Retired Alabama professor Ralph Voss—whose first introduction to the real-life story told in Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood was as a teenager growing up in Kansas—talks about living with the book and why it remains a phenomenon 50 years later.
In 1959, Ralph Voss had just moved from the town he was born in, named Lyons, Kansas, to Plainville, about 150 miles north of Holcomb. It was November and so Voss was settling into the school year, attending the Methodist Church and spending time with his new girlfriend. Over in Holcomb, the Clutter family was about to be brutally murdered in their home, setting in motion a chain of events that would go down in both true crime and literary history.
“I don’t remember exactly how we found out what had happened, but everybody was just shocked and made afraid because the Clutters were such a good family in everybody’s perception,” Voss remembers. “Holcomb is such a small town, and they just seemed like the epitome of good people and something like that had never happened in Kansas before.”
Voss says his parents began locking their doors for the first time ever, and he and his girlfriend stayed in town with their friends rather than going parking out in the country. “How could such a thing happen and who could so such a thing?” he asks.
Writer Truman Capote asked himself the same question when he first read about the murders in The New York Times. The 300 words the newspaper published interested Capote enough to cause him to head to Kansas from New York to investigate. He brought along his childhood friend Harper Lee, and the two writers interviewed local residents and police assigned to the case. Capote would spend six years working on the book that would fail to win the Pulitzer Prize but cause him to be credited for creating a new genre of the “nonfiction novel” and to ultimately become the celebrity he’d always dreamed of.
After the murders, Ralph Voss (pictured) went on to graduate from high school and attend Fort Hayes State University in Kansas, majoring in history and English. He had read Breakfast at Tiffany’s so knew who Capote was when he saw in Newsweek that the writer had been out in Kansas covering the Clutter case. Voss graduated from college in the spring of 1965, about the same time killers Perry Smith and Dick Hickock were executed. He was teaching high school in Lacrosse, Kansas, when In Cold Blood was first published in January of 1966.
“I was turning the pages and it was amazing and it still is,” he says. “You know who did it, you know what happened, so there’s very little mystery at all, but you turn those pages and it’s an incredibly good read. Apparently that was true for a lot of people in Kansas who read the book, but the phenomenon was that it was a good read for everybody.”
By the time the first movie version of In Cold Blood starring Robert Blake came out in 1967, Voss had a master’s degree and was teaching college in Texas. He’d had his students read the book and then went on to get his Phd, finally landing at the University of Alabama. “My personal experience with this thing just kept growing,” he explains. “I was teaching a course about the fine line between fiction and fact and the whole idea of the nonfiction novel, so I taught it again. I had this strong familiarity by then.”
Voss had also kept the Life magazine article that included photos of the Clutter family and the killers. His students were interested in what these people looked like and what it was like for a community to experience such a shock. And Voss had lived it to be able to tell them.
My personal experience with this thing just kept growing.” – Ralph Voss on In Cold Blood
When the second film, “Capote,” starring the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, came out in 2005, Voss went to the theater to watch it with his wife. “I suddenly thought, my god, I’ve been so close to this thing all these years. I should write a book about it,” he says. He pitched University of Alabama Press and went to work on the manuscript, which was released in 2011.
In his book titled Truman Capote and the Legacy of ‘In Cold Blood,’ Voss examines Capote and the book from many different perspectives, not only as the pinnacle of Capote’s career, but also as a story in itself, focusing on the author’s artfully composed text, his extravagant claims for it as reportage and its larger status in American popular culture.
“From the time I was 16 years told ’til now, there’s been this involvement with the In Cold Blood story at many, many different levels,” Voss says. As a result, he does have some strong opinions about Capote’s claim to have invented a new genre and his embellishments in his writing for the sake of telling a good story.
“People have been writing fiction that has a strong basis in fact for a long time,” says Voss. “Capote came up with what I think was mostly an idea for marketing the book. He made these outlandish claims that it was a nonfiction novel, which is of course a contradiction in terms. There’s no such thing as a nonfiction novel, but it was a wonderful advertising phrase and it opened up a whole dimension of discussion about whether such a book could exist.”
Capote also claimed that every single word of In Cold Blood was true. As fellow writers and journalists know, no matter how much you strive for the truth, sometimes you need to tweak things a bit for the sake of storytelling. Voss has heard many disputes about the facts of the case over the years.
