the consequences are unimportant: ‘Despite the convincing claims of unreliability … we must still believe in the essential authenticity and integrity of Capote’s account,’ but Friedman does not say why he or we should.
What is puzzling about the way many literary critics read In Cold Blood is the gap between the rigour and precision they apply to even the smallest details of their scholarship (and that of others), while appearing to have little interest or understanding of the importance of parallel practices of verification in book-length journalism or, to use their term, literary non-fiction. In no way am I suggesting precision in scholarship is unimportant, but am asking: if scholars believe it is important in scholarship, why would they take a different attitude towards representing actual people and events in journalism?
There are, in my view, particular issues that arise when journalists extend their practice beyond daily reporting to book-length works, as Capote did with In Cold Blood. (He may have come to journalism from a background as a novelist but he was engaged in journalistic work). For instance, how do practitioners balance their need to maintain editorial independence with the closeness to key sources that comes from gaining a deep level of trust? Are there any limits to the kinds of narrative approach practitioners can take when representing actual people and events? And, how do readers read journalism in books as distinct from in newspapers and magazines? If journalists present their book not in the standard hard news format but in a narrative style, is their work read as non-fiction or, because it reads like a novel, is it read as a novel?
I Capote enacts Janet Malcolm’s pattern of seduction and betrayal
In The Journalist and the Murderer Janet Malcolm famously wrote that journalists first seduce then betray their subjects. At the time of her book’s publication (1990) and since, many journalists have howled with indignation at Malcolm’s attack without reflecting that the very real issue she opens up probably applies less to the rough and tumble of daily journalism than to long-form journalism where, by necessity, practitioners need to become close to their subjects. In many ways, Capote’s In Cold Blood is the cautionary tale that Malcolm wanted to tell through her examination of the relationship between a journalist (Joe McGinniss) and a murderer (Jeffrey MacDonald).
In the research phase of In Cold Blood, the main ethical issues are: whether Capote saw his primary obligation to his artistic ambition or to his principal sources; and the dilemma he faced when he became very close to one of the convicted murderers he was writing about. By the end of the 1950s Capote was best known for his novel Breakfast at Tiffany’s, although he had written some journalism, notably an extraordinarily intimate profile of actor Marlon Brando. He believed journalism was ‘the most underestimated, the least explored of literary mediums’ and aimed to create a work of art by reporting actual events. When he read a news article published on 16 November 1959 in the New York Times about the murder of four members of a farming family in Kansas, he immediately felt the event offered an opportunity to create such a work.
From the beginning, then, Capote saw the murder of four innocent people as an opportunity to make a reputation for himself as a major artist; when he told the detective in charge of the investigation, Alvin Dewey, that he had little interest in whether the crime was solved, Dewey rebuked him. It took time, payment to some interviewees, the calm manner of his childhood friend, author and research assistant, Nelle Harper Lee, and persistence for Capote to gain the trust of people he wanted to interview but eventually he developed a close relationship with both Dewey and the two convicted murderers, Hickock and, especially, Smith. From Dewey he gained a remarkable level of access to key documents, to the murderers’ signed confessions, to an insight into the conduct of the investigation and was able to check countless details with him over the years Capote took to write the book.
A reading of Capote’s papers held in the New York Public Library shows Dewey even provided stage directions for the transcripts of the police interviews: when the detectives confronted Smith with their belief he had been at the Clutter farmhouse the night they were killed there was ‘a full minute of silence. Perry turns white. Looked at the ceiling. Swallows’. Capote became close to Dewey and his wife and children. In the collection of Capote’s letters entitled Too Brief a Treat and published in 2004, there are more letters to the Deweys than to anyone else. They holidayed together in 1963 and the next year Capote took them to Beverley Hills to socialise with a raft of his actor friends, including Frank Sinatra and Natalie Wood, and producer David Selznick.
