Author left mark on state
Book garnered Truman Capote the attention he so craved
In mid-December 1959, an eccentric writer from New York arrived on the rolling plains of western Kansas. Although Truman Capote had never been to the tiny town called Holcomb, he brought lofty intentions and ended up writing a book that defined himself and the town to the rest of the world forever.
Holcomb is home to what’s described as the world’s largest meat-packing plant and an impressive school system, but Capote’s book, “In Cold Blood,” is the main reason the town’s name is widely known.
Twenty years after Capote’s death and 45 years
after the murders that inspired the best-selling narrative, people are still reading “In Cold Blood.” The book has been translated into more than 30 languages and made into a movie twice. Every year, visitors trickle into Holcomb, hoping to catch a glimpse of what Capote so eloquently described.
Although the notoriety has not been entirely welcome in a town whose residents wish to forget the four grisly murders, attention was something Capote yearned for all his life. He reveled in the success of “In Cold Blood,” which allowed him to fully assume the high-society lifestyle that he craved. Notables from that world would turn on him, however, when he tried to top “In Cold Blood” with “Answered Prayers,” a scathing, true-to-life account of high-society life. Stung by rejection following the critical reception of a 13,000-word excerpt in Esquire magazine, Capote never finished “Answered Prayers,” and “In Cold Blood” remained his most recognized achievement.
In many ways, Capote was denied the attention that he craved from an early age. Born Sept. 30, 1924, he spent his formative years in Monroeville, Ala., where aunts and women cousins raised him while his mother, Lillie Mae “Nina” Faulk, flitted about with and without her son’s salesman father, Arch Persons, whom she eventually divorced. Capote got his name from Joseph Garcia Capote, the businessman stepfather Faulk made a home with in New York City.
Capote turned to writing when he was very young for comfort and occasional attention.
By the time he arrived in Kansas at age 35, Capote had experienced some success. He was a regular contributor to the New Yorker magazine. His books, “Other Voices, Other Rooms” and “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” were both critically acclaimed, and “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” later was made into a movie starring Audrey Hepburn.
“In Cold Blood” was his attempt at creating a new form of writing — the nonfiction novel, a blend of journalistic accuracy with the narrative style of fiction.
No matter how renowned he was on the East Coast, to residents of rural Kansas, Capote was hardly a household name, much less one the Kansans could pronounce, when he showed up on their doorsteps in 1959. But that would soon change, as Capote began to ingratiate himself with the locals, and they, in turn, sought acceptance from him.
“I don’t think too many people knew much about him. Various people called him Cappuchi,” said Delores Hope, a former reporter for the Garden City Telegram. Garden City, the seat and social center of Finney County, was where the Clutters’ murderers would be tried.
Capote’s flamboyant style was just a small part of what set him apart in Kansas. His 5-foot-4-inch frame, squeaky voice and shock of white hair attracted stares everywhere. And, in the conservative heart of the country, he didn’t hide his homosexuality.
In the paranoid atmosphere brought on by the murders, Capote could even be frightening. Bob Ashida, whose family lived near the Clutters, said his mother was afraid to open the door when Capote, a stranger, came knocking for an interview: “She wouldn’t let him in the house until she called the high school and asked who he was.”
Capote used a variety of methods, including money, to warm the wary Midwesterners to his person and mission. Ashida and others said he willingly paid for interviews. To grease his squeaky wheel, Capote used his childhood pal, Nelle Harper Lee, the author of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” to relax interview subjects who could more easily relate to her mild-mannered and unassuming presence. Today, many residents of Holcomb and Garden City remember Lee more fondly than they do Capote.
Thinking Lee and Capote probably didn’t have anywhere else to go for Christmas dinner in 1959, Delores Hope and her husband, Clifford, the attorney for the murdered family, invited the writers to their home.
The Hopes said Capote arrived late, a bottle of Scotch in hand, his demeanor pleasant but demanding. True to his character, he gabbed for the whole evening and forced all attention on himself.
