Monday, October 19, 2015

Truman Capote's Credibility

Truman Capote

Recently I was reading some transcripts of Bobby Beausoleil parole hearings and I was interested (beyond Sassy Bottoms!) to see how much weight was given to the content of an interview that Beausoleil gave to writer Truman Capote when he was housed in a maximum security unit at San Quentin prison in 1972 (or 1973, depending on the source). That interview saw its final form as a chapter in Capote's 1980 book Music For Chameleons entitled "Then It All Came Down." Beausoleil's reaction to the interview can be seen in the two parole hearing transcript sections quoted below, beginning with where a hearing representative responds to some material which was submitted to the Board by the District Attorney's office for the 1985 hearing:

Hearing Representative Lander: The first part of the material is a letter signed by Mr. Franks (phonetic) from Random House, Incorporated, and it indicates that Mr. Truman Capote had conducted an interview with you, and for the purposes of writing a book about death row murderers, and to do a television special on the subject of Death Row.

Inmate Beausoleil: Hmmm.

HRL: This was never shown on TV, and he remarks that there are editing marks on the (reported to be) transcript of an interview conducted by Mr. Capote with you when you were at Death Row. This had been sometime, some years ago, when you were at San Quentin, in the early 1970s.
Counsel obviously has advised you of your rights related to this material. The material relates to your attitude at that time, as well as what had transpired during the crime, as well as your attitude at the time that you were imprisoned, and what your lifestyle had been. 
Are you willing to discuss this material with us today?

IB: Sir, I have been advised by my attorney that it wouldn't be appropriate at this time to go into that material.

Later, Bobby Beausoleil's Attorney Daniel Helbert said: I'd like to point out that the material that's been considered in connection with the Capote situation was material that was solicited by [LA County Deputy District Attorney Jeffery] Jonas. Also, I think, really, I understand that my objection's been overruled, and the panel's going to consider that information, but I think in terms of the weight of evidence that's going to be given to something like that, I think you have to realize, this material is material that allegedly came from the Capote interview. It's been edited by somebody, and that's indicated by the cover letter, by Mr. Fox. Furthermore, it's obviously been transcribed by someone, who we don't know who actually did the transcriptions.
It's also been punctuated by someone, and for instance, what appears to be an answer, in reality could be a question. Merely by putting four words together -- get me out of jail -- that could be a question, or that could be an answer.
And I think the panel is left with absolutely no direction whatsoever when you try to take a look at isolated excerpts from that type of a transcript.

On page 115 of the transcript Los Angeles Deputy District Attorney Jonas says: In the information that we have submitted to this panel with regard to the interview by Truman Capote, there is a comment made by Mr. Beausoleil as to what influence he thought he had on Manson, and how they met, and basically he was with his girls, Manson, with his girls, met in a bar and it became sex and it became music and ultimately it became one family. And we'll get into that....

And you understand that this interview is now four or five years after the facts, the 19, uh, -70 statements. You'll see in the upper righthand corner, there are page numbers. 
I'm referring the panel now to page number 16…. On page 16 Mr. Capote is apparently asking why the killings, why Gary Hinman died in a certain way. And halfway through there, the question is:
"In other words, they committed these murders in imitation of the Gary Hinman murder so to prove that you couldn't be guilty? Is that what you said?"
Answer: "To get me out of jail."

Mr. Helbert: That doesn't have a question mark at the end of it, does it?

Jonas: Is that what you say? It has a question mark? Answer: "To get me out of jail," has no question. "To get you out of jail?" has a question mark. I think the panel can read that.
But the answer is far more significant, counsel.

Helbert: Unless it's a question, Mr. Jonas.

Jonas: Well, that doesn't sound like a question to me. "You know, they've called us a family?" No, it's, "You know, they've called us a family, and we are a family. It's just like if you're really one with a family." Is that a question? "I mean like we're mother, father, sister, brother, daughter, son." Question? "To each other, that's where it's at. That's our family." That's a question, counsel? "That's our country, our world, and our society if you want to call it that. If a member of that family was to be in jeopardy, like you know, a family that loves wouldn't abandon that person. So for the love of brother those killings came down."
Not a member of the Manson family?….
Question: "You say you don't believe in killing just now? Before you said you didn't think there was anything wrong in the Sharon Tate murder case."
"Anything wrong? You see, when it comes to right and wrong, everyone has their own idea of right and wrong. Some people believe in the right and wrong that society dictates. My right and wrong is different. I don't even have a right and wrong. It's just whatever's right for now. That's the way it is. I don't judge it."
…. And I submit to you that I'm very, very concerned about that statement, because I submit to you that I am still concerned about Mr. Beausoleil's perspective of right and wrong, and who makes the rules, and whether we go by Mr. Beausoleil's rules, as he makes them up, or whether we go by society's rules….
But you know, there's something else that's a little bit curious in all of this. Mr. Beausoleil goes on and he talks about the Tate-LaBianca murders in this interview with Truman Capote. And Capote says, well, they were relatively innocent, weren't they? -- this on page -- meaning Tate and all those other people….
And he says, "Relatively innocent?" "Relatively innocent." check page 126.
On page 19, another question is asked by Mr. Capote: "But what possible justification could there be for the murder of the man and his wife the next night?" Meaning the LaBiancas. Answer: "You know I was in jail at the time, you know." Question: "Yes, but you approve of those things. You say, well, we're all a family and anything goes. All for one and one for all. (You're) saying you approve of it." 

