Recently, the Kansas City Star published a short essay by Diana Selsor Edwards, first cousin and niece of the Clutter family who were killed, along with their parents, in the 1959 Holcomb, Kansas murders that became the basis for Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. Ms. Edwards, now a mental health counselor, doesn’t just honor her long-dead family members by giving us the obligatory “they were good people, they were loved” obituary: Her essay is a slyly brilliant piece of literature. Edwards takes Capote head-on not by calling him a liar and a fraud (as many have already done), but by responding directly to themes of In Cold Blood, in the style of nonfiction writing he claimed to have invented. In other words, Herb Clutters’ niece out-Capotes Capote.
In Cold Blood describes the story surrounding the Clutter murders, framing it as a Garden of Eden parable wrapped in Southern gothic imagery, structured like a detective story (Dick Hickock’s head is “halved like an apple, then put together a fraction off center”). The Clutters’ fall from grace is the result of class warfare; as the Soviet critic Grigor Pavlov argued, In Cold Blood connects the violent undertones of modern America to the myth of the American dream. The Clutters, then, are “the symbol of a class manipulating and perverting other human lives.”
To shoehorn the Clutters into his allegory, Capote had to caricature them. To flesh them out fully would make them sympathetic, which would cut against his American myth thesis (It probably doesn’t help the Clutters’ character development that Capote couldn’t interview the murder victims as extensively as the perpetrators). In Capote’s world, romantics are the only people who respond rationally to the injustice of bourgeois society—the dreamers and sinners are real; the pious live a fiction. Ultimately, as Pavlov argues, Capote asserts “the moral superiority of innocent, sensitive, and quixotic person over the practical, money-minded business figure in American life.”
This is why Herb Clutter, nestled comfortably in his western Kansas Eden, was killed by the poetry-loving, perpetually-abused Perry Smith. To update Capote’s thesis, Herb Clutter and Perry Smith represent, literally, What’s the Matter With Kansas—Midwestern conservative populism cutting against the economic interests of the working class, cultivating hate and intolerance in the service of “values.”
But there’s a huge disconnect between this idea in the abstract and Capote’s portrayal of the Clutters. Giving Capote the benefit of the doubt (Bonnie Clutter’s portrayal is often cited as the most “wrong,” but even her brothers admit that she was dealing with depression), did the Clutters really deserve murder? Herb Clutter might have worked to stifle the sexual urges of his teenage children, but did he deserve to have his throat slit over it? I certainly don’t share the politics that the Clutters most likely shared with the vast majority of western Kansans, but the punishment certainly doesn’t fit the crime.
Enter Cousin Diana.
Edwards’ dramatic structure is brilliantly conceived; she mimics Capote’s method in In Cold Blood. She introduces the main characters, cutting between scenes in Kansas and her own home, leading to a dramatic reveal in the Clutter house, followed by a secondary climax in the denouement. Edwards opens with a hand written invitation to the 1959 Clutter Family Reunion, the sort of social artifact that Capote loved to mine for meaning. She then sets stage by quoting the Time magazine account of her cousins’ murders, much as Capote was famously struck by the 335 word UPI story describing “a wealthy wheat farmer, his wife and their two young children were found shot to death today in their home. They had been killed by shotgun blasts at close range after being bound and gagged … There were no signs of a struggle, and nothing had been stolen. The telephone lines had been cut.” Capote’s method in writing the “nonfiction novel,” as he called it, was to spin allegory out of fact, rather than arrange a fictional plot to fit an allegory. Edwards’ method is similar: She spins a different allegory from the story of the Clutters—a punch that, if he were still alive, would land right on Truman Capote’s self-induced alcoholic depression.
Edwards describes the Clutters by contrasting them with her own parents. Her mother Elaine “played piano by ear” and “fantasized that someday she would play professionally.” But then Elaine met Edwards’ father—who goes nameless, as if he’s the archetype, not “Uncle Herbert.” Elaine was “burdened with three children” by age 20, which the father supported by painting mountain scenes to supplement his milkman job. He was, in short, “a dreamer and unrealized artist”—exactly like Perry Smith.
In contrast, Uncle Herbert “earned a college education” and become an “agricultural expert.” As a father, rather than repress his daughter and niece, he refused to allow the sixteen year olds to drive two hours away from home because he “knew the risks better than we did…and wanted us to be safe.” Edwards doesn’t ignore the sexual tension that lurks beneath the veneer of heartland values, developing a crush on her cousin Kenyon that could have come out of Other Voices, Other Rooms. Kenyon, a tall, attractive boy who liked “working with his hands,” would tease his cousin, then chase her around the ping pong table. Granted, Edwards doesn’t lament the “freedom I had that Nancy did not,” but she clearly envies the stability, wrought by their heartland values, that her family lacked.
