Documents show more problems with ‘In Cold Blood’

The Wall Street Journal | The New York Times
Documents from the Kansas Bureau of Investigation cast doubt on Truman Capote’s account of a quadruple murder in his 1966 bestseller “In Cold Blood,” Kevin Helliker reports in The Wall Street Journal. And Capote’s contract with Columbia Pictures, reports Helliker, required the studio to hire the wife of a KBI detective as a consultant in its filmed version of the book. The detective, Alvin Dewey Jr., is portrayed as a “brilliant, haunted hero” in the book, Helliker writes.

The KBI waited five days to question Perry Smith and Richard “Dick” Hickock, the drifters who were convicted of the crime, the prosecutor in the case told Helliker, because “Dewey was convinced” the killer “was somebody local.”

KBI assisted Capote in reporting the book, which the agency said was accurate. A former KBI agent’s son is trying to sell the documents, which the family of the victims opposes. The contract with Columbia, Helliker writes, was obtained by a “Hollywood memorabilia collector.”

Capote’s book, a tentpole of early literary journalism, has had its accuracy challenged before. Dewey “later said the final scene of the book, in which he visits the graves of the Clutter family and talks with Nancy Clutter’s friend Susan Kidwell, did not happen,” Van Jensen wrote in 2005. An investigation by Sarasota County, Fla., officials into whether the Clutter murders were linked with a similar murder in Florida showed “factual contradictions with the few pages Capote devoted to the killers’ travels in Florida the week before Christmas 1959,” Shannon McFarland wrote in the Sarasota Herald-Tribune last December.

Also recently, Leslie Kaufman wrote about factual problems with former New York Times Executive Editor A. M. Rosenthal’s book “Thirty-Eight Witnesses: The Kitty Genovese Case.” Rosenthal’s famous assertion that 38 people ignored Genovese’s agonies was questioned by the New York Daily News and the Times in subsequent investigations. The head of the publishing house reissuing Rosenthal’s book told Kaufman, “This is a matter of historical record. This is a reprint of reporting done for The New York Times by one the great journalists of the 20th century. We understand there are people taking issue with it, but this is not something we think needs to be corrected.”

Related: Why nonfiction writers should take a ‘Vow of Chastity’

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