Brother, friends object to portrayal of Bonnie Clutter by Capote

It was his sister who they wrote about, don’t people understand that? It wasn’t some anonymous woman in an anonymous town who died an anonymous death. It was Howard Fox’s sister, Bonnie, older by three years, who loved playing with dolls as a child and studied nursing in college and became the most devoted mother he knew. It was his sister who was murdered at age 45 and then became a character in a nonfiction sensation.

But Howard Fox says his only sister’s legacy is forever tainted by the way Truman Capote painted her in “In Cold Blood,” the story of the 1959 killings of Bonnie Clutter, her husband, Herb, and their two teenaged children in the family’s Holcomb farmhouse.

“I won’t read the book. That was Bonnie who died,” says Fox, 88, a retired forester living in Oregon, Ill. “I know who she was. Other people don’t because of that book.”

Fox isn’t alone. Family and friends of Bonnie Clutter scoff at Capote’s description of the woman as an invalid who suffered from tension, withdrawal and depression. Bonnie is not a main character in the book, and readers might assume she was a mentally unstable woman who preferred to hide behind her husband’s notability in the tiny community.

But that’s not the whole story, say those close to Bonnie — including two surviving daughters so hurt by “In Cold Blood” they have refused interview requests for 45 years. Bonnie also was a loving wife and mother, active in the church, a caring and compassionate woman. At the time of her death, she was dealing with depression, but she never let it get in the way of her family, they say.

“Capote didn’t get it right at all,” says Jean Hands, 78, who knew the Clutters through the First United Methodist Church in Garden City, which Bonnie attended every Sunday.

“She was a lovely, lovely lady. Very poised. She did not have a mental illness. Capote went a little overboard.”

Hands first met Bonnie about 10 years before the murders. Both were active in church goings-on, participating in dinners, children’s groups and choir. Both also had husbands in the Kansas Co-op, and when meetings took the families to Kansas City, the wives would go shopping or visit museums together. Bonnie didn’t like being away from Herb, Hands remembers, but she did her best to be in good spirits when the co-op wives got together for the afternoon.

“You couldn’t help but like her,” Hands says.

Bonnie was unwaveringly loyal to her husband, whom she’d married when she was just 20. She supported his involvement in the co-op, 4-H and other community activities, and often was active behind the scenes, assembling lists of phone numbers or mailing letters to the townsfolk.

“If something happened in Holcomb, you pretty much knew Herb or Bonnie had something to do with it,” says Merl Wilson, who, with his wife, Argybell, rotated with the Clutters in leading 4-H.

Still, in the later years, Bonnie’s friends and family could tell something was wrong. They could just see it when she walked into the room: frail, a little too thin, shoulders slumped, Hands remembers. She could no longer help out with dinners — she just couldn’t handle so many hours in the kitchen. The other women could carry their own electric roasters; Bonnie would just watch, smiling delicately.

And they could just hear it in her voice when she called, Fox recalls — not all was well, although he could never put his finger on the problem. She mentioned once that she was on medications. A couple of times, she’d cry a little, about nothing in particular, as he remembers. Fox began to suspect it was the drugs that were making her feel depressed.

Kenyon Clutter's photo in Holcomb High School's 1960 yearbook. Friends and family say Bonnie Clutter was devoted to her children.

But he’s disgusted with Capote’s portrayal of his sister. According to the book, “She was ‘nervous,’ she suffered ‘little spells’ — such were the sheltering expressions used by those close to her. Not that the truth concerning poor Bonnie’s afflictions were in the least a secret; everyone knew she had been an on-and-off psychiatric patient the last half-dozen years.”

Not so, Howard Fox insists. He doesn’t know where Capote got his information. Maybe he fabricated it. Maybe he talked to the wrong people, chatted up town gossips who were jealous of the Clutters’ status and financial well-being. What Fox does know is that the Bonnie Clutter that Capote created is frustratingly one-dimensional.

“She was just not her normal self,” he says now of his sister’s struggles with her health. “But I could tell that underneath it all, she was happy. She loved her children. Family always came first.”

It’s a value that has always lived strong among the Foxes. The four Fox children — Bonnie, the second-oldest, was the only girl — were close growing up on their farm 11 miles northeast of Rozel, Kan. Their father, a carpenter, often had to go to California for work, so the family would head west in their Model T Ford, and the children would spend their summer days idling on the beach.

Bonnie loved the ocean, her brother recalls.

At home, while the boys played croquet, Bonnie would stay inside and play quietly.

“She definitely had her girly things,” Fox says. “She loved her dolls. She did everything with them.”

Bonnie was maternal with her children, too, attending all their 4-H events and school plays, he says. And though she didn’t pursue her nursing career after having children, nursing was a natural choice in college, Fox says. Even as a child, she spoke often of wanting to help people, and she’d always been compassionate, he says.

The two surviving Clutter daughters, Beverly and Eveanna, are both married and living in the Newton, Kan., area. By and large, neither will discuss their mother, the murders or “In Cold Blood.” One reason: They’re too hurt by the way Capote portrayed their family, specifically their mother.

Perhaps that’s fitting, Howard Fox says. Maybe it’s no one else’s business. Those who truly knew Bonnie won’t believe the rubbish they read in “In Cold Blood.” Usually, that gives Fox peace.

Comforting, too, is the way Bonnie was found after the murders. She lay on her back on her bed, eyes staring straight upward, hands clasped as if in prayer. Howard Fox knows his sister. He knows she was doing just that.