In Cold Blood by Truman Capote

  Waiting, but not idly. By the time Perry arrived at the site of the proposed hunting lodge, his father, working alone, had finished the hardest chores—had cleared the ground, logged the necessary timber, cracked and carted wagonloads of native rock. “But he didn’t commence to build till I got there. We did every damn piece of it ourselves. With once in a while an Indian helper. Dad was like a maniac. It didn’t matter what was happening—snowstorms, rainstorms, winds that could split a tree—we kept right at it. The day the roof was finished, Dad danced all over it, shouting and laughing, doing a regular jig. Well, it turned out quite an exceptional place. That could sleep twenty people. Had a big fireplace in the dining room. And there was a cocktail lounge. The Totem Pole Cocktail Lounge. Where I was to entertain the customers. Singing and so forth. We opened for business end of 1953.”

  But the expected huntsmen did not materialize, and though ordinary tourists—the few that trickled along the highway—now and again paused to photograph the beyond-belief rusticity of Trapper’s Den Lodge, they seldom stopped overnight. “For a while we fooled ourselves. Kept thinking it would catch on. Dad tried to trick up the place. Made a Garden of Memories. With a Wishing Well. Put painted signs up and down the highway. But none of it meant a nickel more. When Dad realized that—saw it wasn’t any use, all we’d done was waste ourselves and all our money—he began to take it out on me. Boss me around. Be spiteful. Say I didn’t do my proper share of the work. It wasn’t his fault, any more than it was mine. A situation like that, with no money and the grub getting low, we couldn’t help but be on each other’s nerves. The point came we were downright hungry. Which is what we fell out over. Ostensibly. A biscuit. Dad snatched a biscuit out of my hand, and said I ate too much, what a greedy, selfish bastard I was, and why didn’t I get out, he didn’t want me there no more. He carried on like that till I couldn’t stand it. My hands got hold of his throat. My hands—but I couldn’t control them. They wanted to choke him to death. Dad, though, he’s slippery, a smart wrestler. He tore loose and ran to get his gun. Came back pointing it at me. He said, ‘Look at me, Perry. I’m the last thing living you’re ever gonna see.’ I just stood my ground. But then he realized the gun wasn’t even loaded, and he started to cry. Sat down and bawled like a kid. Then I guess I wasn’t mad at him any more. I was sorry for him. For both of us. But it wasn’t a bit of use—there wasn’t anything I could say. I went out for a walk. This was April, but the woods were still deep in snow. I walked till it was almost night. When I got back, the lodge was dark, and all the doors were locked. And everything I owned was lying out there in the snow. Where Dad had thrown it. Books. Clothes. Everything. I just let it lie. Except my guitar. I picked up my guitar and started on down the highway. Not a dollar in my pocket. Around midnight a truck stopped to give me a lift. The driver asked where I was going. I told him, ‘Wherever you’re headed, that’s where I’m going.”

  Several weeks later, after again sheltering with the James family, Perry decided on a definite destination—Worcester, Massachusetts, the home town of an “Army buddy” he thought might welcome him and help him find “a good-paying job.” Various detours prolonged the eastward journey; he washed dishes in an Omaha restaurant, pumped gas at an Oklahoma garage, worked a month on a ranch in Texas. By July of 1955 he had reached, on the trek to Worcester, a small Kansas town, Phillipsburg, and there “fate,” in the form of “bad company,” asserted itself. “His name was Smith,” Perry said. “Same as me. I don’t even recall his first name. He was just somebody I’d picked up with somewhere, and he had a car, and he said he’d give me a ride as far as Chicago. Anyway, driving through Kansas we came to this little Phillipsburg place and stopped to look at a map. Seems to me like it was a Sunday. Stores shut. Streets quiet. My friend there, bless his heart, he looked around and made a suggestion.” The suggestion was that they burglarize a nearby building, the Chandler Sales Company. Perry agreed, and they broke into the deserted premises and removed a quantity of office equipment (typewriters, adding machines). That might have been that if only, some days afterward, the thieves hadn’t ignored a traffic signal in the city of Saint Joseph, Missouri. “The junk was still in the car. The cop that stopped us wanted to know where we got it. A little checking was done, and, as they say, we were ‘returned’ to Phillipsburg, Kansas. Where the folks have a real cute jail. If you like jails.” Within forty-eight hours Perry and his companion had discovered an open window, climbed out of it, stolen a car, and driven northwest to McCook, Nebraska. “Pretty soon we broke up, me and Mr. Smith. I don’t know what ever became of him. We both made the F.B.I.’s Wanted list. But far as I know, they never caught up with him.”