“He was always center stage. There wasn’t much (other) conversation,” Delores Hope said, speaking of that night and nearly every other experience she had with Capote.
Some of the friendships Capote made in Kansas lasted the rest of his life. His correspondence with the family of Kansas Bureau of Investigation agent Alvin Dewey Jr. is charted in “Too Brief a Treat,” a book of his letters, edited by Gerald Clarke, that was released last October.
In Lawrence, Capote met the Williams family, who also were friends of the Deweys. Evan Williams, who was in elementary school at the time, talked about late nights when Capote arrived immediately after flying in from New York City.
Evan’s parents, Odd, an influential businessman, and Jonell, a housewife, would “hunker down” at the bottom of the stairs with Capote, whom Evan Williams recalls laughing and talking the whole time in his natural, self-important manner. “It seemed as if he was doing all the talking,” she said.
Williams’ older sister, Kimberly Kirkendoll, said Capote “always had his boyfriend with him.” Whether that was his longtime partner, Jack Dunphy, is not certain, but the knowledge of Capote’s sexuality kept the more conservative Odd Williams — and others — on constant guard. Yet it didn’t stop Odd or his wife, who would be among a handful of Kansas guests at an elite party Capote threw in New York years later, from developing a friendship with him.
Despite his tendency to dominate discussions and his general quirkiness, Capote could have a charming effect. And, in an interview setting, his refusal to take notes, even on a tape recorder, contributed to his unexpected ability to disarm.
“He knocked people off their mark because he was so unusual,” Kirkendoll said.
Longtime friend Joanne Carson, former wife of Johnny Carson, said she was not surprised that he was able to curry favor in Kansas. “There was a very childlike quality to Truman that was appealing,” she said. “They dropped their guard … and would have told him the most incredible things.”
Confident with the outcome of his rapport-building, Capote had this to say about Holcomb, when asked at a 1960 Manhattan party: “At first it was hard. But now I’m practically the mayor.”
Success and the dark side
In the fall of 1965, the four issues of the New Yorker that featured a serialization of “In Cold Blood” broke the magazine’s newsstand sales records. The book, released soon after, was an almost instant hit, favored among most critics as well as readers. According to a 1965 New York Times article, Capote almost immediately earned $2 million in magazine, book and film payments.
He would later tell Lawrence Grobel, who wrote “Conversations with Capote” in 1985, that he had no regrets about the way the book turned out: “Every time I pick up “In Cold Blood” I read it all the way through, as if I didn’t write it. It’s really quite a perfect book, you know. I wouldn’t change anything in it.”
According to biographer John Malcolm Brinnin, Capote used the money from the book to buy “an apartment (adjoining that of Johnny Carson) in New York’s United Nations Plaza; a small estate with two houses, one for himself, one for Dunphy, in the Hamptons of Long Island; another house in Palm Springs, Calif., all the while retaining a chalet in Verbier, Switzerland, where much of that book was written.”
Having spent most of the actual writing period of “In Cold Blood” (about two years) holed up in Switzerland, it’s no wonder Capote wanted to party when he finished.
In 1966, he threw the party of the decade, a massive Black and White Ball where the “in” crowd of New York City mingled with his friends from Kansas, including the Williamses and the Deweys.
The years in Kansas had almost as great an effect on Capote emotionally as they did professionally. He told George Plimpton that he wouldn’t have begun the project if he’d realized the immense work it would involve: “I would have driven straight on. Like a bat out of hell.”
From great success the road started downward.
Garson reports that Capote consumed increasing amounts of tranquilizers with alcohol in the years after “In Cold Blood.” By the mid-1970s, she continued, “He was doing almost no writing.”
Capote was maintaining his status as a celebrity, though, and a wily one at that, one who would do or say anything. He made headlines when he fell off a stage drunk during a speaking engagement at Towson University in Maryland in 1977.
