Truman Capote is famous for his masterwork, In Cold Blood. As narrative nonfiction (nonfiction novel), he recreated the murders of four members of the Herb Clutter family in Holcomb, Kansas, in 1959. Included was an intimate portrait of the killers, Perry Smith and Dick Hickock.
Their story recently grabbed headlines again when their remains were exhumed a year ago to try to link them to the 1959 slaughter of another family in Florida, the Walkers. DNA analysis was inconclusive.
However, prior to getting the results, speculative analysts decided that Capote had erroneously accepted the killers’ denial of involvement at face value. We may never know, but they were cleared by other means.
Capote had spent five years on the Clutter case, amassing over 20,000 pages of material. He’d stayed with it right up through the killers’ executions in 1965. In Cold Blood became an international bestseller and remains a true-crime classic.
But there might have been another one.
In 1973, the Washington Post hired Capote to write about the worst case of multiple murder in U. S. history to that point: the Dean Corll killings. Thus, Capote showed up in Houston, Texas, to mingle with people and learn why at least 27 adolescent boys could disappear from a small neighborhood in three years without triggering a thorough investigation. Houston, you’ve got a problem.
Here’s the story: Dean Corll, "the candy man," got sexually involved in 1970 with a boy half his age named David Brooks. Together they kidnapped other boys so Corll could torture, rape and murder them. Elmer Wayne Henley, 15, joined them and killed several himself. When Corll threatened his life two years later, Henley shot and killed him before turning himself in. He led police to three burial sites, which produced 27 bodies. In recent years, another victim was identified and there is speculation of more.
In a Texas Monthly feature from 2011, Capote was mentioned as an observer with the intent to write a book that was eventually shelved. Intrigued, I looked for details and found a story in Vanity Fair in 2006, written by Dominick Dunne.
He stated that in 1976, Capote had left a stash of papers in a rented house in Santa Fe, NM. Among them were his notes from the Corll case: a set of news clippings about Henley’s trial, six pages of notes on a yellow legal pad, two handwritten manuscripts, and letters regarding his Houston salary and expenses. Apparently, he didn’t care enough to go back and retrieve them.
Gerald Clarke’s biography, Capote, indicates that when the famous writer watched the skinny, two-bit Henley walk into the courtroom, he aborted the project. Supposedly, he decided that there was nothing new here, but some speculate that he just did not wish to report to an editor each day. In addition, he was having his usual personal issues.
I then found newspaper stories from 1974 that quoted Capote. He'd planned to cover the trial of what the reporter called the “homosexual blood orgy” in a diary form. Condescendingly, he stated, “I see the trial as a jumping off point. To really tell about this whole extraordinary culture – in Texas and the Southwest, all the way to California – of aimless wandering, this uprooted, mobile life: the seven-mile-long trailer parks, the motorcycles, the campers, the people who have no addresses or even last names.” He seemed to think that whole families were blasé about a son going off to swim or see a movie and just vanishing. (This couldn’t be further from the truth, but this was how they were often portrayed in media accounts at the time.)
So, the book was never written. But what might it have been?
I was curious about how Capote would put himself into the mindset of one or the other accomplice. He had not spent hours with Brooks or Henley, as he had with Hickock and Smith. He had no detailed correspondence with them. Henley’s trial in the spring of 1974 was a media circus, and Capote got no special favors. He’d met many of the victims’ relatives and the investigating officers, but he did not know much about the killers.
Had he decided to follow through and write a book, I wonder how he’d have approached it. His personal issues aside, this case might have touched a deep nerve. Capote was gay and this case was about a sadistic gay man who had tormented and even mutilated boys. Families of victims were ashamed that anyone might think their sons had engaged in a gay sex-and-drugs romp. Capote would have seen the anti-gay prejudices of an entrenched conservative culture on full display. Could he have recorded this without personal bias and over-sensitivity?
And what about the killers? Brooks refused interview opportunities and Henley, while talkative, had grown to despise the press. Uneducated, it’s not likely he’d have appreciated Capote’s reputation. He lacked an intriguing history, and, quite simply, was an unreflective kid with no prospects caught up in a killer’s scheme. Although he later discovered an artistic talent, he was no Perry Smith.
Capote would have had his work cut out for him, but he did have the opportunity with this case to explore the dynamics of a unique and unlikely trio in a tumultuous era.
He could have told the story of how a “nice” guy like Corll, whom people adored, could operate so close to home in such a sadistic manner without anyone noticing. Or, Capote’s “Houston Diary” could have built off what In Cold Blood had accomplished, to show how easy it was during the mobile 1970s to dismiss so many kids as runaways. Or, he might have shown the way these murders shocked a community and launched organized movements to better protect children.
I’m sorry that we did not get the chance to see what Capote might have done with this sociologically revelatory story. Yes, other authors have covered it, but Capote had a unique perspective and narrative flair that might have disclosed a hidden dimension. Even with his spare notes located, we'll never know what the final product might have been.