  One wet afternoon the following November, a Greyhound bus deposited Perry in Worcester, a Massachusetts factory town of steep, up-and-down streets that even in the best of weathers seem cheerless and hostile. “I found the house where my friend was supposed to live. My Army friend from Korea. But the people there said he’d left six months back and they had no idea where he’d gone. Too bad, big disappointment, end of the world, all that. So I found a liquor store and bought a half gallon of red wop and went back to the bus depot and sat there drinking my wine and getting a little warmer. I was really enjoying myself till a man came along and arrested me for vagrancy.” The police booked him as “Bob Turner”—a name he’d adopted because of being listed by the F.B.I. He spent fourteen days in jail, was fined ten dollars, and departed from Worcester on another wet November afternoon. “I went down to New York and took a room in a hotel on Eighth Avenue,” Perry said. “Near Forty-second Street. Finally, I got a night job. Doing odd jobs around a penny arcade. Right there on Forty-second Street, next to an Automat. Which is where I ate—when I ate. In over three months I practically never left the Broadway area. For one thing, I didn’t have the right clothes. Just Western clothes—jeans and boots. But there on Forty-second Street nobody cares, it all rides—anything. My whole life, I never met so many freaks.”

  He lived out the winter in that ugly, neon-lit neighborhood, with its air full of the scent of popcorn, simmering hot dogs, and orange drink. But then, one bright March morning on the edge of spring, as he remembered it, “two F.B.I. bastards woke me up. Arrested me at the hotel. Bang!—I was extradited back to Kansas. To Phillipsburg. That same cute jail. They nailed me to the cross—larceny, jailbreak, car theft. I got five to ten years. In Lansing. After I’d been there awhile, I wrote Dad. Let him know the news. And wrote Barbara, my sister. By now, over the years, that was all I had left me. Jimmy a suicide. Fern out the window. My mother dead. Been dead eight years. Everybody gone but Dad and Barbara.”

  A letter from Barbara was among the sheaf of selected matter that Perry preferred not to leave behind in the Mexico City hotel room. The letter, written in a pleasingly legible script, was dated April 28, 1958, at which time the recipient had been imprisoned for approximately two years:

  Dearest Bro. Perry,

  We got your 2nd letter today & forgive me for not writing sooner. Our weather here, as yours is, is turning warmer & maybe I am getting spring fever but I am going to try and do better. Your first letter was very disturbing, as I’m sure you must have suspected but that was not the reason I haven’t written—it’s true the children do keep me busy & it’s hard to find time to sit and concentrate on a letter as I have wanted to write you for some time. Donnie has learned to open the doors and climb on the chairs & other furniture & he worries me constantly about falling.

  I have been able to let the children play in the yard now & then—but I always have to go out with them as they can hurt themselves if I don’t pay attention. But nothing is forever & I know I will be sorry when they start running the block & I don’t know where they’re at. Here are some statistics if you’re interested—

  Height Weight Shoe Size

  Freddie 36-1/2” 26-1/2 lbs. 7-1/2 narrow

  Baby 37-1/2 29-1/2 lbs. 8 narrow

  Donnie 34 26 lbs 6-1/2 wide

  You can see
that Donnie is a pretty big boy for 15 months & with his 16 teeth and his sparkling personality—people just can’t help loving him. He wears the same size clothes as Baby and Freddie but the pants are too long as yet.