On the topic of Capote’s overriding sense of self, Brinnin wrote: “By now a household word, Truman’s name was associated no longer with the parochial distinctions of literary assessment but with the hard glitter of success and, soon enough, the careless bravado of self-exploitation. Observing the public figure as it grew ever more into a caricature of itself, I began to surrender to an image that floated, like a Macy’s balloon on Thanksgiving Day, over the watching multitude, and to lose sight of the man I knew.”
To write again
When Capote did write, he primarily produced short stories and journalistic profiles rather than more involved projects. “I don’t think he wanted to go back into something like that again because [“In Cold Blood”] just took over his life,” Joanne Carson said.
Brinnin wrote: “Supposedly a trailblazing start into new territory that was his to explore, the book was actually both the high point and dead end of his career. Thereafter, collected pieces of ephemera, provided with titles and contained between covers, would do no more than mark the time until he was ready to deliver the most heralded masterwork of the century, ‘Answered Prayers.’ “
After Capote’s high hopes for that book were destroyed by the cool reception to the excerpt in Esquire, Capote failed to finish the book, retiring to a quieter life.
The catty high society characters he depicted in “Answered Prayers” were blatantly based on some of his socialite friends. Their conversations and likenesses were recreated and thinly veiled as fiction. Like some of the characters of “In Cold Blood,” not everyone whose image showed up in “Answered Prayers was satisfied with Capote’s frank portrayal. In fact, they felt betrayed.
Joanne Carson was one of the few friends who stood by Capote to the end. He died at her house in 1984 from liver disease complicated by phlebitis, an inflammation of the veins, and multiple drug intoxication.
Twenty years after his death, she maintains that he was justified in writing “Answered Prayers” and bitterly disappointed when his friends rejected him.
In his final years, Joanne Carson said, Capote had mellowed, focusing more energy on friendships than socializing. He preferred to spend time with the members of his ever-shrinking inner circle one-on-one. “He became more reflective, a little deeper,” she said.
During a particularly reflective moment with friends in 1975 reported by Brinnin, Capote acknowledged that his reputation was overshadowing his career. Obviously bitter, he seemed unashamed of his behavior, yet frustrated all the same by people’s perception of him.
“People think my reputation is my career,” he said. “Let them. Myself, if I had any doubts about the difference I sure as hell learned it those six years I gave to “Cold Blood.” That’s the difference I live with, I mean today and tomorrow. God knows, I’m not the sort to confine myself in a cork-lined room to do what I do. But I’ve got a room like that all the same. I take it with me and hand out the Do Not Disturb sign in five languages.”
As trustee of Capote’s estate, his lawyer, Alan Schwartz has the most say over Capote’s work, controlling to some extent the author’s image and the way he’s remembered.
Schwartz said he’s cautious about allowing adaptations of the writings into other forms. He said he was recently contacted about turning “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” into a Broadway show but said he would have to be certain the play would catch the essence of the printed word.
“I’m the one that has to decide all these things,” he said.
He’s generous when it comes to readings at churches, where the short story, “A Christmas Memory,” is popular, but he requires the text to be read in its entirety. Schwartz said he likes the fact that his friend’s work can be passed around in that way, orally, the way Capote used to enjoy telling stories.
If he were alive today, it’s “A Christmas Memory” that Capote would want to be remembered for, Joanne Carson said.
Yet Capote’s book published in 1965 remains his best-selling work, filtering thousands of dollars annually into the estate Schwartz looks after. Whether “In Cold Blood” wrongfully overshadows the rest of Capote’s body of work is unimportant to Schwartz, whose main interest is building his friend’s reputation as “one of the great American writers of all time.”
In 2004, at least two Capote-themed books were published: a collection of his short stories and Clarke’s collection of letters. A film, starring Philip Seymour Hoffman as Capote, is set for release soon. A second film, “Every Word is True,” starring Gwyneth Paltrow, also is in preproduction.
To Schwartz, the flurry of activity is proof that Capote will continue for a long time to receive in death the favorable attention he craved and deserved in life.
“I think he’s holding his own in all respects right now,” Schwartz said.