The dark master
It’s everyone’s worst nightmare – that someone will sneak into your home in the dead of night and murder you in your bed; someone you don’t know, with no discernible motive. It’s why we lock the front door every night.
The 1960s was bookended by two such infamous incidents. In 1969 the Tate/LaBianca murders rocked California and in 1959 a family of four were butchered in a Kansas farmhouse for no apparent reason. The story of Herb and Bonnie Clutter and their two teenage children warranted a short item in the New York Times where it was seen by the celebrated writer Truman Capote. His Breakfast at Tiffany’s had just been published to much acclaim (it was far gloomier than the frivolous 1961 movie with Audrey Hepburn) and the author was searching around for a new subject.
The horrific randomness of the Clutter murders fascinated Capote. What began as a piece of reportage for New Yorker magazine evolved into a book that took five years to write and research. In Cold Blood was dubbed a ‘non-fiction novel’ which used creative writing and storytelling techniques to delve deeper into real events.
Capote is often said to have pioneered if not invented the genre which influenced writers as diverse as Norman Mailer and Colm Toibin. In Cold Blood was made into a film in 1967 which has now been released as a sparkling, remastered Blu-ray.
Capote first travelled to Kansas in December of 1959 with his friend and fellow southern writer Harper Lee (who wrote the bestseller To Kill a Mockingbird). Together they followed events as the police searched for the killers.
Many observers have since suggested that Harper Lee co-wrote the book and never got the credit she deserved. Others said that Capote played fast and loose with the facts just to make the story more compelling. Lee was certainly enormously useful in gaining entrée for Capote into the small-town world where the crime took place.
Police and journalists were wary of Capote with his fancy scarves, squeaky voice and effeminate mannerisms. The gay author, a famed bon vivant and raconteur who had danced with Marilyn Monroe and bested Humphry Bogart at arm-wrestling was great company, and quickly won over the chief detective on the case, Alvin Dewey.
Weeks after Capote arrived in Kansas two young drifters, Perry White and Dick Hickock, were arrested. There was a stolen car and dud cheques and a boot that matched a bloody print in the farmhouse. Capote realised this was not a magazine article but a fully-fledged book.
As the case dragged on Capote befriended the two men sucking up background information for the book along the way (Capote claimed to have a photographic memory). He was particularly drawn to Perry with his dark good looks, intelligence and artistic pretentions. Both White and Capote had tough upbringings and miserable childhoods.
Before the trial, Capote invited his friend the fashion photographer Richard Avedon to take portraits of the killers. In white shirts, against Avedon’s signature white backdrop the murderers showed off their tattoos.
Rumours swirled. Had Capote suggested to the killers that his involvement might help their appeal while really the writer wanted the drawn-out case closed and the men sentenced so he could publish his book?
Finally, after years on death row, in April 1965, White and Hickock were hanged. Despite his closeness with the killers Capote could not bear to attend the execution and he was never the same again. He certainly never completed another book. In Cold Blood was published in 1966 and it was an immediate hit. Hitherto true crime stories had appeared in salacious pulp magazines, Capote created sublime literary art. The royalties flooded in. To celebrate, he held what became the party of the century.
The black and white masked ball at the Plaza Hotel in Manhattan attracted huge amounts of interest. The theme was inspired by the monochrome Ascot scene designed by Cecil Beaton for the 1964 movie My Fair Lady. Capote acted as Prospero and dictated every detail even down to what jewels should be worn: ‘diamonds only’.
The guest list ran to about 500 and included Mia Farrow and her new husband Frank Sinatra, Lauren Bacall, Tallulah Bankhead, Rose Kennedy, Sammy Davis Jr, Norman Mailer, Harry Belafonte, the Maharani of Jaipur and many socialites galore. Capote mischievously delighted in snubbing old enemies by not inviting them. Fashion model Penelope Tree was discovered at the party and went on to become one of the first supermodels.
But the success and money never made Truman Capote happy. He knew he’d never write another book as good as this one and frittered his time away on parties and holidays fuelling his ennui with pills and booze. He chummed up with Andy Warhol and, in the 1970s, the Studio 54 disco crowd.
An attempt at a tell-all novel only alienated his best friends and remained unfinished. He became prone to melancholy just like his heroine Holly Golightly and he died in 1984 aged only 56.
Around 2005 two films about Capote and his great American novel were released starring Toby Jones and Philip Seymour Hoffman as Capote. And in 2017 there was a TV documentary series that highlighted Capote’s reporting inaccuracies.
Despite it all, more than 50 years on, the wonderfully written In Cold Blood remains one of the greatest true crime books of all time. ■
Info: In Cold Blood is available on Blu-ray now