Tag Archives: Truman Capote

Richard Hickock, One of the Pair of Killers in In Cold Blood, Cut a Deal for a Book Before Capote Got to Him

Truman Capote talking to Hickock’s partner, Perry Smith for what would become In Cold Blood.

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.

Hickock was particularly proud of his tattoos.

Hickock was particularly proud of his tattoos.

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….

S.M.Nations Files 037S.M.Nations Files 038

Truman Capote and Harper Lee: Best Friends

Truman Capote and Nelle Harper Lee grew up next door to each other in Monroeville, Alabama with only a stone wall separating their yards. At the time, Truman’s last name was Persons, and his parents had left him at his aunts’ home while they partied and moved around. Later, his mother remarried a Cuban businessman with the surname, Capote.

Truman was a lonely little boy. He and Nelle were the only kids of their type in town: very bright and tremendous readers. As a result they became fast friends. Also, as a neighbor said, “Truman was too soft for the boys, and Nelle was too tough for the girls.”

In Nelle’s tree house they wrote stories together, mainly about the people they spied on. In To Kill a Mockingbird, Nelle based the character of Dill on Truman. (Remember, Dill said his parents didn’t want him.) Truman based the character of Isobel on Nelle in his novel, Other Voices, Other Rooms.

When Truman went to Kansas to investigate the murders of a farm family for what became one of the best pieces of crime nonfiction of the 20th century, In Cold Blood, he asked Nelle to accompany him. Like they children they had been, they went on a big adventure together that involved snooping and writing.

Go Set a Literary Detective: Finding “Watchman” in Broad Daylight, Years Ago

Miss Lee would not cooperate. That was the word I received from agent and her publisher when I started the research for Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee. She did not want a biography written and, as I discovered almost immediately, she was busy calling friends and asking them not to talk to me or share photographs.

But practically no one can live in America and not leave a paper trail: there are yearbooks, newspaper articles, phone books and, in Miss Lee’s case, she was best friends with Truman Capote— the lonely little man from New Orleans atop his own literary wedding cake in 1950s New York City, when Harper Lee was writing Go Set a Watchman.

Miss Lee recently responded to a reporters' two-page request with "Go away!"

Miss Lee recently responded to a reporter’s  two-page request with “Go away!”

Capote loved attention. So if I could catch Miss Lee in his vicinity from time to time, that would help. His papers were in the New York Public library. And Miss Lee’s agent, Annie Laurie Williams— an effusive lady from Denison, Texas, married to a tough guy journalist named Maurice Crain— had left her papers to Columbia University. I was hoping there might be clues there, as well—drafts of novels, contracts, and so on.

For the rest, for background and reinforcing hunches, I would just have to expend a lot of shoe leather interviewing people and getting the facts from them— those who would talk about her, anyway.

But why, if she didn’t want a biography written, was I pursuing her as a subject?

I get asked that a lot. It’s because I wanted to get the story of her life before it was too late. Harper Lee didn’t leave her papers anywhere. The University of Alabama, her alma mater, asked for them, but she refused. And she never served on any noteworthy foundations, or boards, or help run organizations for writers like PEN. So if readers and literary historians were going to find out how To Kill a Mockingbird came to be written and published, and who was the author behind it, I was going to have to start knocking on doors.


I’d quit my job in 2004 at an educational publishing company to research and write Miss Lee’s biography. I did as much outlining and phone calling about her early life as I could from home. But finally I needed to get to New York. My wife and I rented a room on Riverside Drive in Manhattan. It was this time of year, July, and hot. We shared a rather nasty double bed in a room that smelled of cigar smoke. And in the window overlooking the street was an air conditioner that dripped, and sounded like a jet engine idling.

