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In Cold Blood Turns 50

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The morning of November 16, 1959 must’ve started off like any other for Truman Capote. He lit up a cigarette, ate breakfast, and read the New York Times. No doubt he had plans for the day. Writing, of course. Lunch with Babe Paley, one of his “Swans” at 21. No doubt he saw an ad for Ben Hur which was going to be released in two days. He reached page thirty-nine. It was a small story, one of those if you blink you’d miss it. But something about it caught his eye:

A wealthy wheat farmer, his wife, and their two young children were found shot to death today in their home. They had been killed by shotgun blasts at close range after being bound and gagged. The father, 48-year-old Herbert W. Clutter, was found in the basement with his son, Kenyon, 15. His wife Bonnie, 45, and a daughter, Nancy, 16, were in their beds. There were no signs of a struggle and nothing had been stolen. The telephone lines had been cut. “This is apparently the case of a psychopathic killer”, Sheriff Earl Robinson said. Mr. Clutter was founder of The Kansas Wheat Growers Association. In 1954, President Eisenhower appointed him to the Farm Credit Administration, but he never lived in Washington. The board represents the twelve farm credit districts in the country. Mr. Clutter served from December 1953 until April 1957. He declined a reappointment. He was also a local member of the Agriculture Department’s Price Stabilization Board and was active with the Great Plains Wheat Growers Association. The Clutter farm and ranch cover almost 1,000 acres[26] in one of the richest wheat areas. Mr. Clutter, his wife and daughter were clad in pajamas. The boy was wearing blue jeans and a T-shirt. The bodies were discovered by two of Nancy’s classmates, Susan Kidwell and Nancy Ewalt. Sheriff Robinson said the last reported communication with Mr. Clutter took place last night about 9:30 PM, when the victim called Gerald Van Vleet, his business partner, who lives near by. Mr. Van Vleet said the conversation had concerned the farm and ranch. Two daughters were away. They are Beverly, a student at the University of Kansas, and Mrs. Donald G. Jarchow of Mount Carroll, Illinois.

It was one of those stories that one sees every day and not think about twice. Capote, however, wanted to know more. He called a childhood friend of his, Nelle Lee. She was busy finishing up her novel, the one that the publishers told her to go back and revise; they didn’t want to hear the father was some racist. He told her what he’d read and would she like to go with him to Kansas?

She said yes.

The two of them went to Holcomb. He started to get to know the people involved in the case: Alvin Dewey, the chief investigator, Bobby Rupp (Nancy Clutter’s boyfriend and the last person to see the Clutters alive), and Sue Kidwell, one of Nancy’s best friends who found the bodies. After they were caught, Capote got to know Dick Hickock and Perry Smith, the two men who killed the Clutter family. He was also there when the two men were put to death on April 14.

In January 1966, all their stories became one: In Cold Blood.

The book was different because it read like a novel. You wanted to know about everyone. You found out that one of Nancy Clutter’s last acts was to teach Jolene Katz how to make a cherry pie. Her father wasn’t sure about that Bobby Rupp, him being a Catholic and all (the Clutters were Methodists). Poor Bonnie Clutter had suffered from clinical depression, but managed to be an active member of her garden club. The youngest child, Kenyon, liked building things. Instead of real people, they became characters in Capote’s world. However, he couldn’t change their fate.

Capote showed sympathy for Perry Smith, whose mother died when he was thirteen. Abandoned by his father, he and his siblings were put in an orphanage and he was abused by nuns. He had interests in music and writing. There have been rumors that Capote and Smith had a sexual relationship, but it was never proved. What is true is that they had an unlikely friendship that lasted until Smith’s death. Capote had a similar upbringing: he never knew his biological father and often lived with his mother’s relatives. Sometimes I wonder if he saw Smith and thought it could’ve been me.

I read In Cold Blood when I was fifteen. My English teacher Mr. Atkinson showed our class the movie. I felt this odd kinship with Nancy. What struck me about her was she was having such a normal Saturday–teaching Jolene a cherry pie, hanging out with Bobby, washing her hair–this was a girl that didn’t know she would be murdered that night. This was a girl that didn’t know she would be talked about fifty something years after she died. If life had been fair, maybe she would’ve married Bobby, had children, even a career. But life wasn’t fair, and that was the thing.

I also thought as I read about Nancy’s last day that it could’ve been me.

In Cold Blood was Capote’s last novel. He tried for years to write the book Answered Prayers, which was excerpted in Esquire. He divulged details about the people in his inner circle. Babe Paley never spoke to him again. Another friend, Ann Woodward killed herself. He had several public meltdowns before he died in 1984 of liver disease. Sometimes I wonder what would have happened if he had lived. What would he think of today’s celebrities? Would the Kardashian women be considered “Swans?” Would he have good gossip on Donald Trump?   But we should be grateful for one thing: that November morning when he was reading the paper, he found that story on page thirty-nine.

He didn’t miss it.

He didn’t blink.