When Truman Capote and Harper Lee became partners in crime for 'In Cold Blood'
Harper Lee wasn’t Capote’s first choice to help with his writing. He’d wanted to bring along his friend Andrew Lyndon, another young southern writer, but when Lyndon said he couldn’t do it, Capote turned to Lee instead. He was headed out of town for a story, he explained, to a part of the country he barely knew, and he wanted someone to be his “assistant researchist.” It would involve helping him conduct interviews and gather material, and it would require traveling with him to Kansas.
On November 15, 1959, in the tiny community of Holcomb in the southwestern part of the state, a farmer named Herb Clutter, his wife, Bonnie, their sixteen-year-old daughter, Nancy, and their fifteen-year-old son, Kenyon, were found murdered in their home. The Clutters were a wealthy, well-regarded family, and the news was so shocking that the murders made it all the way into The New York Times, albeit in abbreviated form. Capote had seen that sliver of a story and decided that he wanted to turn it into a bigger one for The New Yorker: not just a description of the crime or a portrait of the victims, but a profile of the entire town.
“He said it would be a tremendously involved job,” Lee later remembered, and by a coincidence of timing she was tremendously available. The Clutters had been murdered five days after she turned in the final manuscript of To Kill a Mockingbird, and she had no idea what she was going to do next. It turned out that handing in a book, like selling a manuscript, still left you a long way from seeing it in bookstores: it was like pregnancy, except that right when you think you’re done, there’s another nine months of waiting. Lee had just begun that long limbo, and she didn’t want to go back to work for the airlines, but she didn’t have many other options. Capote’s “assistant researchist” offer would give her something to do, and helping him with a feature for The New Yorker might make it easier to land her own assignments. “She had been thinking about doing a nonfiction book,” he said, “and wanted to learn my techniques of reportage.”
Capote, self-aggrandizing as ever, seemed to have forgotten that his friend was the daughter of a newspaper editor and already knew a thing or two about journalism. Although her time in Kansas later proved a kind of trial run for her time in Alexander City, it was no apprenticeship to Capote. Instead, it was more like a return to childhood for them both: once again, although more literally than before, they became partners in crime. “It was deep calling to deep,” she’d say later, quoting the psalmist. “The crime intrigued him, and I’m intrigued with crime—and, boy I wanted to go.” They settled on her fee—nine hundred dollars, almost as much as she’d been paid for her novel, plus expenses—and boarded a train together at Grand Central Terminal, its ceiling of stars a tiny sample of the ones they would soon see over the Great Plains.
It was a long way from the Manhattan they left to Manhattan, Kansas. Once they arrived there by overnight train, they were still a four-hundred-mile drive from Garden City, the nearest town of any size, to Holcomb, the village of 270 people where the Clutters had been killed. They had plenty of time on the way for talking, planning, and reminiscing. Lee had long been, as she said, “intrigued with crime,” real and otherwise; she’d grown up surrounded by stacks of the magazine True Detective Mysteries, cut her teeth on Sherlock Holmes, and still loved murder stories. She had also watched all those trials from the balcony of the Monroe County Courthouse, and unlike Capote she had studied criminal law.
Capote, however, was the one who had previous firsthand experience with a murderer. One summer when he was staying in Monroeville, a sixteen-year-old girl had come to visit relatives and took a liking to Capote, much to the annoyance of ten-year-old Nelle. (“I was jealous,” she said later, “of all the time Truman was spending with Martha—the exotic older woman.”) Eventually, the girl convinced Capote to run away with her to a town some miles distant. The caper didn’t last long; Capote got dragged home, and the girl was sent back to her parents. Thirteen years later, Martha Beck committed a series of murders with a man she met through the classified ads, a former inmate and professed voodoo practitioner; together, they became known as “the Lonely Hearts Killers.”
By the time Lee and Capote got to Garden City, the town where they’d be staying, seven miles down the Arkansas River from Holcomb, which didn’t have any hotels, they were ready to play the roles that his partner, Jack, had jokingly assigned them before they left: Perry Mason and his secretary, Della Street. They arrived just a few weeks after the murders, in an area still so mired in fear that the locals left their lights on all night long. “At first it was like being on another planet,” Lee wrote, “a vast terrain indifferent to the creatures that walked upon it, an untrusting populace suspicious of anyone alien to it.”