We fell into a routine of stopping at Zabar’s every morning for coffee and a bagel. We made a lunch of deli items from the coolers, and caught a bus to the New York Public Library. Capote’s papers, deposited there by his partner Jack Dunphy were orderly and easy to comb through. But there was no correspondence from Miss Lee.

images-1On the second day, though, I hit on folders containing hundreds of pages of notes. From the voice and details, it was clear that Lee was sitting a typewriter in a hotel room. She and Truman were in Holcomb, Kansas, investigating the murder of the Clutter family. “He said it would a tremendously involved job and would take two people. The crime intrigued him, and I’m intrigued with crime— and, boy, I wanted to go. It was deep calling to deep.” There were hand-drawn maps, quick impressions, and a little marginalia. This was the raw material for In Cold Blood.

The notes were from 1959 until 1965, when In Cold Blood began appearing in installments in the New Yorker. But the focus always was on Capote and his work. Still, by putting the notes in chronological order, and studying maps and photos, I could recreate Nelle and Truman, childhood friends, moving about Holcomb and Garden City, “out there” as Truman famously said on the first page of the book. Lee had read the final manuscript, too— I knew because I recognized her immaculate handwriting here and there: “People sound too much alike. Vary the dialogue.”

But for the creation of To Kill a Mockingbird, I was hoping the answers could be found in the papers of Annie Laurie Williams at Columbia University.


They were there, all right. Williams was a record-keeper. Beginning in the mid-1950s, Nelle Harper Lee, who lived at 1539 York began submitting stories, such as “Snow on the Mountains.” Then she began turning in batches of a manuscript titled “Go Set a Watchman.” Some friends— a married couple she didn’t name— had loaned her money for a year to write uninterrupted in her cold-water flat. She later mentioned this after the success of To Kill a Mockingbird. But who were they?

Michael Brown who, with his wife Joy, loaned Harper Lee money so that she could work for a year on "Go Set a Watchman" uninterrupted.

Michael Brown, who with his wife Joy, loaned Harper Lee money so that she could work for a year on “Go Set a Watchman” uninterrupted.

Williams had a client named “Michael Brown,” a Broadway lyricist. There was a photo of Lee in Williams’ papers and on the back it said, “in Michael Brown’s apartment.” Incredibly, Michael Brown was still at the same address in the phone book. I called, and that mystery, at least, was cleared up.

But before Go Set a Watchman reached the desk of Lee’s eventual editor, Tay Hohoff, at Lippincott, her manuscript underwent a first pass under the eye of Maurice Crain, Williams’ husband and partner at the agency. In a letter to another client, he wrote, “Most good books, though, are ones that have been a long time maturing, with a lot of cutting and fitting and replanning done along the way. Mockingbird, for instance, was about the most replanned and rewritten book I ever had a hand in….”

This happened during a period of six months of silence after Lee turned in Go Set a Watchman. Then the revised manuscript went on to Lippincott where Hohoff— a no-nonsense, Quaker-educated, chain-smoking editor took Lee in hand and guided her through two-and-a-half years of revisions.

Lee liked to tell a story to high school English classes in her hometown of Monroeville, Alabama about the moment she lost hope.

One night, in 1959, after working for hours on a revision, she walked over to her apartment window on York Avenue, and threw the entire draft outside into the snow. Then she called Hohoff, and tearfully explained what she’d done. Hohoff told her to march outside immediately and pick up the pages. Feeling exhausted, Lee bundled up and went out into the darkness, “since I knew I could never be happy being anything but a writer… I kept at it because I knew it had to be my first novel, for better or for worse.”

The transformation of Atticus Finch in Go Set a Watchman into the Atticus of To Kill a Mockingbird was the result of Hohoff recrafting the novel, showcasing a strong, highly moral protagonist that reflected both her business sense as an editor, and her values as a Quaker. The year To Kill a Mockingbird was finished, 1959, Hohoff published her biography, A Ministry to Man: The Life of John Lovejoy Elliot. Elliot was killed by a mob in Alton, Illinois during an attack on his printing shop because of his editorials condemning slavery.

