The Killer’s Kiss: The Gay Subtext of In Cold Blood

Truman Capote Truman Capote (1924-1984), southern American novelist and playwright, author of "Breakfast at Tiffany's," and the journalistic novel, "In Cold Blood.", 1959

Inside the September 25, 1965, issue of The New Yorker was the literary event of the decade: the first of four installments of Truman Capote’s pioneering true crime account, In Cold Blood. Its subject, the brutal murders of the Clutter family in Holcomb, Kansas, had taken place nearly six years earlier, but Capote had to wait until the two convicted killers were executed to give his “nonfiction novel” an ending.

The headline of a short New York Times article from November 16, 1959, was simple: “Wealthy Farmer, 3 of Family Slain.” Capote, struggling with his new novel in progress, Answered Prayers, saw an opportunity. “Well, why not this crime?” he later explained. “Why not pack up and go to Kansas and see what happens?” Capote’s idea intrigued William Shawn, then the esteemed editor of The New Yorker, and by mid-December, Capote and Harper Lee, his childhood friend, were in Holcomb to begin research on the Clutters. On December 30, Perry Smith and Dick Hickock were arrested in Las Vegas for the murders. These arrests changed the scope of Capote’s project, and Smith soon changed the writer’s life.

According to Gerald Clarke’s Capote: A Biography, when he first laid eyes on diminutive accused killer Smith, seated at his arraignment, the equally petite Capote whispered to Lee, “Look, his feet don’t touch the floor!” Ever reticent, Lee remained silent “but thought, ‘Oh, oh! This is the beginning of a great love affair.’” Flamboyant Capote had told Alvin Dewey, supervisor of the Kansas Bureau of Investigation’s probe into the murders, that it made no difference to him if the case were solved or not, while Marie Dewey, Alvin’s wife, observed with typical Kansas understatement that Truman “became very fond of Perry.”

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Perry Smith, left, and Richard Hickock. Photos courtesy of Kansas State Penitentiary/Wikimedia.

Harold Nye, the KBI agent who helped capture the murderers, contended Capote felt a bit more than fondness. He alleged the writer had bribed prison guards to look the other way as he and Smith “had become lovers in the penitentiary.” There’s no proof that they had sex with each other, but they certainly did discuss homosexuality together. Capote wrote to Smith, “I always had emotional problems—largely because of a ‘question’ you yourself asked me on our last visit and which I answered truthfully (not that the answer isn’t obvious)!” Smith responded, “Some queers I’ve really liked. As long as they didn’t try anything. The most worthwhile friend I ever had…turned out to be queer.” Andrew Gumbel, writing in The Independent, later called this particular “relationship between author and subject arguably one of the greatest, and most improbable, literary romances of the 20th century.” And when, on April 14, 1965, Smith and Hickock were hanged for the Clutter murders, Smith kissed Capote on the cheek and said, “Adios, amigo.”

In Cold Blood medium“Homosexual attraction is a very significant part of the story,” Ralph F. Voss writes in Truman Capote and the Legacy of “In Cold Blood.”  I finished the first of my own many readings of In Cold Blood as a preteen, and something about the relationship between Smith and Hickock intrigued my nascent queer sensibility. Voss confirms my gaydar in his chapter “The Gay Subtext of In Cold Blood.” He notes that many contemporary critics saw the killers as more than just partners in crime. In 1965, William Phillips wrote in Commentary magazine about the pair’s “quibbling, jealous, dependent relationship, like that of a very old or very young couple.” In The New Republic the same year, Stanley Kauffmann wondered why “Capote leaves unexplored this whole area of latent homosexuality.”

Hickock calls Smith “baby,” “sugar” and “honey” throughout In Cold Blood, and he worries if Smith may be just an “ordinary punk.” As Voss helpfully explains, “Punk, in prison argot, is a man who serves as the passive sexual partner of a stronger male prisoner.” (In other words, Perry was Dick’s bitch.) When George Plimpton interviewed Capote and asked if there had been “any sexual relationship, or such tendencies” between the two men, Capote answered, “No. None at all.” The novelist had worked on In Cold Blood for six years and desperately wanted a best-seller. He intentionally muted the homosexual subtext, which could have hurt sales.

Tourists still visit the Clutter family graves, attracted by what Holcomb residents call “the book.” Smith and Hickock, however, are buried in Prisoners’ Row in a local cemetery near Leavenworth prison. Most graves there are unmarked, but Capote paid for headstones for these two (they have since been stolen). He later recounted that Smith, who was an aspiring writer, singer and painter, had once told him that “all he’d ever wanted to do in his life was to produce a work of art” and had laughed at the irony by which “I kill four people, and you’re going to produce a work of art.” Today, 50 years after it first appeared in The New Yorker, In Cold Blood remains a singular work of art.

Feature photo courtesy of Everett