From Smith and Hickock he gained not only their accounts of what they did at the Clutter family’s farm house, but the full background of their lives and the period they were on the run after committing the murders. What makes the creation of In Cold Blood such a compelling example is the length of time between Smith and Hickock’s conviction—29 March 1960—and the date of their execution after numerous appeals and stays—14 April 1965. Capote was forced again and again to choose between his allegiance to his project and to his principal sources; his obligations to his readers appeared to be swallowed by his ambitions for the book, on the ground that whatever was good for his book would be good for his readers too.
Capote’s dilemma is captured in his letters. Capote conducted his primary research in Kansas over a month between 16 December 1959 and 20 January 1960 and when he returned for the trial in March 1960. Between then and 1963 he lived overseas and worked on his manuscript before returning to the United States to finish writing it, which he did in February 1965. As early as April 1961 he told Dewey in a letter that he could not finish the book until he knew how the matter ended.
By the time Capote had finished the third of the book’s projected four parts, William Shawn, editor of the New Yorker, was describing it to him in a telegram as a masterpiece and a ‘work of art people will be reading two hundred years from today’. Capote knew, then, that he had every chance of realising his artistic ambition but that it would be at the expense of a further two lives, those of Hickock and Smith. There was little doubt that the two men had committed murder in cold blood as the book’s title suggests. It is possible to read a second meaning into the title, namely that capital punishment is also a cold-blooded killing, but Capote’s letters reveal that he was less concerned about the morality of capital punishment than with how the seemingly endless opportunities for appeals and stays of execution made justice a cruelly slow business, for those convicted as well as for the victims’ surviving family members. But the party he seemed most concerned about was himself.
There are at least fifteen letters in Too Brief a Treat and several more in the Capote papers in which Capote laments the delay in carrying out the executions, beginning with one he sent to Dewey in February 1961: ‘Am most anxious to hear at once the outcome of D.H [Dick Hickock] and P.S [Perry Smith] appeal.’ In September 1962 he was sarcastic about the setting of a date for the execution. ‘Will H & S [Hickock and Smith] live to a ripe and happy old age?—or will they swing and make a lot of other folks very happy indeed? For the answer to these and other suspenseful questions tune in tomorrow to your favorite radio program, “Western Justice”, sponsored by the Slow Motion Molasses Company, a Kansas Product.’ By 1964 after more delays Capote was exasperated, telling Dewey ‘My God! Why don’t they just turn them loose and be done with it?’
Early the following year when yet another execution date was set, Capote told a friend ‘Now let’s keep everything crossed—knees, eyes, hands, fingers!’ but when that date, too, was postponed, he told another friend ‘I hardly give a fuck anymore what happens. My sanity is at stake.’ Sandwiched between these last two letters is one he sent to Perry Smith: ‘I’ve only just heard about the court’s denial. I’m very sorry about it. But remember, this isn’t the first setback.’
It is clear from Capote’s letters and from Gerald Clarke’s comprehensive biography published in 1988 that he enacted Malcolm’s pattern of seduction and betrayal by appealing to Smith’s own unrealised artistic ambition through name-dropping of Hollywood stars he knew such as Humphrey Bogart and discussing art and literature with him to persuade Smith to reveal all he could. As the years dragged on Smith and Hickock continually asked Capote how they would be portrayed in his book but Capote ‘danced round the subject, pretending, until the day they were executed, that he was barely half-done and, in fact, might never finish’, writes Clarke. When they independently discovered the title, Capote lied, telling them they were wrong even though he had known what it would be since June 1960, just three months after Smith and Hickock were convicted.
While it needs to be kept in mind that Capote was dealing with two convicted murderers, their crimes did not exonerate him from all care towards them. And it is clear from Capote’s letters and the biographies by Clarke and a 1998 oral biography edited by George Plimpton that Capote was deeply torn. His ambition for his project impelled him to manipulate Smith but he also became close to him and did care for him. A number of his friends told Plimpton that Capote was obsessed with Smith and in several letters Capote writes about how difficult he found composing the book because he was ‘too emotionally involved with the material’. In one letter he describes himself, without any apparent irony, as ‘imprisoned by In Cold Blood’.