So Go Set a Watchman went through several hands before it appeared as To Kill a Mockingbird. There’s talk of other manuscripts— “The Long Goodbye,” and “The Reverend,” for instance— both of which I came across.

But people close to Harper Lee would be wise not to publish them.

The Night Dill’s House Burned Down

One night in January 1940 it was so cold in Monroeville, Alabama that Harper Lee’s father, A. C. Lee, was forced to throw extra coal in the furnace to keep their little bungalow warm on South Alabama Avenue. A bitter north wind rattled the strings of Christmas lightbulbs still hanging in trees on the courthouse square.

Truman Capote 04, Front, 1948Next door to the Lees was the Faulk residence, where Truman Capote— later the model for Dill in To Kill a Mockingbird had lived during elementary school with his elderly relatives, the three Faulk sisters and their bachelor brother. But Truman’s parents had changed their minds and decided he belonged in a boarding school in New York City instead. (“How come my folks don’t want me?” Dill says in the novel.)

The Faulks were just getting ready for bed that wintery night when they heard frantic pounding on the front door. Jennie Faulk came downstairs expecting to find a lunatic on their porch. To her shock, she discovered that the kitchen was on fire and a neighbor was trying to force his way in to help.

Nelle heard the siren go off on top of the city hall. Then the volunteer firemen arrived, hurriedly pulling on old their overcoats, gloves and hats. The Faulks, stumbling in bathrobes and slippers, hurried through the shouting, gesticulating men, abandoning their home to the fire hose and the axe.

Nelle watched as flames pressed against the windows, shattered the glass, and exhaled like the breath of a dragon into the cold air. The Faulks’ place was a turn-of-the-century Victorian home, a capacious, high-ceilinged dwelling with an entryway decorated with potted ferns; a formal parlor; a dining room with china cabinets displaying a collection of cut glass; a spacious kitchen where the Negro cook “Little Bit” rustled up enormous meals; several bedrooms; and a fireplace in every room.

Soon the whole house was a pyre, and the wind-driven flames roared through the trees toward the Lees’ property, less than fifteen yards away. Nelle’s mother feared the worst and had to be calmed as her husband and neighbors guided her to a house across the street. Firefighters swung their hoses toward the Lee’s home when paint on the south side of their white bungalow began to blister and slough off from the heat.

The struggle lasted until 3 am. Come dawn, the Faulk residence, where Jennie Faulk had been known to welcome any “smear of kin” was a carcass of blackened walls and bony icicles. Even their smokehouse, stuffed with cured hams, bacon and bagged sausage hanging from rafters, had collapsed.

The exhausted firemen trudged home. One of them removed his waterlogged wool overcoat and hung it on a hook outside his front door. Within a couple of hours, it was frozen solid. He propped it on the porch steps where it stood for days, ghostly and uninhabited to the delight of passing children.

Harper Lee was in middle school when it happened, just a little older than Scout. But the fire and the community’s response probably later inspired the scene of Miss Maudie’s house burning down in To Kill a Mockingbird.

At the front door, we saw fire spewing from Miss Maudie’s dining room windows. As if to confirm what we saw, the town fire siren wailed up to the scale to a treble pitch and remained there, screaming…. We stood watching the street fill with men and cars while fire silently devoured Miss Maudie’s house. ‘Why don’t they hurry, why don’t they hurry…’ muttered Jem.

We saw why. The old fire truck, killed by the cold, was being pushed from town by a crowd of men.

Authors often draw on their own experiences to create fiction. But the better ones, such as Lee, double the importance of their experiences by giving them intensified meaning.

In the novel, the town’s response to the fire at Miss Maudie’s house is heroic— neighbors looking out for each other, even risking their lives. And among the volunteers that night are a few men, no doubt, who later serve on the jury at Tom Robinson’s trial. But when Atticus implores them, “For God’s sake, do your duty” none has the courage to save an innocent man. Fear of breaking social taboos turns otherwise brave men into cowards.

That irony isn’t accidental— it’s part of the art of Lee’s storytelling.

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