“How did Capote know that Herb Clutter had an apple for breakfast on the last day of his life?” Voss asks. “Who told him that? Herb Clutter’s certainly not gonna tell him … In the course of my work, I talked to too many people and found too many discrepancies in his manuscripts and his papers in the New York Public Library and in the Library of Congress. He was doing what a lot of fiction writers have done in the past, taking something that really happened and turning it into a narrative with lots of detail that makes for a really good read and is mostly true.”
Voss characterizes what Capote does with In Cold Blood as a “reading phenomenon.” Though he is now retired, he says his students over the years never failed to be fascinated by the story. “Most of them were very engrossed in the story and in the discussions we had about the story in class, and that’s because Capote was just such a good writer,” he says. “I mean I grew up in Kansas, and that opening description of Holcomb and the high plains and the grain elevators and everything just resonated with me.”
The land is flat, and the views are awesomely extensive; horses, herds of cattle, a white cluster of grain elevators rising as gracefully as Greek temples are visible long before a traveler reaches them.” – Truman Capote, In Cold Blood, page one
Voss also describes Capote as a “cautionary tale” about self-promotion and the obsession with celebrity. “He really had a spectacular career and then he had a spectacular flameout,” he says.
Smith and Hickock spent five years on death row before they were finally executed. Capote had much of In Cold Blood completed before then but had to wait to see the real-life story play out before he could write his ending. The long wait, coupled with watching Smith, who he had become close with, die by hanging, took its toll. Some think In Cold Blood drained all of the talent out of Capote (pictured with actors Robert Blake and Scott Wilson on the movie set) and left him with nothing but a caricature of himself.
“When you think about it, when he was writing In Cold Blood, for the first time in his life, he was not in charge of the plot,” Voss says. “It was such a draining experience and then the celebrity tide washed over him, and he couldn’t get it back. I think he lost a lot of his muse, you might say, after In Cold Blood.”
Despite not winning the Pulitzer, Capote went on to celebrate his own success, hosting a much talked about Black and White Ball at the Plaza Hotel in November of 1966. He finally had the financial resources to throw such a lavish party and invited some of the people he met in Kansas. After that, he desperately tried to stay in the limelight, but unfortunately his best work was behind him.
Capote’s final novel, Answered Prayers, was never completed, and the few chapters from it that have been published probably shouldn’t have been. In the end, it’s In Cold Blood that Capote will be remembered for.
“In Cold Blood keeps popping up in the news and in the culture at large,” says Voss. “It’s a book that’s had a remarkable impact over the years, partly because of Capote’s celebrity. In Cold Blood is the crowning achievement of Capote’s life.”
In Cold Blood Today
Fifty years after publication, In Cold Blood and the incredible story Capote put down on the page remain in the public consciousness and in the news. Most recently, the rescuing of Kansas Bureau of Investigation agent Harold Nye’s papers by his son and a judge’s releasing them for publication has made headlines. Voss describes Nye as a “gumshoe, old-fashioned detective running down detail” and says Capote led Nye to believe that he would be the star of the book, not Alvin Dewey. It’s the hard work of Nye and a completely different theory he was working on that his son, Ronald, hopes to shed light on in a forthcoming book.
Earlier this year, it was also reported that Harper Lee wrote about the In Cold Blood case for a magazine five years before Capote’s book came out. Her biographer Charles J. Shields discovered the article while conducting research after her death. Lee’s 2,000 words in The Grapevine (a publication for FBI professionals) focused on investigator Alvin Dewey’s role in solving the murders. Lee’s article was published without a byline during she and Capote’s own research period for the book.
There’s been speculation for years about how much of a role Harper Lee played in the research for In Cold Blood. We know she accompanied Capote to Kansas and used her genteel Southern manner to help him get access to interview subjects, but otherwise, he famously downplayed her role. Dr. T. Madison Peschock, who has reviewed both Lee’s and Capote’s research notes, says Lee interviewed people herself, drew detailed maps, proofread the original galleys and much more. Peschock is working on a book titled Harper Lee’s Contribution to Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood: A Study of Reciprocal Literary Influences to be published in the next year or two.
And in 2012, the bodies of Smith and Hickock were exhumed in an effort to try and solve the similar murder of a family in Florida. The pair were known to have fled to Florida after killing the Clutters, and DNA evidence had finally advanced to the point of being able to test their bone fragments. The DNA proved not to be a match. Smith and Hickock were reburied at Mount Muncie Cemetery in Lansing, where Capote and In Cold Blood fans frequently visit their gravesites.
This story is part of our celebration of Truman Capote’s life and work in conjunction with his birthday September 30 and the 50th anniversary of the publication of In Cold Blood this year. Click here for more Capote stories and interviews.