They checked into adjacent rooms at the Warren Hotel. Anticipating the limitations of anywhere that wasn’t New York, Capote had packed a whole footlocker full of food. From the get-go, he was wary of Kansas, and Kansas returned the favor: most of the people of Garden City had no idea what to make of the orchid that had suddenly invaded their wheat fields. At first, no one would talk to him. His voice was odd, his clothes were off-putting, and for all the people of Finney County knew, he was connected to the murderers. Capote, indifferent but not oblivious to the impression he made, had been warned by a friend that the people of Holcomb might not appreciate a “little gnome in his checkered vest running around asking questions about who’d murdered whom.”
Still, Capote hadn’t anticipated the level of resistance he encountered. He’d expected to interview everyone in a few days and hadn’t brought enough food for more than that. He and Lee had planned to set out each morning to report, then convene each night at the hotel to prepare their notes: she planned to type hers out while he wrote his longhand, and then they would review and revise them together, just as they had when writing stories together on South Alabama Avenue. Capote liked to say that he was a human tape recorder (although disproving his own point, he variously claimed to have 95, 97, and 99 percent recall), but Lee was close to being a human video camera: she had an excellent ear for dialogue, but also an eye for scenes and settings. Lee took care to note what someone was wearing or how he held his hands or what was on the television in the background, and it was Lee who drew diagrams, made lists, tracked itineraries, and constructed chronologies from multiple sources.
They arrived in town on Tuesday, December 15, and began making the rounds the very next day. They went first to the Finney County Courthouse, where they tried to interview Agent Alvin Dewey of the Kansas Bureau of Investigation, who was having none of it. Other reporters had already been on the story for three weeks by then, and many of them were locals. To Dewey and nearly everyone else in Garden City, The New Yorker sounded like some kind of regional publication, and the man claiming to work for it seemed just as likely to be a writer for The New Martian. Dewey told Capote to come back for the regular press conference and to bring his credentials with him when he did.
This created something of a crisis. However good his “techniques of reportage” might have been, Capote had shown up in Kansas without any proof that he was a journalist, and law enforcement officers weren’t inclined to take him at his word. The case they were working was sensitive, and they wanted to protect both the integrity of the investigation and the privacy of the two surviving Clutter daughters, who were in their early twenties and already living away from home when the rest of the family was murdered. Capote made some calls and got someone at Random House—almost certainly the editor in chief, Bennett Cerf—to try to intercede on his behalf with the Federal Bureau of Investigation. A call to the bureau was duly placed, but unfortunately for Capote the FBI checked its files, consulted Who’s Who in America, and decided he wasn’t sufficiently “legitimate” for them to intervene with the local field office.
Capote didn’t have any better luck pleading his case directly with Dewey, so he and Lee did what they could without access, gathering clippings from local newspapers, collecting tourist brochures from around town, and eavesdropping on locals in cafés and at the post office. Lee set about learning what she could about the setting of Capote’s story, from its agricultural history to its social and religious traditions to its most famous quack—one John Romulus Brinkley, who performed surgical goat-gland transplants on men as a kind of early-twentieth-century Viagra and whose wife had blasted Bertrand Russell for promoting free love while she and her husband were trying to sell it.
TO THE APPREHENSIVE LOCALS, LEE WAS EVERYTHING CAPOTE WAS NOT: WARM, EMPATHETIC, AND FAMILIAR ENOUGH THAT THEY FELT THEIR STORIES WERE SAFE WITH HER.
But background was one thing; the tragedy itself was another. When Lee and Capote tried approaching a few promising sources, including neighbors of the Clutters and relatives of the two teenage girls who had discovered the bodies, they were rebuffed or ignored. Under the best of circumstances, the shibboleths of a tiny town like Holcomb are hard to master, and during a time of such immense fear and grief residents were going out of their way to shield themselves from outsiders. But to the apprehensive locals, Lee was everything Capote was not: warm, empathetic, and familiar enough that they felt their stories were safe with her. “Absolutely fantastic lady. I really liked her very much,” Harold Nye, one of the KBI agents who worked on the Clutter case, said of Lee, but of Capote he confessed, “I did not get a very good impression of that little son of a bitch.”
