For almost 40 years, the first words of Truman Capote's "In Cold Blood" have been most people's introduction to a town that seems wholly unremarkable on the surface. It seems an ordinary town for western Kansas-except for what's down a little dirt lane on the southwest edge of town. A day shy of 45 years ago, two released convicts made their way here and changed the town irrevocably
A full room at the Lawrence Public Library was treated Thursday evening to a firsthand account of the lives of two great American authors.
Garden City residents Bob and Kay Wells entertained a capacity crowd during the second event for the library’s annual Read Across Lawrence initiative.
The husband-and-wife duo was invited to speak in the library’s auditorium because of their known friendships with Truman Capote, author of “In Cold Blood,” and Harper Lee, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of this year’s Read Across Lawrence book, “To Kill a Mockingbird.”
Both authors visited the area in the early 1960s following the 1959 murder of Herbert Clutter and his family on a farm in Holcomb. Capote’s book is based on the violent crimes and subsequent trial of perpetrators Richard Hickock and Perry Smith.
During their time in Kansas, Lee and Capote became friends with a number of the residents, including the Wellses. Kay said that when they first found out Capote would be visiting the area, they were told he’d be traveling with his secretary.
“First of all, we had no idea that Capote’s secretary was Harper Lee,” Kay said. “She’s very warm, she has a great sense of humor.”
The Wellses hosted dinners and social gatherings with Capote and Lee at their Garden City home. Pictures from the occasions lined a table in the back of the library auditorium. Kay talked about the ease with which Lee made friends in town and about how the two writers helped soften the mood in the city.
“I was so scared,” she said of not knowing who the murderers were at the time. “I would turn all the outside lights on in the house, all the inside lights. People were afraid, they really were.”
Following the trial and execution of Hickock and Smith, the Wellses kept in touch with Capote and Lee. They were invited to and attended Capote’s legendary Black and White Ball in New York City’s Plaza Hotel in 1966. A picture of Kay even graces the pages of the book “Party of the Century,” which detailed the event.
Though Capote died in 1984, the Wellses still keep in touch with Lee. She writes letters to them every now and again. Kay recalled the effect the friendships had on their lives.
“We met a lot of interesting people through Truman,” she said. “With Nelle (Lee) it was a little different. She says it like it is. I suppose because of knowing them we met some other people and made friends with them.”
Kathleen Morgan, the executive director of the Lawrence Public Library Foundation, served as moderator for the discussion Thursday night. She had only a few words to describe speaking with the Wellses, whose stories of Kansas history had people listening intently.
“It’s fascinating,” she said.