When Capote had first arrived in Kansas his assignment for the New Yorker was to portray the impact on a small rural community of the multiple murders but that altered when Capote saw Smith and Hickock sitting in court for the arraignment. ‘Look, his feet don’t touch the floor,’ he told Harper Lee. ‘Oh, oh! This is the beginning of a great love affair,’ she recalled to Clarke. Each man looked at the other and saw what he could have been. Both were short and physically odd; a motorcycle accident had left Smith with a limp and Capote had a voice so high only a dog could hear it, as was bitchily remarked in New York’s literary circles, and even in conservative postwar America Capote never hid his homosexuality. Both had been abandoned as children and their mothers were alcoholics. It was as if the two of them grew up in the same house and that where Capote had left by the front door, Smith had taken the back, as Philip Seymour Hoffman said in his role as Capote in the eponymous 2006 film.
In his letters to Smith, Capote’s tone was generally formal whereas his letters to friends were colloquial, often gossipy; when Smith asked him whether he was homosexual, though, Capote said he was. One detective in the Clutter case, Harold Nye, went so far as to tell Plimpton the two men became lovers while Smith was in jail. Nye’s unsubstantiated claim is flatly denied by Clarke who spent thirteen years researching and writing his Capote biography. ‘Harold Nye hated Truman and he would say anything to denigrate him. I could give you several reasons why they couldn’t have had sex on death row, but it would require a longer explanation than I can give now.’ What transpired between Capote and Smith during the latter’s years in prison may never be known; what is clear is that Capote crossed the boundary between developing a trusting professional relationship with a principal source and becoming psychologically enmeshed with him to the point where it appears to have significantly affected his representation of Smith and the overall case.
II Capote transports the omniscient narrator into non-fiction
When Capote sat down to write In Cold Blood, there is no doubt he was a pioneer. Others before him, notably John Hersey with Hiroshima in 1946 and Lillian Ross with Picture in 1952, had taken a narrative approach to reporting and writing about, respectively, the dropping of the atomic bomb and the making of a film, but In Cold Blood significantly enlarged the scope of book-length journalism by exploring the extent to which such works could be developed so they read like full-length socially realistic novels. Capote skilfully builds tension by using sequential narration, alternating scenes of the Clutter family with scenes of their two killers that overlap and propel the action of the book. In the middle section Capote not only alternates between the killers and their pursuing detectives but makes the scenes progressively shorter to develop suspense.
There are, however, five issues arising in the writing phase of In Cold Blood: Capote’s avowedly omniscient narrative voice; the extent to which Capote relies on reconstruction of scenes; the paucity of attribution of information; Capote’s willingness to invent details and even scenes, and his distorting of evidence to match his artistic vision. When asked how he could present the Clutters’ final days when he never knew them or Smith and Hickock’s time on the run before he had met them, Capote answered that he interviewed numerous people in Holcomb about the Clutters and interviewed the murderers extensively and separately, cross-referencing their answers and only using material that they agreed on.
Sometimes Capote shows the source of his material indirectly, as when the Clutters’ home telephone rings and the daughter who was killed, Nancy, answers it and speaks to a Mrs Katz—whom Capote had interviewed. Sometimes he draws inferences from his material, as when the father, Herb Clutter, was showering and dressing in his own bedroom, and Capote writes ‘he had no fear of disturbing’ his wife Bonny. The point of view is that of a dead man, but the inference Capote draws from his interviews is modest and evidence provided in the passage supports it. That is, argues Jack Fuller, a journalist and a novelist, the Clutters are reported to sleep in separate bedrooms and describing Clutter’s state of mind here—‘he had no fear of disturbing her’—is unremarkable.
