In 1959, Truman Capote and Harper Lee went to Garden City, Kansas to write a profile of a small town traumatized by the unsolved murders of four members of the Clutter family— the parents and two of their children. Capote was on assignment for the New Yorker and Lee accompanied him as his friend and assistant.
Once, however Capote realized he was on to something that could become book-length literary nonfiction, and not just a piece for the New Yorker, he was shaken when he discovered that someone else was dogging his trail. A Kansas journalist and freelancer named Mack Nations was working with killer Richard Hickock, who was a braggart and a narcissist. Capote had developed a homoerotic interest in the other murder suspect, Perry Smith, as Ned Stuckey-French recently examined in the Los Angeles Review of Books. But Hickok he could barely stand.
As it turned out, Capote had pull with the warden and access to Smith and Hickock whenever he wanted. When Nations discovered that Hickock was also speaking to Capote, he was incensed, complaining to the warden on January 23, 1962, just a few days before Capote conducted one of his interviews:
Richard Eugene Hickock granted to Mack Nations exclusive rights to any and all of [his life story] forever. In the event that Richard Eugene Hickock violates that contract, verbally or otherwise, with or by giving interviews concerning his life to Truman Capote or any other person, then Richard Eugene Hickock automatically forfeits forever the one-half interest the contract calls for him to receive of any and all moneys from the sale of the story by Mack Nations.
Nations, who asked the warden to pass this information along to Hickock, also threatened to sue Hickock— not much of a threat to a man on death row. The most Nations got from interviewing him was an article for the December 1961 issue of Male Magazine, “From the Death House a Condemned Killer Tells How He Committed American’s Worst Crime in 20 Years.”
The letter below was not available when I published Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee in 2006. Mack Nations’ son Mike, who donated it to the Kansas State Historical Society told me about its existence, and I located the original. Even in his correspondence, Hickock sounded, as Lee wrote in the notes she took for Capote, like “someone who didn’t have a care in the world.” Notice the cigarette burns at the bottom of both pages.
Dear Mr. Nations:
I received your letter in regard to a contract change. I believed I informed you before that I would be perfectly willing to agreed [sic] to an arrangement on a fifty-fifty basis. I realize that expenses will be considerable in the event of your traveling to New York City. I agree that the most expediently [sic] method of selling the book, would be a personal appearance before the publisher, and a oral [sic] sales talk is by far superior to one by mail. Time is a very important factor as far as my benefit is concerned, and I also am aware that this this could possibly be a hindrance to our obtaining the maximum sales price for the material….