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SUNDAY 19  MAY 2024

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Was In Cold Blood a true story? Some would say Capote made much of it up

In Cold Blood is the best True Crime story ever written. Well, if you don’t count the “true” bit.

 

Truman Capote wrote it first for the New Yorker magazine in 1965, then turned it into a book using the techniques of the New Journalism – aping the novelist with elegant descriptive passages, layering the story with Dickensian detail and dialogue and putting himself into the mind of the protagonists.

 

Or just making it up, as some would say.

 

By the time the book appeared, Capote had made 5,000 revisions to the story of the 1969 murder of four of the Clutter family – father Herb, his wife Bonnie and two of their children, Nancy and Kenyon – by two drifters who believed they had cash hidden in their remote farmhouse.

 

Capote was fascinated by the random slaughter. What sort of men could shoot children dead in their beds? To find out, the author of Breakfast at Tiffany’s set out for the prairie town of Holcomb on the wheat plains of western Kansas.

 

His first task was to gain the trust of the locals. At first it was difficult, he told a friend. “Now I’m practically the mayor.”

 

He took meticulous notes, even sketching the floorplan of the farmhouse to show the bedrooms where the murders took place. He spoke to everyone, from the lead detective Alvin Dewey to the two killers, Perry Smith and Dick Hickock. But he did not write down what they said, relying instead on his “near-perfect recall”.

 

And he searched not just for the bare facts, as a news reporter might, but also for the why. Dewey asked Smith in the detective’s car how much he and Hickock had stolen from the Clutters.

 

“Between 40 and 50 dollars,” he said. Capote reported this without comment but the implication was clear: This was the price of four lives.

 

Smith and Hickock were hanged in 1965 as Capote watched in tears. He called his book, published five months later in 1966, the first “non-fiction novel”. The style and power of his writing is dazzling but some close to the case believe he was careless with the truth.

 

He reported remarks allegedly made by one of the killers and by Dewey’s wife at the hanging that other witnesses did not hear. And one murderer was portrayed as a literate psychopath – far from true, said those who knew him.

 

Yet Capote argued that his methods were closer to reality than traditional crime reporting, just as novelists can sometimes cast light on the human condition more truly than a journalist can.

 

Some felt that the homosexual Capote was even more invested in the story than his writing revealed. Rumour had it that he was obsessed with one of the suspects, Perry Smith. “He was really in love with Perry,” a friend said.

 

Writing about Smith in one of his notebooks, Capote said: “Smith most definitely does not look like a clean-cut kid: he couldn’t in anyone’s book.”

 

Smith, he noted, was more obviously outré, eccentric than his partner in crime Hickock, but less chilling. “It is because he is less relentless, more feminine – in fact, very feminine.” This sexual frisson was a theme that ran through the 2005 film Capote, which chronicled his pursuit of the story.

 

Its star, the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, won the Best Actor Oscar for his portrayal of the writer and said afterwards: “The part required me to be a little unbalanced and that was not good for my mental state.

 

“I was also holding my body in a way it doesn’t want to be held and I was speaking in a voice that my vocal cords did not want to do”.

 

And so was myth piled upon legend. Does it matter that it’s not all strictly true, wondered the practitioners of the New Journalism – so long as it’s a good read? Some old diehards thought it did.

 

The writers of this new form took flak from the establishment. Both the Columbia Journalism Review and The New York Review of Books rounded on its godfather, the foppish, white-suited Tom Wolfe, who wrote for New York, the Sunday magazine of the New York Herald Tribune.

 

In an article published in Esquire in 1972, Wolfe wrote that both the conservative publications had presented lists of alleged errors – “as arcane and mystifying as a bill from the body shop” – he had made in a whimsical piece about The New Yorker.

 

They dismissed the New Journalism as a “bastard form” and “parajournalism”. Wolfe maintained that it had merely upset the literary class structure – which had novelists, the writing aristocracy, at the top; followed by men of letters, critics, essayists, perhaps a biographer or two; and then on the bottom rung, journalists, “day labourers who dug up slags of raw information for writers of ‘higher sensibility’ to make better use of”.