  I am going to try & make this letter a long one so it will probably have a lot of interruptions such as right now it’s time for Donnie’s bath—Baby & Freddie had theirs this A.M. as it’s quite cold today & I have had them inside. Be back soon—

  About my typing—First—I cannot tell a lie! I am not a typist. I use from 1 to 5 fingers & although I can manage & do help Big Fred with his business affairs, what it takes me 1 hr. to do would probably take someone with the Know How—15 minutes—Seriously, I do not have the time nor the will to learn professionally. But I think it is wonderful how you have stuck with it and become such an excellent typist. I do believe we all were very adaptable (Jimmy, Fern, you and myself) & we had all been blessed with a basic flair for the artistic—among other things. Even Mother & Dad were artistic.

  I truthfully feel none of us have anyone to blame for whatever we have done with our own personal lives. It has been proven that at the age of 7 most of us have reached the age of reason—which means we do, at this age, understand & know the difference between right & wrong. Of course—environment plays an awfully important part in our lives such as the Convent in mine & in my case I am grateful for that influence. In Jimmy’s case—he was the strongest of us all. I remember how he worked & went to school when there was no one to tell him & it was his own WILL to make something of himself. We will never know the reasons for what eventually happened, why he did what he did, but I still hurt thinking of it. It was such a waste. But we have very little control over our human weaknesses, & this applies also to Fern & the hundreds of thousands of other people including ourselves—for we all have weaknesses. In your case—I don’t know what your weakness is but I do feel—IT IS NO SHAME TO HAVE A DIRTY FACE—THE SHAME COMES WHEN YOU KEEP IT DIRTY.

  In all truthfulness & with love for you Perry, for you are my only living brother and the uncle of my children, I cannot say or feel your attitude towards our father or your imprisonment JUST or healthy. If you are getting your back up—better simmer down as I realize there are none of us who take criticism cheerfully & it is natural to feel a certain amount of resentment towards the one giving this criticism so I am prepared for one or two things—a) Not to hear from you at all, or b) a letter telling me exactly what you think of me.

  I hope I’m wrong & I sincerely hope you will give this letter a lot of thought & try to see—how someone else feels. Please understand I know I am not an authority & I do not boast great intelligence or education but I do believe I am a normal individual with basic reasoning powers & the will to live my life according to the laws of God & Man. It is also true that I have “fallen” at times, as is normal—for as I said I am human & therefore I too have human weaknesses but the point is, again, There is no shame—having a dirty face—the shame comes when you keep it dirty. No one is more aware of my shortcomings and mistakes than myself so I won’t bore you further.

  Now, first, & most important—Dad is not responsible for your wrong doings or your good deeds. What you have done, whether right or wrong, is your own doing. From what I personally know, you have lived your life exactly as you pleased without regard to circumstances or persons who loved you—who might be hurt. Whether you realize it or not—your present confinement is embarrassing to me as well as Dad—not because of what you did but the fact that you don’t show me any signs of SINCERE regret and seem to show no respect for any laws, people or anything. Your letter implies that the blame of all your problems is that of someone else, but never you. I do admit that you are intelligent & your vocabulary is excellent & I do feel you can do anything you decide to do & do it well but what exactly do you want to do & are you willing to work & make an honest effort to attain whatever it is you choose to do? Nothing good comes easy & I’m sure you’ve heard this many times but once more won’t hurt.

  In case you want the truth about Dad—his heart is broken because of you. He would give anything to get you out so he can have his son back—but I am afraid you would only hurt him worse if you could. He is not well and is getting older &, as the saying goes, he cannot “Cut the Mustard” as in the old days. He has been wrong at times & he realizes this but whatever he had and wherever he went he shared his life & belongings with you when he wouldn’t do this for anyone else. Now I don’t say you owe him undying gratitude or your life but you do owe him RESPECT and COMMON DECENCY. I, personally, am proud of Dad. I love him & Respect him as my Dad & I am only sorry he chose to be the Lone Wolf with his son, or he might be living with us and share our love instead of alone in his little trailer & longing & waiting & lonesome for you, his son. I worry for him & when I say I I mean my husband too for my husband respects our Dad. Because he is a MAN. It’s true that Dad did not have a great extensive education but in school we only learn to recognize the words and to spell but the application of these words to real life is another thing that only LIFE & LIVING can give us. Dad has lived & you show ignorance in calling him uneducated & unable to understand “the scientific meaning etc” of life’s problems. A mother is still the only one who can kiss a boo-boo and make it all well—explain that scientifically.

