Fact Checking “In Cold Blood”
I found the papers of the fact checker who worked on Capote’s nonfiction masterpiece. What did he miss?
Campbell fit in as well. This was somewhat less surprising in his case, since unlike Capote, he was of conventional appearance, but, considering that he was a gay New York thespian-turned-litterateur, it was striking too. In any case, in the Campbell file at Delaware are many chatty letters from Kansans, including several from Alvin Dewey’s wife, Marie. In one she confides, “The boys are making it fine in school. Dewey is surely looking forward to college next fall and has been invited to rush week at K.U. by his cousin.” She closes: “’The Rogues’, my favorite program, is coming on now, so I’ll say good-night. Love, Marie.”
Other letters in the file hew more closely to the business at hand and suggest that fact checking, as Campbell and The New Yorker conceived it at that time, was mainly a matter of checking facts that pertained to dates, distances, spelling of proper names, and the like. A letter from Harold Nye, assistant director of the KBI, gives answers to six questions Campbell had posed, including this one, relating to an investigative trip he had taken to Nevada: “The two officers from Las Vegas, as mentioned in your letter, were Ocie Pigford and Frank McCauley.” Allen Hoffard, public information officer of the U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Prisons, writes to Campbell: “In response to your query, it is correct at the moment to state that the U.S. Penitentiary, Leavenworth, Kan., is the largest Federal penitentiary of inmate population, with a current count [of] approximately 2,250 men.” But there is nothing in the file to suggest that Campbell tried to verify the dialogue or action with which the article was packed.
Also in the file are the galley proofs from which Campbell worked. Again, his work seems to be all about the dates and distances: Campbell underlines in pencil every proper name and checkable fact, for example: “The pheasant season in Kansas, a famed November event …” He also shows a sharp eye for internal inconsistencies. He circles a place in the galley where someone is referred to as a “cleaning woman.” The same woman, he notes, is called “housekeeper” at another point, thousands of words away.
But verifying the “nonfiction novel” aspects of the article does not seem to have been part of Campbell’s brief. They are, in any case, not underlined. To use a New Yorker term of art that was widely reported more than a quarter-century later, when Janet Malcolm was sued for libel by a disgruntled psychoanalyst, those things seem to have been “on author.” To a large extent, The New Yorker of 1965 was the same magazine of the ‘40s and ‘50s, where no one raised an eyebrow when luminaries such as A.J. Liebling and Joseph Mitchell trafficked in composite characters—Colonel Stingo and Mr. Flood, respectively.
Rather than composites, “In Cold Blood” was filled with scenes, dialogue, and interior monologues. Many of them involved Hickock and Smith, who had not yet been executed at the time Campbell commenced his checking. Today’s fact checkers would talk to them; Campbell did not. Other scenes were literally impossible to check. For example, early on, there is an exchange between Nancy and Kenyon Clutter, a brother and sister who would be murdered later that day:
“ ‘Good grief, Kenyon. I hear you!’
As usual, the devil was in Kenyon. His shouts kept coming up the stairs.
Barefoot, pajama-clad, Nancy scampered down the stairs.”
Campbell made no marks next to the passage.
It is theoretically possible that another checker may have worked on the piece, and focused on these elements of the story. But based on my communication with the current New Yorker checking department, my knowledge of the magazine’s history, and the absence of a mention of any other checker in the Campbell file, I would say this is highly unlikely.
In any event, by the standards of 1965, In Cold Blood checked out impressively well, at least according to Campbell. Anne Taylor Fleming interviewed him in 1978 and reported him saying that “he had never seen such an accurate account and that whatever the fiction veneer, ‘In Cold Blood’ was a scrupulous non-fiction report.”
At only one point in the galleys did Campbell indicate an interest in matters that went beyond facts in the narrow sense of the word. But even in this instance, he acted less like a fact checker than a story editor who’d spotted a piece of foreshadowing that hadn’t been followed through on. In one early scene, Nancy Clutter says to Kenyon that she keeps smelling cigarette smoke in their house. She mentions this again, in a phone conversation with her best friend. Capote never returns to the question of the strange odor. On the first page of the first set of galleys, Campbell wrote, “Is there ever an explanation of Nancy smelling cigarette smoke?” Like William Shawn’s “How know?”, his question never got an answer.
Ben Yagoda is author of About Town: The New Yorker and the World It Made and the just-published How to Not Write Bad: The Most Common Writing Problems and the Best Ways to Avoid Them. He is a professor of English and journalism at the University of Delaware.