Holcomb, Kansas: 2013

©Bruce Davidson / Magnum Photos

Fifty years after being immortalized in Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood,” the town still gives an intimate glimpse of one of literary history's most notorious locales.

In the opening line of In Cold Blood, Truman Capote writes that “the village of Holcomb stands on the high wheat plains of western Kansas, a lonesome area that other Kansans call ‘out there.’” And to this day, the town still feels truly remote: It takes six hours to drive there from Kansas City. The route requires traversing an endless sea of open, empty land. At first this land ocean laps against the road in gentle waves; later it hardens and flattens out until it becomes trampoline-taut, a plain stretching colorlessly to the horizon on all sides of your car.

As much of the literate world knows, Capote spent nearly half a decade in the remote reaches of this state documenting the aftermath of the shocking massacre of the Clutter family by ex-cons Perry Smith and Richard Hickock in 1959 for what would become his harrowing masterpiece.

Capote took up residence at the now-defunct Warren Hotel, in Garden City, a town seven miles east of Holcomb. At the time, only 270 people lived in Holcomb, which boasted no hotel of its own. Capote biographer Gerald Clarke memorably described 1959 Garden City and its outlying areas as “prosperous, mostly from wheat and natural gas, and staunchly Republican, a town of teetotalers and devout Christians who filled 22 churches every Sunday morning.”

Arrive in Garden City on a Sunday morning, as I did, and you could be forgiven for thinking you’d pulled into a well-preserved ghost town. Not a single store is open on Main Street, which is still lined by quaint midcentury false-fronted two-story brick buildings. There on the left is a shuttered trophy shop; on the right stands an old-fashioned soda fountain reassuringly named Traditions ($ 121 W. Grant Ave.; 620-275-1998). The sole clue that the town might still be inhabited: music blaring from speakers that discreetly line the thoroughfare. The soundtrack features an odd assortment of Strauss waltzes and Bing Crosby–esque ballads.

What’s brought me to town? I’ve been obsessed with Capote since reading Breakfast at Tiffany’s at 12 years old, and in the decades since I’ve devoured his books, plus the ones about him; I’ve made pilgrimages to all of his former New York City haunts. I’ve long wanted to get to the heart of his greatest accomplishment—and also to the source of his tragic public unraveling—and so on the eve of In Cold Blood’s 50th anniversary, which will inevitably spur a surge of interest in the book and its notorious creation, I’ve made my way to Kansas. The goal: to observe the long-term Capote effect on a community that’s borne an unshakable international scarlet-letter infamy thanks to the writer’s onetime presence.

Holcomb appears as deserted as Garden City, even though it’s now home to about 2,000 souls instead of a mere 300. The town largely consists of a grid of streets dotted with modest houses and trailers and surrounded by farmland. The smell of cow manure wafts through the air. Main Street consists of a grammar school and a tiny, ramshackle, sinking-into-the-earth shop with the words “La Popular Store” painted across the front. (A sign on the side clarifies that it peddles groceries.) The nearby business district—a single short street—boasts a bakery, a coin-operated “Laundry-Mat” and the Pigtails salon.

Pickings are relatively slim when it comes to accommodations. For those accustomed to certain requisite mod cons, a scattering of soulless chain hotels circles the outer reaches of Garden City; the most colorful in-town option is Sunnyland Bed and Breakfast (rooms, from $90; 501 N. Fifth St.; 620-276-0500; sunnylandbandb.com), housed in a Victorian mansion. There are certain fin de siècle grandnesses—a third-floor ballroom and a wraparound porch festooned with rocking chairs—yet the fussy idiosyncracies of the current owners permeate the hotel: Vacant-eyed dolls inhabit every nook and cranny; each of the rooms is named after a bible passage.

Visitors searching for commemorations of the Clutter tragedy should expect to embark on something of a scavenger hunt. “There are no true attractions dedicated to the Clutters per se, outside of a few small memorials,” says Roxanne Morgan, assistant director of the Finney County Convention and Visitors Bureau (1513 E. Fulton Terr., Garden City; 620-276-0607; finneycountycvb.com), although she and other locals say that a small but steady stream of out-of-towners comes looking for evidence of literary history. Morgan describes “resistance from the older population” to erecting any sort of substantial formal monument: “Nobody wants to be remembered for a tragedy. And there’s a lot of scar tissue. There are people still alive who knew the Clutters, who worked for Mr. Clutter, who went to church with them.”

Determined tragedy tourists can visit Garden City’s First United Methodist Church (1106 N. Main St.; fumcgc.com), where the Clutters were congregation members; their funerals were held there. Above the choir loft glows a large, brilliantly colored stained-glass window called the Herbert Clutter Family Memorial Window. Holcomb has a homely little community park with a stone memorial dedicated to the family. Copies of In Cold Blood, including an evocatively tattered first edition, are kept under lock and key at the local library. “They disappear all the time,” says one librarian. “Souvenir hunters take them.”

And then there is the notorious Clutter house, at the end of Oak Avenue, now privately owned by a family. Locals will tell you in hushed tones that if the town were to subsidize a museum, the former home would be the sensible site. But for now it’s off-limits to the morbidly curious: Walk up the ominous tree alley toward the house and large, voyeurism-halting dogs suddenly appear in the unfenced yard.

