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Without Harper Lee, ‘In Cold Blood’ might not have been

Finney County Attorney Duane West, standing left, speaks during a 1960 hearing of murder defendantds Richard Hickock, seated right, and Perry Smith, in Garden City.
Finney County Attorney Duane West, standing left, speaks during a 1960 hearing of murder defendantds Richard Hickock, seated right, and Perry Smith, in Garden City. File photo

In all of classic American literature, the backstory of writer Harper Lee and the book “In Cold Blood” is one of the strangest and most enduring.

Lee died Friday at age 89. Most of the many stories re-told about her in the next few days will focus on her 1960 novel, “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

But Duane West and Thomas Fox Averill are Kansans who can tell the behind-the-scenes tale about her and her childhood friend Truman Capote, who wrote “In Cold Blood.”

If not for Lee, they said Friday, it’s possible that “In Cold Blood” never would have been written – or at least it might not have been as good as it is.

West, now 84, was the chief prosecutor of the “In Cold Blood” murderers Dick Hickock and Perry Smith.

Averill teaches creative writing and Kansas literature at Washburn University. He has spent much time talking to Kansans about Capote and Lee – and how Capote’s book got written.

Here are reasons he and Averill said we should deeply appreciate her:

Four members of the Clutter family were found dead in 1959 at their farmhouse near the western Kansas town of Holcomb.

West was the elected county attorney of Finney County, where the Clutters lived.

“And so I was the chief prosecutor, from the time that case started until we got both of those two bastards hanged,” he said.

Soon after the murders, West said, a little man with odd manners and a high-pitched voice showed up in Holcomb and Garden City and began trying to interview people.

Many turned instantly away, Averill said.

Capote was the young genius of New York literary circles who had written “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.” West and other western Kansans were not impressed, Averill said.

Capote had come because he thought there was a literary story to be told about the Clutter murders, about what it said about American culture and societal change – and violence.

But people rejected him.

“He was flamboyantly homosexual at a time when most people thought homosexuals should stay in the closet,” Averill said. “People found him hard to take.”

“He made a deliberate effort to look like the oddball, with a big fleece-lined coat and his little Charlie DeGaulle pillbox hat,” West said.

“Then, the second or third time he showed up here, he came with Harper Lee,” West said.

West disliked some parts of Capote’s character.

“But I had the highest respect for Lee,” he said.

Harper Lee's hometown of Monroeville, Ala. brings her famed book "To Kill a Mockingbird" to life on a local stage each year. The town inspired the setting for the iconic book. Lee died Friday at the age of 89. (Originally published: July 14, 2015)

No one knew who she was, West said. No one knew or cared that she had laid aside her work on a novel called “To Kill a Mockingbird” to come help Capote learn better about how to talk to human beings.

But many people noticed that Lee, unlike Capote, was likable on first impression – and utterly devoted to Capote’s effort.

She went with him everywhere in Garden City and Holcomb, knocking on doors, buttonholing people in stores. She did much of the talking at first.

She got Capote past that bad first impression. She’d get people to get to a second impression of him.

Thomas Fox Averill on author Harper Lee

“She got Capote past that bad first impression,” Averill said. “She’d get people to get to a second impression of him.

“Once she talked people into inviting him into their homes, people could see that Capote himself was warm and kind, funny and generous – and a great storyteller.”

She talked investigators, including chief investigator Alvin Dewey, into opening their doors. She helped take notes.

Whenever I met her, she’d never say much; I think she was incredibly shy. … What I did notice was that in the hearings, she was the one taking page after page of notes.

Duane West, prosecutor of the “In Cold Blood” murders, on author Harper Lee

“I didn’t notice much of that; I was busy with the case,” West said. “Whenever I met her, she’d never say much; I think she was incredibly shy.

“What I did notice was that in the hearings, she was the one taking page after page of notes.”

Hundreds of interviews later, Capote published the book in 1966, and readers and authors around the world read it with wonder. A non-fiction novel, Capote called it.

The book has critics, including West.

“He made (the chief case investigator) Alvin Dewey the hero,” West said. “If a writer can’t get the hero right, he shouldn’t bother to write the book.

“The real hero, the guy whose work we based our whole case on, was the assistant police chief at the time, Richard Rohleder.”

But other writers then and now have recognized that “In Cold Blood” pioneered a new way to tell a story. If you read that book today, Averill said, you’ll see that Capote was a perceptive thinker who told stories that carried a lot of freight: what Kansans and Americans are like; how two cold-blooded murderers could be described in ways that made them all too human.

The backstory, about how Lee helped Capote, is still retold, including in recent years, Averill said. Catherine Keener portrayed Lee in the 2005 movie “Capote.” Sandra Bullock played her in the movie “Infamous” in 2006.

West got to see Lee – and Capote – up close, in New York, in 1964.

The Red Cross, for which West had volunteered for years, sent West to New York to a convention. West wrote Capote in New York to say he was coming, and asked whether Capote had any advice on how he could take his wife to the biggest show on Broadway at the time, “Hello, Dolly!” starring Carol Channing.

What followed, West said, was one of the strangest nights of his life.

Capote wrote back immediately, promised to get him tickets to the sold-out show – and kept the promise, with Lee at his side. The two writers of two of America’s greatest classic books took West and his wife, Orvileta, to Sardi’s for dinner, then sat beside them to watch “Dolly” from third-row seats.

“After the show was over, Lee and Capote took us backstage, to Carol Channing’s dressing room,” West said. “Channing had a dressing room only 5 feet wide, there wasn’t room, so Harper Lee stayed outside. And we talked to Carol Channing for an hour.”

By 1964, West said, Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” had won the Pulitzer Prize and had been made into the 1962 film. Gregory Peck won an Academy Award for his portrayal of Atticus Finch, her main character.

The boy Dill, one of the story’s minor characters, was based on Lee’s memories of her childhood friend, Capote.

And by that time, West and many other readers had recognized Lee’s novel as a deep examination of racism, the American character and the nuances of good and evil.

In contrast, West to this day said he has little use for “In Cold Blood.”

“I’ve never read it,” West said. “From what I heard, the book is an apology for the killers. And besides getting the hero wrong, I knew that a lot of what Capote said about the book was just plain old ballyhoo.

“He said he wrote the book from his ‘memory,’ of what people told him.

“And that was not true.

“Harper Lee was at his side, taking notes the whole time.”

Contributing: Beccy Tanner of The Eagle

Roy Wenzl: 316-268-6219, @roywenzl

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