Answer, Mr. Beausoleil: "I just don't question my brothers and sisters, you know."

Bobby Beausoleil

Twenty years later, this is from Beausoleil's 2005 hearing, starting at transcript  page 107:

Deputy District Attorney Sequeira: Did the inmate tell Truman Capote, in an interview that's in a transcript, that he was a member of the Manson Family?

Inmate Beausoleil: I never told Truman Capote that, and that was not a transcript. I know what you're referring to.

DDAS: Someone just made this up, is that what you're saying?

IB:Yes, and he is notorious for having done that sort of thing. He apparently -- the best that anyone has been able to determine, and of course that was also looked into in one of the investigations that Mr. Farmer referred to earlier, no one was able to get any sort of verification of that so-called transcript. Apparently it was something that he took out of his own head. Everything that I've read about him indicates that this is something that he did on a regular basis.

DDAS: I'm looking at a letter from the Random House publisher, specifically including the transcript copies, and saying that these are a copy of the transcripts and there's some writing on it. Some of the inks are by the copy editor, some of the pencils are his editing and that is Mr. Joseph M. Fox from Random House Incorporated.

IB: That was a transcript submitted by Mr. Capote to Random House. Yes. 

DDAS: And that's a transcript of the interview -- 

IB: No, it's not a transcript from the interview, it's a transcript that he made up, based on a very brief interview that did occur many, many years ago at San Quentin that I stopped in the middle because I didn't want to answer questions about the Manson Family.

DDAS: So you are saying that you didn't say in this transcript, "You know, they've called us a family and we are a family. It's just like if you were really one with family. I mean we are mother, father, brother, sister, daughter, and son to each other."

IB: I did not make that statement to Mr. Capote --

DDAS: Excuse me, let me finish Mr. Beausoleil.

IB: I'm sorry.

DDAS: "Where it's at, that's our family, that's our country, our world and our society if you want to call it that. If a member in that family was to be in jeopardy, like you know, a family that loves would [not] abandon that person, so for the love of brother those killings came down. I don't believe in killing, I don't want to believe in killing; but if I have to use violence I'll use it, you know?" So those are not your statements in the transcript?

IB: No, they are not. 

DDAS: The rest of the transcript, was that all made up as well?

IB: Pardon me?

DDAS: I'm not going to go into all the details --

IB: I'm sorry, you're fading out, I can't hear you.

DDAS: I'm not going to go into the detail of the rest of the transcript, but you are saying that this was all made up by Mr. Capote.

IB: To the best of my knowledge and to the best of the knowledge of anybody that has been able to figure out where it came from, yes. You know, I'm going to say -- 

DDAS: Is anything in this transcript true?

IB: No. The fact -- I don't know. There might be something that he remembers -- that he remembered at the time he made that transcript that is kind of similar to what I was talking about, but it wasn't about the Manson Family because I would not talk to him about that subject. He came to San Quentin saying he wanted to talk about prison problems. Well he had an agenda and he didn't tell anybody what the agenda was. He got in front of the camera with me and started talking about -- asking me questions, as I tried to evade him and that didn't work and I eventually just walked away. I did not discuss the nature of my relationship -- and I don't know where he got that or where he concocted it or whatever, but he has me in his book, sitting in a prison cell, chewing gum -- this is supposedly under the supervision of -- I don't know what he thinks but anyway --….

It's just simply that Mr. Capote is known for manufacturing things that he thinks will promote himself, I guess. I don't know how to say it any better than that. The interview that you just quoted from appears in a book in which I am sitting in a prison cell, with him, on the bunk, and I'm chewing gum and I'm acting a smart ass and I'm making these statements that you just read. I'm telling you that that interview never took place…. The interview that he provided a transcript to Random House did not take place.

And, a little later in the same hearing (page 113): 

Deputy Commissioner Garner-Easter: I reviewed the file and I did see that Mr. Capote came in there, his purpose was supposedly looking at Death Row inmates across the nation. This has been in contention at other Board hearings. I recognize that the Board of Prison Terms did an investigation on this matter. My understanding -- and you can correct me Mr. Beausoleil -- is that the investigation revealed that the interview took place, but no one can find the original transcripts. They've talked to Mr. Capote's personal attorney. He could not find it. He said the transcripts exist but they never could find the original transcripts and that you have always contested that those weren't your words. But I did not get the impression in looking at the documents that the interview never took place. That there [was] an interview but the question had to do with whether or not you said what he said.

Inmate Beausoleil: Precisely.