 

Then along came these slick magazine and Sunday supplement writers “with no literary credentials whatsoever”, using even the most sophisticated techniques of the novelists. And at the same time, writes Wolfe, “they’re still doing their low-life legwork, their ‘digging’, their hustling.”

 

He meant writers such as John Sack, who persuaded the US Army to let him go through training with an infantry company, then accompany them to Vietnam and into battle. The resulting book, called M, was serialised first in Esquire.

 

Or George Plimpton, a reporter who trained as a professional footballer with the Detroit Lions, then played as their quarterback in a pre-season match – all in the name of journalism.

 

Or the Californian journalist Hunter S Thompson, who joined the Hell’s Angels for 18 months so as to write Hell’s Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gang. They wrote his last chapter for him, says Wolfe, “by stomping him half to death in a roadhouse fifty miles from Santa Rosa”.

 

You might expect this kind of American innovation eventually to cross the Atlantic and be embraced by a grateful Fleet Street. But no need – we were already doing it. In my time, among the best exponents were Geoffrey Levy, under-appreciated on the Daily Express but never on the Daily Mail; Paul Callan, of the Daily Mirror and the Express; the great Ross Benson, another top Expressman who was also lost to the Mail; and the peerless Vincent Mulchrone of the Mail. They were all wonderful “colour writers”.

 

These were men who understood that a story was just that: a narrative, not just a collection of facts. Who cares if they took the odd liberty with a deadline looming? Just call it the New Journalism.

 *****

What kind of a war do you call this? Iran launched 300 drones and missiles against its implacable enemy Israel on Saturday night. A girl was critically injured by shrapnel in the south of the country and an air force base was damaged – but most of the barrage never even made it across the border.

 

The mad mullahs appear to have done a ring-round warning the targets to keep their heads down. “Is that you. Bibi? Listen, you might want to move your people to shelter tonight, we’re sending a few rockets over.”

 

President Joe Biden knew it was happening, diplomats knew, so did the Press. TV stations were reporting the coming attack three hours before it happened and airlines had the time to divert their planes from dangerous airspace.

 

Forewarned and forearmed, the Israel Defence Forces, aided by the RAF and French warplanes, shot down most of the incoming Iranian weapons, many over Syria and Jordan.

 

The bombardment was a phoney war, a futile gesture, a face-saving exercise in reply to the bombing, presumed to have been by Israel, of the Iranian consulate in Baghdad, which killed senior officers in the Republican Guard.

 

Now the world waits on tenterhooks to see if we are plunged into all-out war. And all because a discredited man in Israel is desperately trying to hang on to his job and stay out of jail and a bunch of evil clerics in Iran are clinging to power as their country turns against them.

 *****

 My late mother-in-law would have been 114 last Sunday. When the Second World War broke out, she had three daughters and was pregnant with a fourth – as my wife pointed out in a family message.

 

Then the occupying Germans sent her husband (the family is French) to forced labour in the naval port of Saint Nazaire. “All the work we did in the daytime we undid in the nighttime,” he said later.

 

Meanwhile, Madame Paul had to bring up four children alone and with no mod cons, not even a washing machine.

 

By contrast, her sixth daughter and I have enjoyed the richest, most peaceful and stable period in history. I know we are lucky and I’m thankful for it. But I can’t help wondering: is our luck about to change?

 *****

 When was the last time you went to the theatre? In the West End of London, the ticket prices are shockingly high and the entertainment on offer is aimed mostly at tourists, not Londoners (lots of musicals).

 

Just as off-Broadway has always been more vibrant and exciting than Broadway itself, so London’s smaller theatres are where the action is now.

 

They don’t come much smaller than The Tabard, an intimate theatre above a pub in my part of West London. Showing from Thursday: Duet, a play about the rivalry between American actresses Sarah Bernhardt and Eleonora Druse.

 

Coming soon: The Ultimate Bubble Show, which is a bloke who makes intricate shapes and patterns with… yes, you’re right, bubbles. Like the balloon acts of yesteryear, I expect, but a bit less predictable. One for the grandson, I fancy.



RICHARD DISMORE



16 April 2024