Capote: Written in blood

To research his crime classic, the author built a close relationship with a murderer. Too close, says a new film. Andrew Gumbel on the story behind 'In Cold Blood'
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The Independent Culture

A funny thing happened to Truman Capote after he published In Cold Blood, his celebrated account of a multiple murder in rural Kansas and the two social misfits who committed it. The book was an instant bestseller, hailed as a masterpiece by the critics, and quickly regarded as a milestone of American literature ushering in a hitherto unknown genre: true crime.

Yet even as the book was in the first flush of its success, the whispering began. Had Capote fallen in love with Perry Smith, the more taciturn, more intellectual of the two killers who fantasised about being an artist or a musician? Had the pair, indeed, had an affair on Kansas's death row, as one state police investigator insinuated, Capote paying the prison guards lavish sums to leave them alone?

There were other, possibly more disturbing questions, raised principally by Capote's literary rivals. Had he deliberately withdrawn his offers of legal help to both Smith and his partner-in-crime, Dick Hickock, so the pair would more quickly go to the gallows and give him the ending he needed for his book? Had he strung them along by pretending to write an account sympathetic enough to provide grist for their final appeals against the death penalty, when in fact his intentions were quite different, and largely self-serving?

These are questions at the heart of the new movie Capote, released later this month, in which Philip Seymour Hoffman does a bravura turn as the quirky, complicated, flamboyantly homosexual writer who penned his masterpiece, his "non-fiction novel", and then never finished another book. But the questions are not new; they were asked with equal urgency 40 years ago in the immediate wake of In Cold Blood's publication.

The story began in 1959 when Capote read a brief article in The New York Times on the killings of a well-to-do land-owning family on the prairies of western Kansas - a part of heartland America where, it was believed, such things simply did not happen. Herb Clutter, his wife Bonnie, and two children Nancy, 16, and Kenyon, 15, were found bound and gagged in separate rooms of their own house, their heads half blown off by blasts from a shotgun. Nobody saw the killers come or go, and their identity and motives remained mysterious for weeks after the crime. By the time Capote arrived in mid-December, the tiny community of Holcomb was still living in terror that the killer or killers, was among them, ready to strike again at any moment.

Smith and Hickock were caught in Las Vegas shortly after Christmas, and confessed immediately. They were betrayed by a former employee of Clutter's who had previously shared a prison cell with Hickock and told him he was sure Mr Clutter kept $10,000 in cash in a safe to make payroll on his farm each month. When Hickock, at that stage no more than a petty conman and thief, got out of prison, he hired his friend Smith, and together they made the 270-mile journey from Kansas City to the small town of Holcomb. When they realised there was no safe in the house, they killed everyone to ensure there were no witnesses to their botched escapade. They left with $40, a radio and some binoculars.

Capote was initially drawn to the story as an opportunity to depict the colliding worlds of the criminals and their victims. But his project soon grew into something else altogether: an opportunity to conduct an exhaustive anatomy of a crime and get inside the minds of its protagonists.

In Cold Blood is staggering in its accumulation of intimate detail. Whether it is recreating the home life of the Clutter family ("After drinking the glass of milk and putting on his fleece-lined cap, Mr Clutter carried his apple with him when he went outdoors"), or depicting Dick and Perry on the road in Mexico trying not to feel foolish that the piles of cash they had hoped to find in the Clutter home had proved illusory, or chronicling their desperate last years in Kansas State Penitentiary.

Much of the texture of the narrative was derived from prison visits Capote made, and from hundreds of letters the killers sent him, especially in the final two years of their lives. By 1966 it was close to received wisdom that Capote had manipulated his subjects, flattering them, plying them with gifts and creating a dependency that he exploited to extract every last memory of their crime and its aftermath. None of this material could make its way into a finished book until their fate had been settled, as the exasperated Capote acknowledged.

William Buckley Jr, the conservative journalist and author, went on The Johnny Carson Show and joked that of the handful of executions carried out in the United States at that time, "two of them were for the personal convenience of Truman Capote". Ned Rorem, the composer, and Kenneth Tynan, the British literary critic, were both shocked to hear Capote expressing delight when the final execution date was set in the spring of 1965. Both subsequently argued that he could have done more to supply Smith and Hickock with a crack team of defence lawyers. "Capote got two million and his heroes got the rope," Rorem wrote in a sardonic letter to The Saturday Review of Literature.

