In Cold Blood: Alternative Facts

The Story Capote Didn’t Want Us to Buy

The last post mentioned a new development related to Truman Capote’s 1966 best seller, In Cold Blood.

The four murder victims

A report surfaced a few years ago that at the same time Capote was researching his book, another writer was working on a telling from a different perspective.

Dark horse. Capote’s version of a quadruple slaying that took place in Holcomb, Kansas, in 1959, relied heavily on interviews with one of the two killers: Perry Smith, whom Capote portrayed as a sensitive drifter marred by abuse and hardship.

The other writer, an uncelebrated newspaperman named Mack Nations, was helping to edit an account called High Road to Hell penned by Smith’s partner in crime: Richard Hickock, a tall Kansan whom Capote portrayed as a personable but remorseless conman, killer, and would-be rapist.

Media coverage about the existence of High Road to Hell dates back to 2009. What’s new is that the son of the late Wichita Eagle reporter is spearheading a campaign to draw attention to it.

Michael Nations, who works as a probation officer, has posted a seven-part video series on YouTube to present some facts about his father’s work.

Smeared. The video series, titled Footprints Found Inside ‘In Cold Blood,’ is a simple effort, just the younger Nations talking to a video camera in front of his garage and later in an easy chair inside his house.

“Many negative and demeaning things were written and published about my father years after his death on December 24, 1968,” Michael Nations says on camera. “I believe it only fitting that what I have presented on his behalf as both a reporter and writer will be credited to him.”

I watched all seven parts. While not absorbing, the series hits a few high notes, particularly in outlining Capote’s attempts to undermine the competing manuscript.

A list of the interesting points from the video series will follow, but first a bit about Smith and Hickock’s crime and In Cold Blood for readers unfamiliar with the events:

Safe house. On November 15, 1959, Richard Hickock, 28, and Perry Smith, 31, slipped through an unlocked door into Herb and Bonnie Clutter’s house and cut the phone lines.

The ex-cons thought that the Clutters, who owned River Valley Farm in Holcomb, Kansas, had a safe containing $10,000 in cash in their house.

Back in 1959, that seemed like the score of a lifetime, or at least enough to finance a jobless existence for a few years.

Hickock acquired his belief about a money-filled metal box when he shared a jail cell with Floyd Wells, a onetime employee of River Valley Farm.

Wells had been inside the Clutters’ house and described its layout in detail to Hickock.

Terrified family. Although Wells got the floor plan correct, he was wrong about the safe. It didn’t exist and, in fact, friends of Herb Clutter later recalled his using checks to pay for nearly everything, even a purchase of $1.50, according to In Cold Blood.

Unfortunately, Hickock had no doubts about a safe. He recruited Smith, another prison friend, for a robbery plan.

Hickock, Smith

After sneaking into the Clutters’ house, the two woke up the family members by shining flashlights in their faces.

They tied up the couple and their two youngest children, Nancy and Kenyon. (The Clutters’ adult daughters, Eveanna and Beverly, didn’t live at home.)

Sex criminal. Hickock, who had a history of targeting underaged girls, admitted that he knew from Floyd Wells’ account that Nancy would be a teenager by then.

He allegedly acknowledged that he intended to rape Nancy, 16, but that Smith had stopped him.

After Hickock and Smith found no safe in the location Wells had specified, they searched throughout the five-bedroom three-bathroom house. Herb Clutter assured them there was no safe.

No church that day. They gave up and stole what little cash family members had in the house, less than $50, plus 15-year-old Kenyon’s transistor radio. They executed each of the Clutters with a gunshot to the head at close range.

Smith and Hickock then fled Holcomb, eventually hiding out in Mexico.

Mack Nations

Meanwhile, two of Nancy’s friends entered the house and discovered the bodies; they were planning to go to church with the Clutters and were concerned when no one answered the door.

News of the murders shocked and terrified Holcomb. All the Clutters, but especially Herb and Nancy, were popular in the community.

On the day before she died, Nancy taught a little girl how to make a cherry pie and helped another local girl with a violin solo.

Herb oversaw construction of the First Methodist Church in Garden City, served on the Federal Farm Credit Board, and was the first president of the National Wheat Growers Association.

Chance encounter. Although their murders weren’t huge news on a national level, the Clutters were affluent enough to merit a mention in the New York Times.

If not for Truman Capote’s coming across the item by chance, few people outside of Western Kansas would know about the Clutters or Smith or Hickock today.

Capote, a glamorous, already successful 5-foot-3-inch-tall novelist, called up William Shawn, editor of The New Yorker, and announced he was heading to Kansas to start working on a story about the crime.

Complex character. For Capote, it turned into a six-year odyssey that included forging a close relationship with lead Kansas Bureau of Investigation detective Alvin Dewey and his well-read wife, Marie, followed by an intimate friendship formed with Perry Smith and some acquaintanceship with Hickock.

Michael Nations

The 2004 movie Capote with Philip Seymor Hoffman portrays the writer as a compassionate advocate for Perry Smith on one hand, and on the other, an inveigler impatient for Smith and Hickock’s executions to happen so he could finally slap an ending on In Cold Blood and get it published.

Capote began serializing the story in The New Yorker in 1965, and the book came out in January 1966 to great acclaim. It was translated into 30 languages.