  I’m sorry to let you have it so strong but I feel I must speak my piece. I am sorry that this must be censored [by the prison authorities], & I sincerely hope this letter is not detrimental towards your eventual release but I feel you should know & realize what terrible hurt you have done. Dad is the important one as I am dedicated to my family but you are the only one Dad loves—in short, his “family.” He knows I love him, of course, but the closeness is not there, as you know.

  Your confinement is nothing to be proud of and you will have to live with it & try & live it down & it can be done but not with your attitude of feeling everyone is stupid & uneducated & un-understanding. You are a human being with a free will. Which puts you above the animal level. But if you live your life without feeling and compassion for your fellow-man—you are as an animal—“an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth” & happiness & peace of mind is not attained by living thus.

  As far as responsibility goes, no one really wants it—but all of us are responsible to the community we live in & its laws. When the time comes to assume the responsibility of a home and children or business, this is the seeding of the boys from the Men—for surely you can realize what a mess the world would be if everyone in it said, “I want to be an individual, without responsibilities, & be able to speak my mind freely & do as I alone will.” We are all free to speak & do as we individually will—providing this “freedom” of Speech & Deed are not injurious to our fellow-man.

  Think about it, Perry. You are above average in intelligence, but somehow your reasoning is off the beam. Maybe it’s the strain of your confinement. Whatever it is—remember—you & only you are responsible and it is up to you and you alone to overcome this part of your life. Hoping to hear from you soon.

  With Love & Prayers,

  Your sister & Bro. in Law

  Barbara & Frederic & Family

  In preserving this letter, and including it in his collection of particular treasures, Perry was not moved by affection. Far from it. He “loathed” Barbara, and just the other day he had told Dick, “The only real regret I have I wish the hell my sister had been in that house.” (Dick had laughed, and confessed to a similar yearning: “I keep thinking what fun if my second wife had been there. Her, and all her goddam family.”) No, he valued the letter merely because his prison friend, the “super-intelligent” Willie-Jay, had written for him a “very sensitive” analysis of it, occupying two single-spaced typewritten pages, with the title “Impressions I Garnered from the Letter” at the top:


  1.) When she began this letter, she intended that it should be a compassionate demonstration of Christian principles. That is to say tha
t in return for your letter to her, which apparently annoyed her, she meant to turn the other cheek hoping in this way to incite regret for your previous letter and to place you on the defensive in your next.

  However few people can successfully demonstrate a principle in common ethics when their deliberation is festered with emotionalism. Your sister substantiates this failing for as her letter progresses her judgment gives way to temper—her thoughts are good, lucid the products of intelligence, but it is not now an unbiased, impersonal intelligence. It is a mind propelled by emotional response to memory and frustration; consequently, however wise her admonishments might be, they fail to inspire resolve, unless it would be the resolve to retaliate by hurting her in your next letter. Thus commencing a cycle that can only culminate in further anger and distress.

  2.) It is a foolish letter, but born of human failing.

  Your letter to her, and this, her answer to you, failed in their objectives. Your letter was an attempt to explain your outlook on life, as you are necessarily affected by it. It was destined to be misunderstood, or taken too literally because your ideas are opposed to conventionalism. What could be more conventional than a housewife with three children, who is “dedicated” to her family???? What could be more natural than that she would resent an unconventional person. There is considerable hypocrisy in conventionalism. Any thinking person is aware of this paradox; but in dealing with conventional people it is advantageous to treat them as though they were not hypocrites. It isn’t a question of faithfulness to your own concepts; it is a matter of compromise so that you can remain an individual without the constant threat of conventional pressures. Her letter failed because she couldn’t conceive of the profundity of your problem—she couldn’t fathom the pressures brought to bear upon you because of environment, intellectual frustration and a growing tendency toward isolationism.

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