Ben Yagoda, co-editor of a historical anthology of literary journalism, offers qualified support for Capote’s reconstruction of Smith and Hickock’s flight from the farmhouse, acknowledging Capote’s extensive interviews but questioning any person’s ability to recall exactly what they said years, months or even days earlier. In the end, though, ‘it is indisputable that Capote, with his novelist’s ear, heard what his characters could have said and transcribed it more faithfully than any journalist before or since’. Reconstructing scenes is a practice that divides journalists; many do it but, equally, many are wary of it. The ethical stakes are high because vivid scenes engage readers emotionally as well as intellectually. A leading Australian journalist, David Marr, reconstructed scenes for his co-authored 2003 book Dark Victory, but grounded them in close reading of interviews and documentary evidence duly recorded in endnotes.
The problem with In Cold Blood, Marr says, is that it is presented as a seamless account of events, admitting of no alternative versions. Capote described his narrative persona as omniscient: ‘My narrator is always an observer. He’s better the less he participates in the action. He is the omniscient eye. I always try to make him the object sitting there vibrating—seeing, observing.’ Capote believed the success of a non-fiction novel depended on the author withdrawing his overt presence. ‘The I-I-I intrudes when it really shouldn’t.’ On a few occasions Capote represents himself in the book as ‘an acquaintance’ or an anonymous ‘journalist’ but said he did this only because he could not find another way of relating the material.
Despite Capote’s undoubted literary talent, he does not appear to have given much thought to the ethical problems of omniscient narration in non-fiction. There is little doubt Capote spent a lot of time and energy researching his subject. His and Harper Lee’s research notes from their initial visit to Holcomb fill fourteen folders in a box in the Capote papers, which include an eighteen-page chronology of events for the day of the murder and Capote’s hand-drawn maps of Smith and Hickock’s time on the run. There are at least seven letters in Clarke’s selection where Capote checks information with his sources, and a longstanding fact-checker assigned by the New Yorker, Sandy Campbell, described Capote as the most accurate writer he had worked with.
This is not to say Capote’s research is beyond questioning. Shawn, the magazine’s editor, wrote in the margin of the galley proofs of the first part to be serialised: ‘How know? No witnesses? General problem’ and later ‘A device needed for author to account for his knowing what was said in private conversations’. In his comprehensive history of the magazine, Ben Yagoda writes that Shawn did not act on his qualms and suggests his hands may have been tied because Capote had already signed a book contract with Random House, which was determined to release the long-awaited work less than three months after it appeared in the New Yorker. Many years later, Shawn told a senior colleague he wished he had not published In Cold Blood, but did not elaborate.
A friend of Capote’s, Donald Windham, writes in his memoir: ‘In Cold Blood couldn’t be and wasn’t published until Dick and Perry were dead. When the book came out, the only living authority for the factualness of much of the narrative was Truman himself. It was the perfect set up for this kind of invention.’ Smith and Hickock were concerned that they would be presented in Capote’s book as ‘psychopathic killers’, which was largely special pleading on their part, and it is legitimate, even necessary, for a journalist to go beyond a single source’s version and present an event in its complexity. But Capote oscillated between gaining the trust of his principal sources and treating them as if they were characters in a fictional universe of his own making.
Capote did exhaustive research, then, but he did not always follow where his research led, and it is in deviating from his research that Capote invented details and distorted material in ways that seriously undermine the credibility of his work as book-length journalism. Capote had difficulty expunging his overt presence from his book when he had interviewed so extensively and observed numerous events first hand. In June 1960 he discussed this problem, which he described as ‘a technical one’, in a letter to Donald Cullivan, a former army acquaintance of Smith’s, to whom Smith had confessed the murders. Capote writes that he wanted to move conversations he and Smith had had about the murders to a scene between Cullivan and Smith. Cullivan apparently agreed because such a scene is included in the book (pp. 288–292 of the Penguin Modern Classics edition).
Capote’s problem was ethical rather than technical as he gave readers no clues as to what he had done but at least he was transposing the substance of statements he too had been told. In another letter, dated 16 August 1961, to Alvin and Marie Dewey, he asked if she could recall for him when and how Dewey had first mentioned Smith and Hickock. ‘I want to do this as a “scene” between you and Alvin. Can you remember anything more about it (not that I mind inventing details, as you will see!)’. At this point Capote’s habitual impulse to write fiction irretrievably begins to muddy his stated purpose of writing a factually accurate account of the Kansas murders.