There is, of course, an intriguing paradox behind these disparate misgivings. Did Capote love Perry Smith, or did he despise and exploit him? This is not just a paradox for literary historians; it positively leaps off the pages of In Cold Blood as the author's scrupulous and seemingly disinterested accumulation of factual information runs headlong into the arrestingly evident sympathy and attraction he feels for Perry. He writes of the "little old big-hearted Perry" who pesters Dick to pick up a pair of hitchhikers, and who, when it turns out one of them is ill and Dick wants to leave him on the roadside, says: "Go ahead. Put them out. But I'll be getting out too." The Perry who befriends a squirrel through the window of his prison cell, names him Big Red and draws him. The Perry, who, "throughout his life, poor and meanly treated, as a foot-loose youth, as an imprisoned man" dreams of a yellow bird, an "avenging angel", who lifts him up and away so he is "free... flying, I was better than any of them." The Perry, who in court, "wearing an open-necked shirt and blue jeans rolled up at the cuffs... looked as lonely and inappropriate as a seagull in a wheat field."

Capote formed close bonds of trust with both killers: his book depended on Dick's prodigious memory and garrulous nature. Yet the preference for Perry is palpable. In fact the relationship between author and subject is arguably one of the greatest, and most improbable, literary romances of the 20th century .

What could possibly have linked the literary dandy, the darling of the New York social set with his raconteur's wit and his foppish bow-ties, with a two-bit drifter who proved himself terrifyingly adept at slaughtering an innocent family on the prairies of eastern Kansas? Curiously, rather a lot. Both men came from remarkably similarly disadvantaged backgrounds, with fathers who abandoned them, mothers who turned to drink and a bruising experience of being brought up by surrogates. Perry suffered constant humiliation as a child because he was a bedwetter; Capote suffered similar humiliation because of his diminutive size and effeminate manners. Capote saw Perry as his mirror image: the picture of how he himself might have ended up if he had been less lucky. In Perry, his biographer Gerald Clarke wrote, he recognised "his shadow, his dark side, the embodiment of his own accumulated angers and hurts".

Perry, for his part, saw in Capote a fulfilment of his ambitions to be a self-taught intellectual and an artist. In Cold Blood details the lists Perry is forever making of sophisticated words to learn, his habit of correcting Dick's grammar, his fondness for his guitar and his art work. Capote supplied him with books by Thoreau, Freud and Santayana. "Perry wasn't an evil person," he said shortly after his book was published. "If he'd had any chance in life, things would have been different. But every illusion he'd ever had, well, they all evaporated ... You can't go through life without ever getting anything you want, ever."

Capote first set eyes on Perry at his arraignment in late December 1959. The first thing he noticed was that Perry, like him, was very short. "Uh oh," sighed Capote's companion and research assistant, the novelist Harper Lee, "this is the beginning of a great love affair." It was hardly a harmonious relationship, not least because Perry was smart enough to remain suspicious of Capote's motives for many years. On one occasion he told the author he had half a mind to kill him there and then; Capote in turn found Perry's thinking primitive at times, and loathed his propensity for self-pity. But there is no doubt he formed a deep personal bond - and that the bond caused him as much anguish as it did satisfaction. "Alas, I am rather too much involved emotionally with the material," he confessed to a friend around 1963.

On the day of the two men's execution, Capote could hardly bring himself to say goodbye. For hours he ignored their entreaties to come and visit, appearing in their holding cell for only a quick farewell less than two hours before their appointment with the "Big Swing", as the hanging gallows were known. Perry kissed Capote on the cheek and said: "Adios, amigo." Capote subsequently watched the executions in tears. "It was a terrible experience and I will never get over it," he wrote to one of Perry's few friends, a former army buddy who had attended his trial.

We will probably never know if this was love, or a just a necessarily ambiguous relationship between author and subject. The newmovie sees distinctly dark forces at work in the aftermath of the killers' execution, when Capote began to unravel under the influence of booze and pills. The historical record doesn't necessarily bear out the film's contention that Capote was undone by his artistic and moral compromises. All we are really left with is the literary legacy, of Truman and Perry, the dandy and the murderer, dancing their intriguing dance through the pages of In Cold Blood.

'Capote' is released on Friday 24 February

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