Cut to the video. But back to Michael Nations and his 2017 video series: He asserts that High Road to Hell was suppressed and his father wrongly treated.

Who wanted to thwart Hickock and Nation’s effort? First, there was Capote, of course. He’d invested too much of his time in researching the story to let some enterprising local get in his way.

Also, according to Nations, the Kansas prison and law-enforcement officers who worked with Capote wanted Capote’s story to be the definitive account of their work. Capote portrayed Alvin Dewey as the hard-charging yet humble hero of the investigation and prosecution of the two killers.

Truman Capote circa 1966

A 2017 Wall Street Journal story by Kevin Helliker reports that Dewey let Capote know about the existence of the Hickock script, and it was only then that Capote began visiting death row to interview Smith and Hickock.

Subtle bribery? Michael Nations reads from a letter to Dewey in which Capote calls Nations’ work “preposterous.”

In the same letter, Capote mentions that the Deweys will be welcome to use a Colorado vacation home he plans to buy.

Capote also allegedly refers to Nations as a “bastard reporter” and income tax cheater and suggests that his own work will offer the Deweys immortality.

Also during the video series, Nations holds up an ancient dog-eared paperback copy of In Cold Blood and says that each crease represents a fact contradicted by letters Hickock wrote to Mack Nations in 1961.

Callous criminal. Nations is probably right about at least some mistakes within In Cold Blood. Other researchers throughout the years have written about errors and possible fabrications in Capote’s work.

While Nations contends In Cold Blood contained falsehoods regarding Hickock’s story, he doesn’t dispute Capote’s portrayal of Hickock as amoral and heartless.

Hickock said in his letters to Nations that he considered people dying to be no big deal (“there are plenty of people to take their place”), he felt cheated that he didn’t get to shoot the Clutters (Smith did that himself, with Hickock’s complicity), and he liked the media coverage and felt proud of his unique criminal achievement.

Among Michael Nations’ other statements, assertions, and opinions presented in the video series:

  • Mack Nations sold an article about his work on the case to a magazine called Male in 1961.
  • There still exist 200 letters Hickock wrote to Mack Nations. The Kansas Historical Society in Topeka has them now.
  • Capote never liked Richard Hickock because the ex-con gave interviews to Mack Nations before speaking with Capote.
  • At some point, authorities banned all reporters except for Capote from interviewing the killers.
  • Michael wrote his own, unpublished exposé, In My Father’s Shoes, in which he transcribed Hickock’s letters to Mack Nations. He asserts that Capote stole some of the content from the letters.
  • Floyd Wells told Hickock he saw a safe in the Clutters’ home and witnessed Herb Clutter retrieving cash from it to pay workers. But at the trial, Wells testified only that he “thought” there was a safe.

False revelation. While those contentions sound believable, Michael Nations’ biggest bombshell is hard to swallow: that Hickock and Smith committed the Clutter robbery on a contract basis for a man named Roberts and they either received or expected to receive $1,000 or more from Roberts in return for their efforts.

Hickock may have told this particular tale to Mack Nations, but that doesn’t make it believable.

As the Wall Street Journal article by Kevin Helliker argues:

“The reasons to discount Hickock’s claim go beyond his lack of credibility as a pathological liar. If he and Smith were paid to kill the Clutters, why didn’t they use that information to try negotiating their way off death row? Why were they dirt poor before and after the crime?”

(If you have a WSJ digital subscription, you can view Helliker’s full wsj.com piece, which includes more photos than the version on msn.com.)

Nancy Clutter, left

Widening market. After viewing Michael Nations’ video series, I’m still confused as to whether or not he possesses a copy of his father and Hickock’s High Road to Hell manuscript. He mentions that his dad sent a copy to Kansas investigators at their request but never got it back.

Capote may have very well pressed authorities to suppress Nations’ account.

He probably didn’t need to, though.

The public fascination was and is strong enough that a competing book would likely have only stoked greater interest in the Clutter case — and ultimately led critics to conclude that Capote’s book was the greater literary achievement.

That’s all for this post. Until next week, cheers. RR

9 thoughts on “In Cold Blood: Alternative Facts”

  1. Thanks, RR: I’m encouraged to learn more about this case as I only know Capote wrote about it, not what he wrote nor the case itself. To be sure, Capote wanted to sell books and articles and raise his profile (no harm in that), so we have to bring some skepticism to bear in receiving his claimed facts, over against, say, police and court claims; so counter-argument or another perspective can only help in establishing fact / truth.

  2. Wow, this represents a tremendous amount of research — well done! As if the murders themselves weren’t enough, the story has a fascinating extra layer of conflict (albeit nonviolent). Good stuff.

  3. Thanks much for the new perspective. Not slightly a problem, but I’m thinking the alternative is on par with an Elvis sighting. Truman Capote’s a genius for style and content. Why, I wouldn’t think of challenging his authority. And then, one can’t throw a rock without hitting an opportunist swine. So there was a mystery person who might have burrowed in like a netbook-wielding literary rodent. You can’t burn everyone’s copy of In Cold Blood in the town square because some desperate individual feels entitled to be famous. People are always attacking sensitive geniuses like Truman Capote. It’s because people are brutes.

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