It’s hard to humanize a murderer. But it is precisely that which makes Truman Capote’s non-fictional novel so profound, that way it is written with such vivid imagery and sympathy towards the two Holcomb killers. In 1965, Truman Capote published what was acclaimed to be the first true-crime, non-fiction novel, under the title “In Cold Blood”. In the novel he writes about the struggles, the emotional lives, circumstances, and affect the killers had on the town after the night of the shooting. The Kanas Holcomb murderers are Perry Smith and Richard Hickock. The lives of Smith and Hickock are remembered in history as the murderers who shot and killed a well-loved family in Holcomb, the Clutters. But while reading “In Cold Blood”, a reader cannot help but the develop a horrible sense of pity for one specific character, Perry Smith. Truman had effectively humanized Perry Smith, an individual who is viewed as a monster, who had the audacity to violently take the Clutter family’s lives, but also had the child-like sensitivity to put pillows under his victims before he shot them to make them comfortable. The novel is tainted with the possibility that Capote manipulated Perry Smith into revealing the details and motive behind his cruel act of murder, thus why the novel is so wonderfully detailed and intimate. Capote’s life completely deteriorated after the publication of “In Cold Blood”, and the hanging of Perry Smith as a convicted murderer. There are some allegations that the slow and painful downfall of Truman Capote’s health after having written “In Cold Blood” can be attributed to his hedonistic tendency and his drug consumption in his later life, but this is a claim written by critics who may have had a very shallow and one-dimensional view of Capote. It is difficult to think that Capote could have gotten to know Smith so intimately, earned so much trust, but still walk away from his writing project unaffected. In his later life, no amount of outward success could mask that Capote was an individual who was hurting and trying to cope with the trauma and intense emotional loss of Smith. Capote’s bond with Perry Smith may have influenced the way “In Cold Blood” was written, but the relationship between Perry Smith and Truman Capote was sincere, not just Capote taking advantage of Perry Smith for literary gains.
Truman Capote’s life changed forever the day he met Perry Smith. Capote had come to Holcomb Kansas with his childhood friend, Harper Lee with the initial intention of writing apiece on the impact of the Clutter murder on the small town. The narrative and experience of the Holcomb folks are imbued in the Capote’s novel. But as Capote was in Holcomb, a break-through in the murder case occurred. The killers of Holcomb have been caught and had confessed to the crime. With this event, Capote saw an opportunity to write a crime-genre novel. He had access to Smith and Hickock as they were awaiting death penalty. Capote used his influence and connections to assist the two convicted men in finding legal help, to prolong their death sentence to approximately five years. That bought Capote time to earn the trust of the killers and convinced them to providing him with personal information to write his novel. Capote’s novel was a success; the novel had immortalized Capote in the literary community, and gave him the fame and societal approval he aimed for. However Capote got too close to one of the murderers, Perry Smith.
Perry Smith is portrayed as someone who is a victim of his circumstances, as a tragic character. Smith shared a number of similarities with Capote. In Vanity Fair, Sam Kashner stated that it was like Capote had “looked into the dark eyes of his dark twin” (Kashner). Perry Smith had a childlike understanding of reality. He was highly sensitive, feminine, and possessed an incredible intuition. Capote looked to Perry Smith as the man he could have been, not as the person who could kill an entire family without feeling remorse. In the novel, Smith was portrayed as an individual who is easily influenced by the paternal figures in his life. One example is his Irish father Tex Smith, who was indifferent to his artistic and intellectual talents, which Perry felt resentment towards. According to Capote, Smith revealed
Please, Bobo. Please listen. You think I like myself? Oh the man I could have been! But that bastard never game a chance. He wouldn’t let me go to school. O.K O.K. I was a bad kid. But the time came I begged to go to school. I happen to have a brilliant mind in case you don’t know. A brilliant mind and talent plus. But no education, because he didn’t want me to learn anything, only how to tote and carry for him. (Capote 185)
How could Truman Capote have written such a line in the book, with so much pain, if he did not feel a sting of empathy towards Perry, as if he knew what it was like to have guardian figures indifferent to his talents? What drew Truman to Perry was a spiritual understanding. They were like brothers, and they were like lovers, who were abandoned by their mother and had grown up feeling different and lacking social acceptance. As written by James Wolcott, another writer at Vanity Fair, “Their childhoods woes made them tough and opportunistic at the guarded core” (Wolcott). Given that Perry Smith was not all that trusting towards other people (in the book, he too was very guarded), it is likely that he sensed Truman’s true intention for helping him legally was not entirely for pure intentions. Nevertheless, it did not stop Perry Smith from trusting Truman with his narrative of his homicide.