His letters do not reveal which details he invented; perhaps he was referring to the transposed Smith–Cullivan scene, or maybe to the ending of the book, which was entirely invented according to Clarke, who writes that Capote felt uneasy ending with the killers’ executions and opted for a happier scene showing Dewey meeting one of Nancy Clutter’s girlfriends in the local cemetery and conveying the message: life continues even amid death. It almost replicated the ending of The Grass Harp, a novel Capote published in 1951. ‘But what works in The Grass Harp,’ Clarke writes, ‘which is a kind of fantasy, works less well in a book of uncompromising realism like In Cold Blood, and that nostalgic meeting in the graveyard verges on the trite and sentimental.’
A number of contemporary critics noted similarities between Capote’s fiction and his book-length journalism, especially in the portrayal of Smith, who was, writes one, ‘a dreamer, an androgynous father-seeker’ like Joel Knox in Other Voices, Other Rooms, Capote’s first published novel and, like Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, the maker of his own morality. Many characters in Capote’s fiction are victims and Smith becomes, according to another critic, Robert Morris, ‘the total symbol for the exile, the alienated human being, the grotesque, the outsider, the quester after love, the sometimes sapient, sometimes innocent, sometimes evil child’. These critics may want to read In Cold Blood in the context of Capote’s fictional oeuvre, but for those interested in journalism the relevant question is, how does Capote’s representation of Smith correspond to the person?
It is conceivable, and perhaps inevitable, that there are patterns in how novelists create their fictional worlds and that these patterns may translate to their non-fiction. Practitioners of book-length journalism, though, like historians or biographers, need honestly to report what they have found in their research. Smith is more vividly presented than any other person in the book. Norman Mailer went so far as to describe Smith as one of the ‘great characters in American literature’. It does not appear he was being ironic, as there was much he admired about In Cold Blood and used it partly as a model for what he called his ‘true life story’ The Executioner’s Song.
The problem in Capote’s representation becomes clear in Phillip Tompkins’ Esquire article. The undersheriff and his wife, Mr and Mrs Wendle Meier, told Tompkins they had never heard Smith crying in his cell as Capote describes; nor did Smith ever say to Mrs Meier ‘I’m embraced by shame.’ Capote reported Smith apologising at the gallows for his crime, but two newspaper reporters who attended the executions told Tompkins he did not apologise. Nor did Capote see Smith’s execution, according to Tompkins and others quoted in Plimpton’s oral biography.
Most damaging for Capote, though, is Tompkins’ comparison between the transcript of Smith’s confession, the police testimony in court about the confession and Capote’s reporting of Smith’s confession as narrated to detectives in the book. Capote’s account is contradicted on a number of factual details but more importantly, his account is contradicted on the extent to which Smith could be held personally responsible for his actions. Capote has Smith saying when he began killing Mr Clutter, ‘But I didn’t realize what I’d done till I heard the sound. Like somebody drowning. Screaming under water.’ Conversely, Dewey testified that Smith and Hickock told him they debated who was going to kill Herb Clutter and finally Smith said he would do it. Smith said he hid a knife along his arm away from Clutter’s line of sight and told Clutter he was going to tighten the cords on his hand and then he cut Clutter’s throat. In Dewey’s testimony, Smith committed murder ‘with full consciousness and intent’ while in Smith’s version as rendered by Capote, his responsibility is diminished because he suffers what Capote later termed in interviews a ‘brain explosion’ or a ‘mental eclipse’.
The accuracy of Tompkins’ most serious charge—that Capote’s book distorted what was known of Smith—was not contested by Capote in any letter to Esquire over the next year; nor is the article mentioned in Capote’s letters. But Capote was supported by William Nance, who noted that in the scene with Cullivan mentioned earlier, Smith explicitly says he is not sorry for what he did and that Tompkins’ depiction of Smith as an ‘obscene, semiliterate and cold-blooded killer’ is a cliché.
