December 3, 2014

Judge clears release of files that may contradict facts in Capote’s In Cold Blood

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In Cold Blood is considered a masterpiece, but new records have been cleared for release that could challenge Truman Capote's version of events. 1959 image of Capote via Wikimedia

In Cold Blood is considered a masterpiece, but new records have been cleared for release that could challenge Truman Capote’s version of events. 1959 image of Capote via Wikimedia

Truman Capote‘s In Cold Blood is considered a masterpiece of true-crime reportage, an innovative work in a new genre that Capote coined the “nonfiction novel.” Detailing the murder of a Kansas farmer and his family, and profiling the two men who committed the brutal crime, the story was first published as a series in The New Yorker, and later, in 1959, as a book that would become one of the most influential in recent literary history.

The reputation of the book, and Capote, has endured even as its accuracy has been repeatedly challenged. The New Yorker itself took a look at the charges, and last year Ben Yagoda, in seeking out The New Yorker‘s original fact checking files, reported at Slate on some of the challenges to the story.

While doing research for my 2000 book, About Town: The New Yorker and the World It Made, I found “In Cold Blood” galley proofs in the magazine’s archives. Next to a passage describing the actions of someone who was alone, and who was later killed in the “multiple murder,” New Yorker editor William Shawn had scrawled, in pencil, “How know?” There was in fact no way to know, but the passage stayed.

Over the years, many additional holes have been found in In Cold Blood. In the first of two notable recent revelations, a Wall Street Journal article suggested that the Kansas Bureau of Investigation waited five days before following up on what turned out to be the crucial lead in the case, rather than doing so immediately, as Capote wrote. This is not a trivial matter, because if the KBI had acted quicker, the killers—Perry Smith and Dick Hickock—may not have made it to Florida, where, according to a separate investigation by the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, they possibly committed four additional murders, of a husband and wife and their two young children.

In what may lead to a new blow to the book’s reputation, a ruling by Kansas’ Shawnee County District Cout Court Judge Larry Hendricks could lead to the release of official documents that contradict much of Capote’s writing. Roxana Hegeman writes at the Associated Press that Ronald Nye, the son of one of the investigating officers, long barred from making public his father’s case notes, has been given the legal go-ahead, over the objections of the Kansas attorney general.

Nye’s father, Kansas Bureau of Investigation agent Harold Nye, kept the case files at his home. Hendricks ruled Nye’s First Amendment right to publish the material outweigh the government’s interest in maintaining the confidentiality of its investigative records. Nye and McAvoy would not reveal exactly what is in the files, but Nye said Monday that his father’s notebooks had “vast discrepancies” from what Capote wrote.

“Our belief is that there is no other reason (Kansas) would want the materials we have suppressed were it not for the information we found in them,” McAvoy said. “That information connects to other research I’ve done and supports a pretty compelling new theory – one that I am reluctant to even discuss at this point.”

Capote was adamant about the veracity of In Cold Blood. (With one exception: As Yagoda wrote, it was acknowledged by Capote that “the last scene in the book, a graveyard conversation between a detective and the murdered girl’s best friend, was pure invention.”) George Plimpton broached the subject in a 1966 New York Times interview with Capote.

With the nonfiction novel I suppose the temptation to fictionalize events, or a line of dialogue, for example, must at times be overwhelming. With “In Cold Blood” was there any invention of this sort to speak of–I was thinking specifically of the dog you described trotting along the road at the end of the section on Perry and Dick, and then later you introduce the next section on the two with Dick swerving to hit the dog. Was there actually a dog at that exact point in the narrative, or were you using this habit of Dick’s as a fiction device to bridge the two sections?

No. There was a dog, and it was precisely as described. One doesn’t spend almost six years on a book, the point of which is factual accuracy, and then give way to minor distortions. People are so suspicious. They ask, “How can you reconstruct the conversation of a dead girl, Nancy Clutter, without fictionalizing?” If they read the book carefully, they can see readily enough how it’s done. It’s a silly question. Each time Nancy appears in the narrative, there are witnesses to what she is saying and doing–phone calls, conversations, being overheard. When she walks the horse up from the river in the twilight, the hired man is a witness and talked to her then. The last time we see her, in her bedroom, Perry and Dick themselves were the witnesses, and told me what she had said. What is reported of her, even in the narrative form, is as accurate as many hours of questioning, over and over again, can make it. All of it is reconstructed from the evidence of witnesses which is implicit in the title of the first section of the book “The Last to See Them Alive.”

And then there’s this, a question from Plimpton about Capote’s “collection of memorabilia” from his time researching the book.

What will you do with this collection?

I think I may burn it all. You think I’m kidding? I’m not. The book is what is important. It exists in its own right. The rest of the material is extraneous, and it’s personal. What’s more, I don’t really want people poking around in the material of six years of work and research. The book is the end result of all that, and it’s exactly what I wanted to do from it.

Julia Fleischaker is a former director of marketing and publicity at Melville House.

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