The relationship between Truman Capote and Perry Smith was sincere, and not artificially created just to increase Truman Capote’s book sales. This is evident by the destruction that came after his relationship with Perry Smith. However, according the author Ellsworth Lapham Fersch “Thinking about Psychopaths and Psychopathy”, it is stated that Truman Capote had used Perry Smith to achieve his own literary goals: “Capote kept this idea alive by initially finding Smith new lawyers to appeal his case and to prolong execution. Unbeknown to Smith, Capote was admittedly doing this in order to spend more time with Smith and to tend research for his novel. Capote told Smith that he cared about him and that he wanted him to live, but was not afraid to tell others that he simply needed more time to uncover material for the novel” (Fersch). It is said that Truman Capote nursed Perry back to life, and had provided Smith and Hickock with legal aid, thus gained enough of their trust to write “In Cold Blood” (Capote). While that is a believable version of Capote (he had a reputation for exposing the private lives and secrets of his high society friends), that passage does not seem to give a perfect explanation as to what happened to Capote after the execution of Perry Smith on April 14, 1965.
“He wasn’t prepared for the effect of watching Smith’s execution by hanging. The man swung for more than 10 minutes before he was pronounced dead. After leaving the prison, Truman had to pull his car over to the side of the road, where he wept for two hours (Kushner). It affected him enough that he had a very deep emotional reaction that affected his writing and personality for the rest of his life. After the death of Perry Smith, Truman’s life took a downturn spiral. He started to isolate his high society friends by publishing the dirt on them in his Esquire article “La Cote Basque”, and appeared to show a newly developed distain for wealth and opulence. His partner, Jack Dunphy, had left Capote, despite having been together for approximately 35 years. He lost his beloved friend, Barbara ‘Babe’ Paley, and it is rumored that he had express sincere regret of never making things right with Paley after she passed away. His relationship with his childhood friend Harper Lee had become estranged. “He really wanted to kill himself. It was a slow and painful suicide (Kashner)”. Truman Capote will later go on a talk show and in a drug-haze and state “The obvious answer is that eventually I’ll kill myself” (Kashner). The death of Perry smith had completely changed the trajectory of Capote’s life, and that suggests a sincere relationship between the two was of some importance if it could cause capote to decline the way he did.
“There was a psychological connection between the two of them,” Clarke believes. ‘Perry’s death took it out of him.’ But Truman knew that the value of In Cold Bood required the execution to take place. He couldn’t finish his book otherwise. He wrote that he wanted them to die-that started the decline” (Kashner). As reader, we will never know the full extent to what sort of impact Perry Smith had made on Truman Capote. To claim so would be arrogant and assumptions, of a relationship so complex that it caused the slow ruin of a once rising writer. Smith did trust Truman, and Truman was impacted by the death of Perry Smith. It was within his power and scope of influence to save Perry Smith, but save Smith Truman did not. Perhaps his destructive actions after the death of Smith had revealed how intimate the two men were, and how great the lost was to Capote. It makes a reader wonder whether it would have been better for Capote, if he had never met Smith.
Capote. Truman. In Cold Blood. New York: Vintage International, 1993. Kindle file.
Fersch, Ellsworth. L. Thinking about Psychopaths and Psychopathy: Answers to
Frequently Asked Questions with Case Examples. New York: iUniverse, 2006. Print.
Kashner, Sam. “Capote’s Swan Dive.” Vanity Fair, Dec. 2012. Web. 11 May. 2016. <http://www.vanityfair.com/culture/2012/12/truman-capote-answered-prayers>.
Wolcott, James. “Tru Grit.” Vanity Fair, Oct 2005. Web. 11 May. 2016.