From a certain point of view, the older residents of Holcomb and Garden City themselves serve as the tragedy’s most compelling monuments. Ask around town and you’ll quickly find people with links to the Clutters or Capote. If you’re polite, they may invite you into their kitchens and feed you ham sandwiches while recalling aloud the terrifying moment when Kansans became afraid to leave their back doors unlocked at night.

Among the Clutters’ aging contemporaries, Capote appears decidedly unpopular; tellingly, none of the area’s memorials make mention of him or In Cold Blood. Yet the flamboyant writer remains omnipresent in the lore of both towns. Local attorney and former Garden City mayor Duane West, 81, who prosecuted the case, says that Capote “made a deliberate attempt to play the oddball while he was here,” donning “a sheepskin coat and a pillbox hat.” Of Capote’s local friends, West scoffs, “He had his sycophants, but the rest of the people didn’t know Truman Capote from Adam’s off ox.”

The most damning condemnations are reserved for Capote’s journalism. Even though West claims he hasn’t read the entire book, he calls it inaccurate. “A lot of [people] feel there was no redeeming social value in the book,” West says. “Capote called it ‘reportage,’ but I say it was ‘gar-bage.’” (He nevertheless owns a signed first edition with a letter from Capote taped inside the front cover.)

Another remaining figure: Bobby Rupp, Nancy Clutter’s teenage boyfriend at the time of her murder and an early suspect. Today Rupp lives a mere 800 yards from the Clutters’ home; from his front porch, you can gaze through the hazy air across the infamous homestead. Rupp, who rarely grants interviews, asserts that his longtime proximity to the physical site of the killings “doesn’t bother me.” “My memories with the Clutters are good memories,” he says.

On the topic of Capote, who interviewed Rupp: “I just didn’t care for him. He thought that every question he asked you should be glad to answer.” He says that Capote filled the book’s pages with small embellishments, citing as an example the passage in which Capote described Rupp running to the Clutter home upon learning of the murders. “I didn’t run; I had a car,” says Rupp, with more of an air of resignation than indignation.

Still, Capote’s presence undeniably flooded Holcomb with glamour. The 1967 film In Cold Blood, starring Robert Blake, was shot on-site, with many of the locals playing extras—or themselves; the film featured many of the jurors from the actual jury that convicted Smith and Hickock. “All the movie stars were in town,” recalls Garden City’s former mayor David Crase, a fourth-generation Finney County resident. “I don’t want to say Garden City was proud, but we felt important because people were paying attention to us.”

Even today’s younger Garden City residents in their teens and twenties acknowledge that the Capote halo still wreathes the town. One high school senior who works at Patrick Dugan’s Coffee House (301 N. Main St.; patrickdugans.com), which eventually supplanted the Warren Hotel’s Trail Room Coffee Shop & Dining Room, says that the tragedy and In Cold Blood are “still a big deal around here,” and adds, pointing down to the linoleum underfoot: “I mean, this floor was here when Capote and Harper [Lee, who served as his sleuthing assistant] came in. It’s cool to work in a place with so much literary history.”

Even if a contentious museum is in Holcomb’s future, the area appears poised to undergo an epic transformation that will likely render it unrecognizable as the 20th-century all-American small town depicted in the novel. Clues to what’s ahead lie just to the east of the larger community: Dozens of relatively newly spawned outposts of corporate Americana—Walmart, Target, Sears, Home Depot and, of course, McDonald’s—clot the land along the highway leading into Garden City. Crase describes Garden City as the “retail hub of southwest Kansas.” Holcomb is now often referred to as a bedroom community; its inhabitants increasingly serve as employees of these franchises—as well as Tyson Fresh Meats, a beef-packing plant on the town’s periphery described by local literature as one of the world’s largest.

And yet these massive retail enterprises are a mere prelude to even larger ventures being planned. Crase reveals that Garden City is opening itself up to deep-well drilling. “I could see us with an oil and gas boom,” he says. “They’re on the verge of coming here. It’s just a matter of bringing in rigs that are currently elsewhere.” While some locals quite reasonably worry that such development will threaten the historical character of Garden City, Crase maintains a pragmatic stance. “I think that you do still want to keep the memory of a small town atmosphere, although we’re not a small town anymore,” he says. “The community has to say, ‘Do we want growth, or do we want stagnation?’”

The area’s social fabric is dramatically shifting as the towns evolve. Workers from all over the globe have moved in, attracted by the job opportunities; Garden City has an astonishingly low 4.7 percent unemployment rate, compared with the 7.6 percent national rate. Stroll through the aisles in the local Walmart and you’ll hear Arabic, Vietnamese and Burmese spoken as migrant families in traditional dress do their weekly grocery shopping. “It’s a very transient community,” says Crase, who adds that some 28 languages are spoken on the floor at Tyson Fresh Meats. “A lot of immigrant families save money, move on and make new businesses elsewhere.” Many of these newcomers and passers-through have never heard of In Cold Blood, Truman Capote or the Clutters, and perhaps never will.

Biographer Gerald Clarke noted that Capote saw In Cold Blood as the tale of a family and community “pursued and destroyed by forces beyond its knowledge or control…a drama of destiny and fate.” Modernity, in the form of corporate intrusion, appears to be reprising that theme. So to any other Capote obsessives hoping to see the town’s ghoulishly fascinating literary history firsthand: Hurry up, before the tangible history disappears forever.

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