Sisters, family: Surviving Clutter daughters hope to preserve their parents’ legacy
The scrapbooks and stories tell the family’s true history.
Within three thick red binders are children’s photos, graduation announcements, tidbits of diaries, correspondence through the years and mementos of Herb and Bonnie Clutter’s family. Then there are the stories Beverly English, 65, has written about each of her parents — stories describing everything from what kind of music they enjoyed to how Bonnie would kill and pluck a chicken for dinner.
The scrapbooks and stories portray the family the way no one else has — certainly not Truman Capote, whose book, “In Cold Blood,” told of the Clutter family murders in Holcomb, Kan., in November 1959.
“We want to remember our parents in a positive light,” said English, one of the family’s two surviving daughters, “not the negative.”
The positives come in the form of the scrapbooks, loving memories and a number of memorials throughout Kansas. The negatives are the brutal murders of Herb and Bonnie Clutter, their daughter, Nancy, 16, and son, Kenyon, 15, and, to make it all worse, what the daughters and others say are Capote’s inaccuracies in describing the Clutter family.
English and her sister, Eveanna Mosier, 68, have declined all interview requests through the years, and they still won’t talk about the killings. However, for the first time, the sisters recently granted interviews and touched on their family’s portrayal in Capote’s book. They are determined to keep their parents’ legacy alive, although they prefer to do so within their family rather than publicly. Just as their parents did, they have shied away from the limelight.
“Dad was always trying to help out someone,” English said, “and he didn’t want any credit for it.”
Part of the sisters’ reluctance to speak is that they feel betrayed and exploited by Capote and others in the media. Before “In Cold Blood” appeared, a series of articles that would become the book appeared in the New Yorker magazine in 1965. The sisters read the first article, which described their family.
In a letter the sisters often send to decline interview requests, they explained their reaction to that article and why they preferred to keep their family’s story to themselves.
“I am sure you understand our reservations in granting your request,” they wrote. “Truman Capote made a similar request to write an article for the New Yorker Magazine that he said would be a ‘tribute’ to the family. He also communicated to us that we (the daughters) would be given the opportunity to review the article before publication. Mr. Capote did not honor his agreement, nor did he talk to any family members or friends who could have provided accurate and reliable information about the family. The result was his sensational novel, which profited him and grossly misrepresented our family.”
In keeping with the family’s positive outlook, English would not go into the specifics of the criticisms. But Capote’s representations, of the family’s finances, of English’s wedding — and especially of his portrayal of Bonnie Clutter — upset the family and others in the community.
Although Herb Clutter was a leader in the community and a successful farmer, he wasn’t as wealthy as the killers, Perry Smith and Richard Hickock, thought, or as well-to-do as Capote made him out to be. Beyond the author’s descriptions of the Clutter home, impressive but not extravagant for the day, and the farmer’s orchard and fields, was the reality that the family had its own hard times and bills to pay, English and others say.
In the case of Beverly’s marriage to Vere English, held four days after the family’s funeral in November instead of its originally scheduled December date, Capote quoted the Garden City Telegram’s wedding announcement instead of talking to the surviving daughters. Beyond the newspaper’s reasoning for having the wedding early — so many distant relatives gathered together — English said the wedding allowed the family to seek a shred of happiness in a time of overwhelming sadness.
English and her husband talk about that time now, just days before their 45th anniversary, with surprising straightforwardness. They have accepted it and moved on. They wonder why others can’t let it go.
Despite the stress from that tragedy a few days before they started their lives together, neither Beverly nor Vere, 71, appear worn. Their relatively short gray hair and glasses frame faces that have seen a lot, and taken more, from life. As they try to get beyond the painful memories, they have a cheerfulness and honesty about them. By all accounts, those are traits the whole Clutter family possessed.
“I think you could classify them as friendly and loving Christian people,” Joe Vanderweide, a Garden City architect and college friend of Eveanna Mosier, said.
English, a retired nurse, and her husband, who farms wheat, milo and alfalfa, have three children and 11 grandchildren. Mosier, a retired schoolteacher, and her husband, Bill, a retired railroad worker, have three children and eight grandchildren. Both sisters now live in the Newton, Kan., area. Eveanna had lived in western Nebraska until 1970 when her first husband, Donald Jarchow, died. In the wake of that loss, she moved to Newton, where English and her husband were farming his family’s land.
“It was a logical place to move, to Newton, with my three children,” Eveanna said.
The family has moved on, carefully preserving its memories and quietly proud of other reminders of the Clutters’ impact on Kansas. Memorials to the family in Garden City and elsewhere in the state show a resilient respect for the family. The United Methodist church in Garden City dedicated a stained-glass window above its main entrance, an altar and furnishings in its youth room and received a contribution to the carillon maintenance trust fund, all in the family’s name.
Among other memorials are the Garden City Co-op building, dedicated to Herb Clutter’s memory, and a shelter honoring the family at the Kansas State 4-H camp at Rock Springs Ranch, near Junction City. When the Kansas Co-op Hall of Fame inducted their father in 2003 for his contribution to the development of agriculture in western Kansas, the sisters went to Hutchinson to accept the award. A plaque and photograph are on permanent display in the Pride of Kansas Building at the Kansas State Fair.
“We’ve had an adequate number of memorials, and they’ve been honored, I think, quite sufficiently,” English said.
The sisters try to pass their family’s legacy on to new generations. Since English completed the bulk of the scrapbooks in the late 1980s — they are an ongoing project, she said — the younger Clutter descendants have used them to learn about their grandparents. “I’m so glad we did it,” Mosier said. “It was a healing thing for both of us. We had laughter with lots of things, and we had tears. But it was just a healing thing.”
The result is a written record for the family of what kind of people Herb and Bonnie Clutter were — something Capote never accomplished.
“It’s their life I want to immortalize,” English said. “Not the way they died.”