For nearly 50 years, Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood has stood as perhaps the best of the true crime genre—nonfiction that’s truly as dramatic and compelling as fiction. Last week, The Wall Street Journalreported on decades-old documents that have recently come to light which point to significant fabrications in two chapters of Capote’s masterwork, including one of it’s most thrilling moments. Wall Street Journal reporter Kevin Helliker tells Brooke about how Capote's version of the story veers from what really happened.
BOB GARFIELD: This is On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. For nearly 50 years, Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood” has been perhaps the best of the true crime genre. Capote's book chronicles the grisly murder of Mr. and Mrs. Clutter and two of their four children in Holcomb, Kansas. The book is such a cultural touchstone it's been adapted into an opera, a graphic novel, two punk songs, a TV miniseries and, most notably, three films. Here's Philip Seymour Hoffman as Capote:
HOFFMAN AS CAPOTE: Until one morning in mid-November 1959, few Americans - in fact, few Kansans - had ever heard of Holcomb. Like the waters of the Arkansas River, like the motorists on the highway…exceptional happenings never stopped there.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Last week, the Wall Street Journal reported on decades-old documents have recently come to light, which point to significant fabrications in two chapters of Capote’s masterwork, including one of its most thrilling moments. Wall Street Journal reporter Kevin Helliker says that in Capote’s telling, the Kansas Bureau of Investigation acted immediately after getting a tip from a convict who shared a prison cell with one of the killers.
KEVIN HELLIKER: It begins with an inmate named Floyd Wells coming forth and telling his warden who killed the Clutter family. The warden immediately picks up the phone and calls the KBI. The chief detective is Alvin Dewey. That very day, Capote says, Dewey comes home and shows his wife the mug shots and the rap sheets for these two suspects and indicates that this is it; the case is solved.
What the KBI files show is that actually five days passed between Floyd Wells coming forth with the names and the KBI showing up at Hickock farm, which was the last known whereabouts of suspect Richard Hickock. And [LAUGHS] what's really fascinating, given how much time has passed, is that there is one witness who can explain that five-day gap, and that is the gentleman who prosecuted the case, Duane West, who’s 81 years old. His memory of this is very sharp. He was in the Sheriff's Office that morning, and when it was announced that morning that a prisoner at Kansas State Penitentiary named Richard Hickock and Perry Smith, Alvin Dewey said it's not them.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Capote’s hero.
KEVIN HELLIKER: Capote’s hero.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Can you describe the relationship between Alvin Dewey and Truman Capote?
KEVIN HELLIKER: The letters of Truman Capote on file at the New York Public Library show Truman asking for all manner of information from Alvin Dewey, including the diary of 16-year-old Nancy Clutter, her last entry logged only moments before Smith and Hickock murdered the entire family.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You're saying that Dewey gave Capote access to that diary without her family’s consent?
KEVIN HELLIKER: Without her family’s consent. According to Detective Harold Nye, Alvin Dewey gave Capote access to the entire KBI file, and that if this had become public that Dewey would have been fired. And Capote's letters are just rich with gratitude to Dewey. He called him “Foxy.” “Bless you, Foxy, for this, bless you for that. The original contract between Truman Capote and Columbia Pictures for the movie rights requires that Columbia hire Marie Dewey, Alvin Dewey's wife, as a consultant to the film for $10,000, which was significantly more than the average income of a US family in 1965. And that’s really one of any number of “you scratch my back, I'll scratch your back.”
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Truman Capote's “In Cold Blood” is regarded in some ways as the urtext for the new journalism. First of all, how did its inaccuracies hurt the people involved? And, second of all, why didn't they come forward?
KEVIN HELLIKER: You know, if you live in Garden City, Kansas, how do you fight back against a book that the entire literary world is embracing and throwing parties for? The clearest example of how Capote's methods affected the people involved is Duane West, the man who prosecuted the killers, treated Capote the same as he treated all other journalists, which is he gave nobody any special access. And Capote very much punished Duane West. He mischaracterized him in the book as the assistant prosecutor, he essentially gave Duane West a demotion, and called Duane West “a 28-year-old who looks 40 and sometimes 50.”
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But why did it take primary documents to uncover this, when anyone could have stepped forward in the past decades and say, this just isn't how it happened?
KEVIN HELLIKER: I think people have tried to. Look at Lance Armstrong. How many people came forth in the last 12 years and, and offered eyewitness testimony that Lance Armstrong had doped? And –
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You’re not comparing Lance Armstrong to Truman Capote.
KEVIN HELLIKER: Yeah, I, I think there is a similarity there. You know, there’s a myth. I wanted to believe that Lance had cleanly won seven Tour de France titles. I wanted to believe that Truman Capote had produced the greatest piece of nonfiction ever, while hewing to the facts. I mean, even when my story ran, I received emails from people who say that they don't care what the documents show - that it’s the greatest piece of nonfiction ever.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What's the really important thing that people should realize about this? Is it about the process? Is it about the story? What should people take away from it?
KEVIN HELLIKER: When you look at how a) Capote was willing to bend facts whenever it suited him, and b) the way that he rewarded those who cooperated with him and punished those who didn't, the biggest question about “In Cold Blood” will never be known. And, and that is, how accurately did he portray the relationship between Dick Hickock and Perry Smith, and how accurate is the enormous part of the book that deals only with those two, that is sourced only by those two and whose truth we can never know because he waited until after those two were executed to produce the book? Now, there's an irony that is central to the book that Capote loved, which is that the killer, the man who actually shot the Clutters, Perry Smith, was deep and sensitive and lovable and that the other guy, Dick Hickock, was just a petty criminal.
[“IN COLD BLOOD” CLIP]:
DICK HICKCOCK CHARACTER: Okay, what's the matter?
PERRY SMITH CHARACTER: Us, we’re the matter. We're ridiculous - you tapping the walls for a safe that isn't there, tap-tap-tapping like some nutty woodpecker, and me, crawling around on the floor with my legs on fire, and all to steal a kid's silver dollar.
KEVIN HELLIKER: My question is did Capote shape those characters to suit this narrative of his that the killer was the good guy and that the other guy was an unredeemable hood? BROOKE GLADSTONE: Kevin, thank you very much.
KEVIN HELLIKER: Thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Kevin Helliker is a reporter for the Wall Street Journal.