It is possible, though, to read Smith’s gallows step apology as repudiating his earlier callousness and gaining redemption. That, along with the potential to read Capote’s portrait of Smith as a killer whose talents were blighted by a miserable childhood, also teeters on cliché. More usefully, Nance contributes the insight that in the five years between Capote and Smith’s first meeting and the execution, each affected the other. Smith aspired to be an artist and was entranced with Capote from the moment the writer dropped Bogart’s name during their first interview. (Bogart had starred in a film for which Capote wrote the screenplay). Harper Lee says: ‘Perry was a killer, but there was something touching about him. I think every time Truman looked at Perry he saw his own childhood.’
If from this you could conclude that the vividness of Capote’s portrayal of Smith stems partly from it being a self-portrait, that does not quite do justice to the impact Capote’s book still has on many readers. Nor does the book’s continuing influence absolve its creator of the very real ethical issues he faced and, in significant ways, failed to overcome. Capote’s talent as a writer enables him to draw readers deep into the world of his book, but that alone does not help him resolve ethical issues. If anything, it magnifies them. Madelaine Blais, a practitioner of book-length journalism and a writing teacher, infers from Capote’s stated intention to use the Clutter murders for a literary experiment: ‘There is something creepy about the prettiness of the prose in contrast to the grotesquerie of the killings. In the end, the author may have driven himself nearly insane with the question: what purpose is served by making art out of something so vile?’
III Capote snows his readers
Today we are used to sophisticated publicity campaigns for big new books but back in 1966 the blizzard of media attention Capote generated for In Cold Blood was extraordinary. In 1966 Capote was the subject of twelve articles in national magazines, several of which featured his picture on the cover, and two half-hour television programs; he was the first writer to appear on television’s Meet the Press, a program usually reserved for politicians and statesmen. Life magazine ran eighteen pages about In Cold Blood. ‘Such a deluge of words and picture has never before been poured out over a book,’ the New York Times reported.
Capote, the spinner of stories since boyhood, transfixed interviewer after interviewer with his story of the making of In Cold Blood. There were three main threads to his public narrative: first, the immense labour of his research; second, what he endured to write the book, and third, that he had created a new art form. This was partly strategic: the events of the book were, sadly, relatively common in America and their outcome well known, but the interviews also illustrated the scale of Capote’s ambition and his egocentricity. As Clarke remarks, ‘He told the tale of his nearly six-year ordeal so often that it almost became part of the national lore, like Washington’s chopping down the cherry tree.’ Capote’s story-behind-the-story was not, like Washington’s cherry-tree lopping, apocryphal, but he certainly exaggerated, and, at times, to put it bluntly, lied.
In numerous interviews Capote trumpeted the accuracy of his work and the near infallibility of his memory that had enabled him to interview people without taking notes. ‘One doesn’t spend almost six years on a book, the point of which is factual accuracy, and then give way to minor distortions,’ he sniffed to Plimpton, himself a practitioner of book-length journalism as well as founding editor of the Paris Review.
It might be argued Capote’s emphasis on his accuracy was a way of reassuring prospective readers, since In Cold Blood contained no endnotes, index or notes on sources. What needs to be highlighted is the discrepancy between Capote’s repeated claims in interviews and the documented sources. In one interview he said he had spent seven months in Kansas after the murders but it was actually just one. In several interviews Capote played up the thousands of pages of research notes he had taken but though 6000 pages was the figure commonly mentioned, his biographer lists it as 4000 pages and in his letters Capote refers to 4000 pages in July 1960 but early the following year that figure has shrunk to 2000.
In another interview Capote misremembered the headline of the New York Times article that had prompted his interest in the Clutter murders. It was ‘Wealthy Farmer, 3 of Family Slain’ but Capote recalled it as ‘Eisenhower Appointee Murdered’. It is not a substantial error but the Times’ article was a key part of the backstory of In Cold Blood and, as the English critic Kenneth Tynan tartly notes, Capote repeatedly claimed he had trained himself to remember long conversations but the percentage figure he gave for this near perfect accuracy wandered between 92, 95 and 97 per cent.
