The Clutters’ California Connection

EARLIER THIS summer, I found myself pulling Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood off the shelf for no special reason but curiosity.

As a journalist, I’d been wanting to re-read it for both style and craft reasons:  I was interested in the intricacies of how the book was put together — how he moved back and forth in time, embroidered backstory and etched imagery that would stay in one’s mind forever.

Capote’s story — re-enactment really — of the Clutter family’s mass murder in Holcomb, Kansas, one cold night in November 1959, is often pointed to as one of the seminal examples  of “new journalism” long before it was called such. To achieve what he called, “the nonfiction novel,” Capote wove in aspects of novel-like storytelling — sense of place, vivid description, dialogue, creating context and background and consequently an emotional connection to the place, the victims and the killers,  before the action is set in motion.

Coincidentally, there have been a few mentions of Capote and the Clutters in the news this month. The Kansas Bureau Investigation’s original case files and Capote’s reporting — notebooks, clippings, files — are up for auction until the end of the month. Also, Vintage Memorabilia has put up a elaborate online presentation featuring the K.B.I.’s files, once the property of the investigator on the case, Harold Nye, whose son, Ronald Nye, has now  decided to part with.

“My dad seldom spoke about the crimes he worked on during 33 years in law enforcement, but the Clutter case was the one exception,” Nye said. “He grew up on a western Kansas wheat farm himself, making it kind of personal. Dad threw himself into the hunt for facts, and he didn’t stop until he had gathered the evidence he needed to get a confession.”

As these things often happen, synchronistically, I was moving through the “day-after” section of the book, where the Holcomb community is reacting — not just to the murders –but also spilling “dirt” (read: “potential motive”) about Herbert Clutter, the patriarch of the family,  some residents wondering if there may have been something about his “piousness” that had ticked someone off, etc.

When I got to the place where Capote enumerates the long list of friends and kin who would be contacted for the mass funeral, one line that jumped out — “Also, the parents of Bonnie Clutter [the matriarch], Mr. and Mrs. Arthur B. Fox, who lived in Pasadena, California….”

I put the book down and did a little online digging and quickly found an online mention of the Foxes earlier that very year — April 10, 1959 to be exact.  They were to be at a “hobbyists” show at what was then called “the Shrine Exposition Hall” in Los Angeles. Mr. and Mrs. Arthur Fox would be exhibiting their “specialty woodworking” including “several hundred gavels made from over 250 kinds of wood.”

All this in a little news item buried at the bottom of a page among display ads for Bullock’s and Gump’s department stores.

Close by, I found the Fox address and discovered that it was nearby where I make weekly rounds to Hastings’ Ranch. So this morning on my way to my other errands, I made a different right turn near the 210 Freeway and happened upon the little white house where Bonnie Clutter’s parents had lived. I had to wonder if the people living inside the house knew of the connection. I wondered about what people whispered about the Clutter story on this street when the Foxes made their leave to Kansas: the connections and reverberations that never seem to cease.

(image #2: truman capote in the Clutter home, Holcomb, KS;
image #3: The Fox home Hastings’ Ranch, CA 2012)

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