I Found the Papers of the Fact Checker Who Worked on “In Cold Blood.” What Did He Miss?

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March 20 2013 12:11 PM

Fact Checking “In Cold Blood”

I found the papers of the fact checker who worked on Capote’s nonfiction masterpiece. What did he miss?

Author Truman Capote, Oct. 25, 1966.
Almost from the start, skeptics challenged the accuracy of Truman Capote's In Cold Blood

Photo by John Lent/AP

In the light of history it’s clear that however great Truman Capote’s literary gifts, his promotional genius surpassed them. The key theme in the publicity campaign he masterfully engineered for “In Cold Blood”—published as a four-part series in The New Yorker in the fall of 1965, and subsequently as a book—was that, despite having the stylistic and thematic attributes of great literature, the account of four brutal murders in Kansas was completely true. At the top of The New Yorker series was an “Editor’s Note” reading, “All quotations in this article are taken either from official records or from conversations, transcribed verbatim, between the author and the principals.” The book’s subtitle was A True Account of a Multiple Murder and Its Consequences. In interviews, Capote kept talking about the brilliant genre he’d concocted, the “nonfiction novel,” and colorfully described the methods he’d devised to insure his work’s veracity. A Times reporter drank it all in and wrote:

“To record real life, [Capote] trained himself for two years in remembering conversations without taking notes. Friends would read to him and he would try to transcribe what he had heard, eventually reaching the point where he was 92 percent accurate.’”

Almost from the start, skeptics challenged the accuracy of In Cold Blood. One early revelation (acknowledged by Capote before his death in 1984) was that the last scene in the book, a graveyard conversation between a detective and the murdered girl’s best friend, was pure invention. I myself made a small contribution to the counter-narrative. While doing research for my 2000 book, About Town: The New Yorker and the World It Made, I found “In Cold Blood” galley proofs in the magazine’s archives. Next to a passage describing the actions of someone who was alone, and who was later killed in the “multiple murder,” New Yorker editor William Shawn had scrawled, in pencil, “How know?” There was in fact no way to know, but the passage stayed.

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Over the years, many additional holes have been found in In Cold Blood. In the first of two notable recent revelations, a Wall Street Journal article suggested that the Kansas Bureau of Investigation waited five days before following up on what turned out to be the crucial lead in the case, rather than doing so immediately, as Capote wrote. This is not a trivial matter, because if the KBI had acted quicker, the killers—Perry Smith and Dick Hickock—may not have made it to Florida, where, according to a separate investigation by the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, they possibly committed four additional murders, of a husband and wife and their two young children

The mistakes in In Cold Blood are especially striking because the material originally appeared in The New Yorker, which, along with Time magazine, originated the practice of fact checking and has for many years been famous for the reliability of its content. I recently discovered that the New Yorker staffer assigned to check “In Cold Blood” was a man named Sandy Campbell, and that Campbell’s fact checking file for the story is in the special collections of the library of the University of Delaware, where I work. I decided to give it a look. The file has not been mentioned in any book or article about Capote or In Cold Blood that I’ve found; as far as I can tell, no one has previously examined it in the context of the book’s veracity. Now that I’ve done so, I think I understand why the story passed muster at The New Yorker, stretchers and all.

But before I get to that, I have to tell you about Sandy Campbell, who is a story in himself. He was born into a wealthy New York family in 1922. After graduating from Princeton, he became a Broadway actor, with roles in Life with Father, the revival of Spring Awakening, and A Streetcar Named Desire. His lifelong romantic partner was Donald Windham, a novelist, and together they were part of a New York literary and social circle that included W.H. Auden, Glenway Wescott, Tennessee Williams, and Capote, who was close friends with both men.

Campbell died in 1988 and left his assets to Windham, who died in 2010, at the age of 89. The estate was of sufficient size to establish the Windham-Campbell Literary Prizes, $150,000 awards to nine writers of “outstanding achievement,” which were given for the first time early this month to, among others, the novelists James Salter and Tom McCarthy.

Campbell gave up his acting career in the ‘50s, and in 1963 was hired as a fact checker by the New Yorker, where Capote was already a valued contributor. Campbell was assigned to the “In Cold Blood” project at Capote’s request, and in October 1964 traveled with him to the Kansas town where the murders had taken place. There, in the words of Capote’s biographer, Gerald Clarke, Campbell “verified such things as dates and distances.” Campbell wrote in his diary (which he shared with Anne Taylor Fleming, author of a 1978 New York Times Magazine profile of Capote): “Truman calls [KBI investigator Alvin Dewey] Pappy, and Alvin calls Truman Coach. … It is certainly extraordinary how he fits here in this small Kansas town with these simple Kansas people.”

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