There is also a discrepancy between what Capote said in interviews and what he wrote in letters about whether he was waiting until the execution of Smith and Hickock to finish his book. Soon after publication, Tynan, writing in the Observer in London, questioned Capote’s ethics on the ground that ‘For the first time, an influential writer of the front rank has been placed in a position of privileged intimacy with criminals about to die, and—in my view—done less than he might have to save them.’ He suggested a third meaning for the book’s title—the cold-bloodedness of the author.
Capote defended himself vigorously, saying Tynan’s argument was not only incorrect but that he had ‘the morals of a baboon and the guts of a butterfly’. It is probably true that Capote was not able to do anything more for Smith and Hickock, but Tynan had hit a raw nerve—Capote did not want to save them. Smith had told Capote in an interview before the murder trial that he had cut Herb Clutter’s throat, and as early as April 1961 Capote told the Deweys he had ‘reached a point in my book where I must know how the books ends’. But Capote did not acknowledge this publicly. Instead, he told an interviewer for Playboy that ‘as the years dragged on and the legal delays and complications multiplied, I still didn’t know if I was going to be able to finish the book or even if there was any book there’.
In 1979 a literary scholar, Jack De Bellis, analysed the production history of In Cold Blood and found that between its publication in the New Yorker and in book form ten weeks later Capote made more than five thousand changes. More than a third of these were matters of punctuation. Some phrases appear to have been made more colloquial, but that could be explained by the restraints imposed by New Yorker editor Shawn’s notorious prudishness. For an author who claimed to be obsessed with accuracy, though, Capote proves surprisingly slipshod, especially considering the length of time he had worked on the manuscript and the oft-remarked status of the New Yorker’s fact-checking department.
Late in the book Capote quotes the ninth stanza of Thomas Gray’s ‘Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard’ but has introduced two changes (‘boasts’ becomes ‘boast’ and ‘awaits’ becomes ‘await’) even though the version in the New Yorker agrees with the best bibliographic sources. Similarly, Capote changes the position of tattoos on Smith and Hickock’s arms for the Random House edition even though photographs taken of the convicted murderers for the New Yorker by Richard Avedon show the original magazine copy was accurate. Capote even made revisions to eighteen documents mentioned in his book, including newspaper articles, a letter from Smith’s sister and Hickock’s police record.
De Bellis comments: ‘When a breach of trust is created with the reader over such confirmable matters, his doubts begin to gather about other matters of plot, characterization, symbolism, and theme of In Cold Blood.’ Some quotations of people in In Cold Blood change between magazine and book, notably Smith with 187 changes. Many of these are relatively minor but given they are quotations that had already appeared in the New Yorker, they are worrying. De Bellis says his overwhelming impression is that Capote ‘could not resist re-examining his research and his style’ and after comparing his findings with Tompkins’, De Bellis concludes that a ‘strain developed between Capote’s intellectual strategy and the emotional reality he faced’.
This strain is evident in how Capote depicted Smith, and in a closer reading of the interviews Capote gave to publicise In Cold Blood. This reveals a tension between his statements about what he endured to write the book, and his claims to have created a new art form. When Capote talks about what he endured to create the book he includes the emotional strain of becoming close to the two convicted murderers, especially Smith, of corresponding with them over five years and watching as they deteriorated on death row. When Capote talks about creating a new art form, though, he reduces the two men to subjects in an experiment he is conducting.
So, he told Haskell Frankel of the Saturday Review that he became ‘very very good friends’ and ‘very very close intimates’ of Smith and Hickock and that if at the outset he had known what the book would cost him emotionally he would never have started it. He told Gloria Steinem, writing for Glamour magazine, that Smith had bequeathed his belongings to him and that when they arrived after the execution he ‘couldn’t even look at them for a long time’. After reflecting on the inhumanity of the appeals system, Capote says he became so ‘emotionally involved that it was almost a question of personal survival’ and that he was now ‘weary inside’.
