Thursday, November 15, 2012

"A cinch . . . the Perfect score"

Fifty-three years ago on this date, a Kansas farmer named Herbert Clutter was awakened sometime after midnight by two intruders who let themselves in through an unlocked door. In 1959, especially in the tiny town of Holcomb, population 270, any threat to one’s safety came from outside the community, from the Communists maybe, but not from the neighbors. The young men who came to the Clutter farm armed with shotguns and a flashlight had recently been paroled from the Kansas State Penitentiary. It was there, while sharing a cell with a petty thief named Floyd Wells, whom Herbert Clutter once employed as a farmhand, that Dick Hickok concluded that the Clutter home held a safe stacked with cash. It was, as Hickok said in a note to accomplice Perry Smith, a “cinch, the Perfect score . . .”

But there was no safe. Instead of the fortune they had anticipated, Hickok and Perry left the Clutter home with a small amount of cash and a radio taken from Clutter’s office. It may have been a “cinch,” but it was not the “Perfect score.” If he exaggerated the financial rewards of their criminal undertaking, Hickok was accurate in his promise to leave no witnesses. “I promise you, honey,” he told Smith, “we’ll blast hair all over them walls.”

Horrific as the murders were (Herb Clutter, his wife Bonnie, son Kenyon, and daughter Nancy, were bound, gagged, and killed at close range by blasts from the shotgun), they would almost certainly not be remembered outside of Kansas itself more than a half century later if not for Truman Capote who, reading a brief account of the murders in The New York Times, departed for Kansas with his childhood friend, Nelle Harper Lee, whose Pulitzer Prize winning novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, had yet to be published. Capote was to write an article for The New Yorker, described by Brendan Gill, a fellow scribe for the periodical, as “the effect of a murder – a story of a small Midwestern town responding to an unprecedented catastrophe in their midst.” Lee was present not to write but because she was, in John Barry Ryan’s words, “a fairly tough lady, and Truman was afraid of going down there alone.”

According to Charles J. Shields’ Lee biography, I Am Scout, Lee was put on salary as Capote’s “assistant researchist,” and wrote copious notes, enough of which would end up in what became the novel, In Cold Blood, to justify her receiving more than the dedication in the opening pages.

“Nelle was very hurt that she didn’t get more credit because she wrote half that book,” a friend, R. Philip Hanes, recalled. What originally began as an article for The New Yorker evolved into the enormously successful In Cold Blood which started a wave of “true crime” books that has not abated since Capote’s book reached stores in early 1966. Although Capote’s technique, using the tools of the fiction writer to tell a true story, make it controversial, and the debate concerning whether it was fact or fiction which continues to this day, may have cost him the Pulitzer and the National Book Award, the book was a phenomenal success on every level, guaranteeing that the Clutters would be killed again and again when the book became a much praised 1967 film, and a rather obscure 1997 TV mini-series. In 2005, Capote’s experience researching the book became the basis for two films, Capote and Infamous, both of which recreated the brutal slayings. When the Clutters went to bed on Saturday November 14, 1959, they had no idea that they wouldn’t live to see another morning, and their killers certainly did not realize that someone other than themselves would walk away from the scene with the fortune that was denied them. In Cold Blood became Capote’s masterpiece and the royalties kept him rich even as his pen went dry.

If the films are accurate, the book ultimately destroyed him. In Infamous, Capote is portrayed as being in love with one of the killers, Perry Smith, who had artistic ambitions of his own. Watching Smith die by hanging, and secretly wishing for his demise so as to conclude his book with a dramatic execution, traumatized the author. That’s one theory. The same film suggested that his excursion to Kansas and exposure to the hard realities of life that he was protected from when hobnobbing with New York society and Park Avenue life, changed him and made him more fearful, paranoid, and hopeless. Piedy Lumet, wife of the director Sidney Lumet, told George Plimpton of a trip she took to Oregon with the elfin author. She stopped the car to take a walk through a path of redwood trees leading to a state park while Capote waited behind in the car. “This was a year after Perry and Dick had been executed. I heard this piercing call of alarm from Truman: ‘Come back! Come back! Perry and Dick are down there!’ It wasn’t a joke. A terribly, poignant intensity. He just got frightened. It didn’t make any sense and I never made any reference to it.”

Author John Knowles thinks it was simple a case of too much success. “I think he lost a grip on himself after that. He had been tremendously disciplined up to that time. . . A lot of his motivation was lost. That’s when he began to unravel.” Capote died August 25, 1984 at age 59 in the Los Angeles home of Joanne Carson, former wife of Tonight Show host Johnny Carson whom Capote met when the couple lived in the United Nations Plaza where the author moved following the windfall of In Cold Blood. He had published the short novella, The Thanksgiving Visitor in 1968 and a collection of stories and essays, Music for Chameleons, in 1980, but had not written another major work. His long promised epic, a roman a clef called Answered Prayers, materialized after his passing, but it was hardly an epic. A short book with four chapters, two of which had been published in the pages of Esquire in 1975, alienating the New York society crowd, it was either never as close to completion as Capote claimed or pages were stolen after his death. Carson was worried about his health during his stay. His pulse was weak and his complexion pale. “I’m tired,” he told her. “I don’t want any more hospitals, any more doctors, any more IVs . . . I’m very, very tired. I just want to go in peace.”

© 2012 Brian W. Fairbanks


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