That impression was surely affected by the fact that when Nye and three other agents arrived at the Warren Hotel to introduce themselves, Capote was wearing a pink negligee. But neither the lingerie nor the lesbian bar in Kansas City where the author later took Nye and his wife could dull the shine the couple took to Lee. Crucially, Agent Dewey, the lead investigator on the case, came to feel the same way. “If Capote came on as something of a shocker, she was there to absorb the shock,” Dewey said. “She had a down-home style, a friendly smile, and a knack for saying the right things.” Dolores Hope, a local newspaper writer and the wife of Clifford Hope, the Clutter family’s lawyer, explained, “Nelle sort of managed Truman, acting as his guardian or mother. She broke the ice for him.”
Charmed by the sensible southern lady and curious about her unusual friend, the town that had resisted sharing its shock and grief with strangers now began welcoming the two out-of-towners into its living rooms. And other rooms, too: Lee and Capote were soon permitted to tour the Clutter family home, even though it was still an active crime scene. They followed the stairs up to the children’s bedrooms, where mother and daughter had been found, and back down to the basement to where father and son had been killed. All of the blood had been washed away by four of Herb Clutter’s friends who had come the day after the murders with mops, scrub brushes, rags, and pails, but there were still the shadows of stains where the bodies had been, and the house felt like a crypt.
Capote and Lee drove the fifteen minutes back to town and retired to the Warren Hotel to work. He made three pages of notes that evening; she made nine, including details on every one of the Clutter house’s fourteen rooms. Lee recorded the height of the kitchen cabinets and the titles of the books, the color of the walls and the patterns of the linoleum, the gauges of the shotguns in the closet, the autographs on framed pictures, the presence of a Ping-Pong table but the absence of Ping-Pong balls. She drew floor plans of the first story, the second story, and the basement, along with maps of the property and the landscaping.
IN MANY WAYS, THE CLUTTERS WERE LIKE THE LEES, AND SHE COULD INTUIT THINGS ABOUT THEM THAT CAPOTE COULD NOT.
Inevitably, Lee began drawing conclusions about the family that had lived there, too. In many ways, the Clutters were like the Lees, and she could intuit things about them that Capote could not. She had lived the liturgical cycles of their years in the Methodist Church, and like the Clutter children she had made record books for her 4-H Club. More strikingly, she had grown up in a family not unlike theirs: a self-made father whose sterling reputation crossed county lines, a troubled mother whose mental health alternately made her seek treatment in faraway cities and kept her mysteriously homebound, and children of disparate ages—two of them old enough to be out of the home, the third an anxious striver whose diary showed her struggling to please her father and appease her mother, and the fourth a loner who kept books by his bed.
For Capote, they were a story; for Lee, they were a family. She was already building a psychological portrait of the victims, and her ability to think of them as people brought her closer with those in town who had known them. During the third week of December, the Hopes called the Warren Hotel to invite Lee and her friend to Christmas dinner, worried that they would have nowhere else to go. For their part, the writers had been worried that they wouldn’t be able to get anything done that week, but if the courts and everything else were closed for the holiday, the people were finally open.
After the Hopes welcomed the odd couple from Alabama, everybody else in town wanted to meet them, too, including the Deweys. Capote and Lee had nicknamed Agent Dewey “Foxy” because of how closely he guarded information about the investigation (and possibly also because he was attractive, a characteristic Nelle recorded, complete with schoolgirlish hearts, in a letter to her agents). But his wife, Marie, a native of New Orleans, was prepared to extend her southern hospitality even to big-city journalists and invited the writers to dinner. While they were getting to know the family, including the Deweys’ two young sons and a giant tiger-striped cat called Courthouse Pete, Mrs. Dewey plied them with avocado salad, country-fried steak, shrimp, sauterne, and a Cajun dish with rice and navy beans and bacon. As it turned out, though, none of that was the main dish. While Capote and Lee were over that night, a telephone call came for Agent Dewey: the men who murdered the Clutters had been arrested in Las Vegas, a thousand miles away.