But he told Plimpton, writing for the New York Times Book Review in January 1966, that when Smith had asked him why he was writing a book, Capote told Smith he was pursuing a ‘strictly aesthetic theory’ about creating a non-fiction book that would be a work of art. In a lengthy interview with Playboy magazine in 1968, after In Cold Blood had been adapted for film and Capote had made a documentary about capital punishment, he referred to the book as an experiment at least three times:
I’d had several dry runs that didn’t work out. I was searching for a suitable subject and, like a bacteriologist, I kept putting slides under the microscope, scrutinizing them and finally rejecting them as unsuitable. It was like trying to solve a quadratic equation with the X—in this case, the subject matter—missing.
One unintended victim of the book was Hickock’s son. His mother had remarried and the boy had not known the identity of his father until he read In Cold Blood for a school assignment, which deeply upset him. His mother feared he might commit suicide, according to the Rev. James Post, chaplain at the prison where Smith and Hickock had been on death row. Post told Capote’s oral biographer, Plimpton, he had immediately gone to see the boy:
I didn’t minimize the horrible things that he’d done or anything like that. But I said his dad wasn’t the sex fiend that Capote tried to make him out … like trying to rape the Clutter girl before he killed her … it didn’t happen. And other things … lies, just to make it a better story.
There is no corroborating evidence for Post’s recollection but no reason to disbelieve him either. Just as it is clear from Capote’s letters and from biographies how much he identified with Smith, it is also clear he had little interest in Hickock, regarding him as a ‘just a smart-aleck, small-time crook’ with a ‘check-bouncing mentality’. In a mini-biography of Hickock that Capote compiled in his research notes, there is no mention of Hickock having sex with underage girls.
What are we to conclude from this catalogue of missteps, bad faith and deception? Should we simply read In Cold Blood as a novel and forget the non-fiction? That is certainly easy to do, more than half a century later and half a world away, but the book was about real people and events and sought to present a ‘true account’. It should be assessed on that basis. We may not lose too much sleep about two convicted murderers but what about their victims, who include (indirectly) Hickock’s son as well as the Clutters?
It can be argued Capote was working within the standards of his time and that as a pioneer he confronted problems that had been ignored or not even considered beforehand. Yet the ethical issues Capote faced, and in many cases failed to resolve, in the research, the representation and the terms on which he offered his book to readers, affect the entire process of the book’s creation and are more deep-rooted than many critics have suggested. I wouldn’t want to dissuade anyone from reading In Cold Blood, because it is powerfully written, but you should read it with eyes open. And it should be read with an awareness that a good number of leading practitioners have learnt from Capote’s experience. For instance, the majority of practitioners steer away from writing in an omniscient authorial voice because they appreciate it conveys a sense of knowingness that is out of place when you are trying to convey events and issues that in all likelihood are contested, contingent and still unfolding. In The Meeting of the Waters, published in 2004, Margaret Simons’ authorial voice regularly enters the narrative to remind readers of the cultural as well as factual complexities of the Hindmarsh Island bridge affair. Lawrence Wright, in his Pulitzer-prize winning account of the rise of Al-Qaeda, The Looming Tower (2006), scrupulously negotiated the trusting relationships he needed to form with sources. As he writes in a lengthy note on sources at the end of his book:
This relationship is fraught with problems, since trust and friendship go hand in hand. Knowledge is seductive; the reporter wants to know, and the more he knows, the more interesting he becomes to the source. There are few forces in human nature more powerful than the desire to be understood; journalism couldn’t exist without it. But the intimacy that comes with sharing secrets and unburdening profound feelings invites a reciprocal degree of friendly protection that a reporter cannot always offer. By the conspicuous use of a tape recorder and extensive note-taking, I try to remind both of us that there is a third party in the room, the eventual reader.