While much attention has been focused recently on “To Kill a Mockingbird” and now “Go Set a Watchman,” author Harper Lee also has well-known connections to another book – this one with Kansas connections. “In Cold Blood” by Truman Capote details the 1959 murders of Herbert Clutter, a farmer from Holcomb; his wife; and two of their children.
One of Lee’s childhood friends was Capote. And when Capote, a flamboyantly gay man from New York City began working on his book, he invited her to Kansas to help him connect with Midwest Christian farm people. Where he sometimes was blocked from talking with key individuals in the murder case, she was able to break down barriers.
Larry Welch, former director of the Kansas Bureau of Investigation, knew all of the key Kansas crime investigators in the Clutter case.
“When Capote went into Garden City, he had a couple of things going for him,” Welch said. “He had a contract with Random House.
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“He was not warmly embraced by Kansans. Law enforcement didn’t like him. Prison guards didn’t like him. The Kansas attorney general didn’t like him. The only agent that got along with Capote was Al Dewey. And the only reason he got along with Al is that Capote had two women on his side: Nelle Harper Lee and Marie Dewey.”
According to the Kansas State University Library website, when Capote and Lee went to Kansas, they stopped in Manhattan and met James McCain, the president of Kansas State University and a former journalist who wrote letters of introduction for Capote to use in Garden City.
The K-State website says that when Capote first decided to do an article on the Clutter murders for The New Yorker magazine, he went to his editor, Bennett Cerf, the co-founder of Random House. Cerf had just been to K-State to give a lecture and had met McCain. The two became friends. Cerf called McCain and asked him whether he knew the Clutters.
McCain did. He considered them friends. McCain agreed to write letters of introduction for Capote if Capote would agree to come to K-State and speak to the English department.
The McCain letters introduced Capote and Lee to Dolores and Clifford Hope.
Clifford Hope was Herb Clutter’s attorney.
The Hopes and Deweys befriended Capote and Lee.
According to Welch, Lee met Marie Dewey in a Garden City grocery store. They immediately liked each other.
“Nelle Harper Lee was a charming lady,” Welch said. “She did much if not most of his research out here. People liked her and cooperated with her.”
Marie Dewey was originally from New Orleans, Welch said.
“Marie invited Harper Lee and Capote to the Dewey home,” Welch said. “When Al got home, Marie told him what she had done. Al went through the roof. He said, ‘My God, what have you done?’
“She said, ‘I don’t care. We are civilized people; we need to invite them for dinner, and you will be good.’ They both told me that story.”
Clifford Hope gave Capote and Lee their first tour of the Clutter home. The Hopes invited Capote and Lee to Christmas dinner.
And from there, lifetime friendships in Kansas were formed by Nelle Harper Lee.