Where should we begin when attempting to determine the truth teller in this "he said/he said" situation? Perhaps a good place to start would be with the alleged interview itself, as it appeared in Music For Chameleons

Just a superficial examination of the interview chapter, "Then It All Came Down," by anyone even faintly familiar with Beausoleil's case shows that Capote is wildly inaccurate in many of his statements. In just the second paragraph Capote says that Beausoleil has been incarcerated for over a decade when in fact the true time span was less than half of that. In recounting the Gary Hinman homicide Capote mistakenly says that Hinman was killed when his throat was slashed (he was stabbed in the heart) and that "Death to Pigs" was written on the wall ("Political Piggy" was). Further, Capote has the name of the second half of the collective murders attributed to the "Manson Family" as "Lo Bianco" not "LaBianca." Beausoleil claims that additional erroneous reporting had the interview occurring in his cell instead of in an interviewing room and that he was chewing gum during the interview. But most importantly, in Beausoleil's view, Capote completely fabricated sections of the interview when he supposedly discussed his relationship with Charles Manson and "the Family" and his attitude towards the murders committed by the group. (Also in those sections Beausoleil concurs with Capote's suggestion that the Tate-LaBianca murders were committed in order to get him out of jail, i.e, the get-brother-out-of-jail/copycat motive.)

But looking beyond the chapter about Beausoleil it's worth a look at the credibility of the rest of Music for Chameleons as well. The centerpiece of the book is a 80-page bit of work entitled "Handcarved Coffins," which is described in the paperback edition I possess as a "nonfiction novel" and "A Nonfiction Account of an American Crime."  Both of these descriptions imply (to me, anyway) that the story was about something that actually happened. But after wading through four score pages of amphetamine-crazed rattlesnakes, piano-wire decapitations, and the handcarved coffins themselves, it's hard to believe that such an unusual case involving multiple victims wasn't better known and that in fact no one had even heard of it until Capote's rendition. At one point in the story Capote laments, "The amazing thing is, nobody seems to know anything about this case. It's had almost no publicity."  Well, the reason it never got any publicity was that it never happened -- at least not the way Capote wrote it. Instead, it was only very, very loosely based on a single event that did happen. (I won't take the time and space to critique the work here. Instead, you can read this complete investigative debunking of "Handcarved Coffins.")

But Capote's penchant for embellishing (okay, lying) wasn't just confined to MFC. The book that was the highlight of his career, In Cold Blood (the story of the 1959 shotgun slaying of the Clutter Family in Holcomb, Kansas by ex-cons Richard Hickock and Perry Smith), was also plagued with much fictional nonfiction.

Although hailed as a "masterpiece" by some reviewers at the time of its publication (1966) other critics were less kindly, some even calling the writing style hackneyed and contrived.

A  good takedown of In Cold Blood can be found in Truman Capote's In Cold Blood: A Critical Handbook, a college text edited by Irving Malin. In his book Malin presents convincing evidence that in In Cold Blood Capote manufactured scenes of events that never occurred, like the ending where the detective who solved the case met the best friend of slain Nancy Clutter at the family grave marker (that is described as "gray" instead of its actual red color). Nancy Clutter's horse Babe was not sold to a Mennonite farmer as a plow horse; instead she was sold to a Clutter neighbor determined to keep her in the area. (Babe lived long enough to play herself in the 1967 movie version of ICB.) The interactions between Perry Smith and the wife of the jailer at the Garden City jail as described by Capote were denied by her. Capote misrepresent Smiths's frame of mind during the murders. According to other witnesses present Smith did not apologize for the murders moments before he was hanged. Other critics of the book have pointed out that there are situations and dialogues recounted wherein the only person or persons who could have witnessed them were later murdered without first recalling them to third parties. Perhaps Capote's friend Harper Lee put it best when she later told an interviewer about his writing style, "He knows what he wants and he keeps himself straight. And if it's not the way he likes it, he'll arrange it so it is." 

In Cold Blood killers Richard Hickcock and Perry Smith


As I said at the beginning of this article I was surprised by the importance given to Capote's questionable version of his interview with Beausoleil by the Parole Board and the Deputy District Attorney. But what was really surprising to me was that as much as I thought that the quotes attributed to Beausoleil by Capote had very likely been mangled and misrepresentative, I couldn't dismiss them as completely fabricated because they did sound like things that Beausoleil would have said at about that time in his life (early '70s). I've seen letters and other material from Beausoleil's time on Death Row that testify to a state of mind similar to that expressed in the interview, to cockiness, swagger, and braggadocio. So his words in the interview did sound like things I think he might have said when he was on Death Row, things such as, "When the police put me in chains -- put me in jail and threatened to kill me -- eight or nine people were killed in an attempt to free me. That's a strong love. That's the allegiance that we have with each other." 

I'm sure that Bobby Beausoleil would rather not have people think that an attempt to free him after his arrest for murder was the primary motive behind some of the most infamous murders in American history. Such a concept would surely be an unwelcome weight added to his already precarious legal situation. And while he certainly cannot and should not be held legally responsible for the actions of others on his behalf, it might be difficult for people meeting to decide on his parole chances not to extrapolate this take on the Gary Hinman murder: If not for Beausoleil's  crime, seven more people would not have been killed.