Edwards’ father moved the family to Florida because he liked deep sea fishing and flew his airplane to Mexico for fishing trips. From this set of facts, Edwards spins her allegory: Her unstable family lived in what sounds like a tropical paradise (pick your oranges off a tree in your own pasture surrounded by Spanish moss, walks on the beach near Cypress Gardens, watch “water-ski ballet”). The murder of the Clutters kicks her out of the Garden; she realizes on the long stay in Kansas for the funeral and the wedding (rescheduled from Christmas to bring some light to a dark moment) that the bohemian life is the myth. Her dreamer mom took pills and suffered electroshock therapy; her “exotic” father fades from the story, impotent to the needs of his shattered daughter.
Edwards recounts the days surrounding the funeral by lamenting how “Herbert’s family was rooted in community; we were not.” At the service, the surviving daughters, Beverly and Eveanna, were supported by men “who wanted to protect them,” with “vigilant” policeman and KBI investigators amongst them. The daughters traded stories and were able to laugh because of the normality of their company; “practical” aunts took care of the house and transitioned from funeral to wedding because that’s simply what you do—rituals hold life together.
Edwards brings her story back to Florida, leaving the reality—and most importantly, the security—of Kansas behind. Edwards dramatizes her disillusion by describing a scene in which, a week after the funeral, she dons an “ice-blue taffeta formal gown” and rides on the back of a convertible down Lemon Street as a member of the homecoming court—another Capotian detail. Unlike Kansas, where the closeness of the community helped bring her cousins laughter and a wedding in their darkest hour, Edwards waves to the crowd, “as though I were still a real person,” as a showpiece in an empty spectacle—to her, this is precisely what Truman Capote made of the Clutter family.
To be clear, Edwards yearned for the comfort of Holcomb, but she doesn’t seem like a staunch conservative typical of western Kansas; the minister’s comparison off the Clutters’ murder to Jesus’ crucifixion “made no impression on me.” She makes no particular argument that families like Herb’s supported the welfare and prison ways of Perry Smiths. Herbert simply worked hard, supported his family, provided stability, and gave them a secure environment to live. When Edwards takes us through her aunts’ search through Nancy’s dresser drawers, blood still on the bed, she’s queasy, but finds that the rumored wealth the murderers were after simply wasn’t there. “Her wealth was in family and community”—not the Bible, not the nice home, not even the two dollars in the church envelop beside her bed. Capote, both in the book and in his own life, never valued stability.
Not coincidentally, the hole that the Clutters filled in Edwards’ life was left unfilled in Capote’s. Both Gerald Clarke’s comprehensive biography, and George Plimpton’s documentation of Capote’s dramatic fall from the top rank of literary fame, reveal that Capote self-dramatized his alienation and identified with disenfranchised loners. He lacked the grounding to handle his fame, leading to his decades-long decline into alcoholism, drug abuse, and disconcerting public embarrassments, like his appearances on “The Dick Cavett Show.” Capote’s aversion to stability is the key to Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s performance in Capote, where Truman was only able to access key players in Holcomb by identify with their insecurities and outsider-ness to seduce them into giving information. His inability to handle the book that’s “so good I can hardly breathe” contrasts with his childhood friend Harper Lee, who wrote a masterpiece debut, realized she couldn’t top it, and then lived a quiet, dignified life in Monroeville, Alabama. Capote’s best work came out he and Lee’s trips to Holcomb, and one wonders what great literature the inspiration for Dill might have written if he’d have simply balanced his planning for the Black and White Ball with some quiet time back home. This is exactly the point on which Edwards honors her Uncle Herbert.
In short, Andy Warhol’s crew at Studio 54 proved less enduring than the 4-H Club in Holcomb. Still, In Cold Blood will live on past the memories of the Clutter family, though the hate for Capote in Kansas is still strong. A friend of mine, while researching a paper on the death penalty in Kansas, called the Finney County Historical Society. A nice, older women who described herself as a lifetime Holcomb resident took his call. He explained his project, to which she quickly replied that no one wanted anything to do with that “smug bastard” Capote and wouldn’t waste the paper on him. This is the effect he had on people: Whether hero or villain, Capote’s legend endures. In life, Capote cultivated personal and literary rivalries as a way of building his persona, and his wit almost always carried the day. His most intense rival, Gore Vidal, said that Capote’s death was “a brilliant career move,” but perhaps Edwards’ brilliant essay is a worse insult. The smug bastard would probably be rather amused.