Looking At the Origins of Modern True Crime Writing

Nov 29, 2022

Deliberate Cruelty: Truman Capote, the Millionaire’s Wife, and the Murder of the Century

Truman Capote’s groundbreaking, nonfiction classic, In Cold Blood—a gripping account of the 1959 slaughter of a wealthy Kansas farm family— instantly established the writer’s brilliant literary reputation.

In the process, Capote made true crime a respectable genre, rescuing it from its tawdry Police Gazette and tabloid origins.

To be sure, it would be difficult to overestimate the cultural impact of the author and the phenomenal bestseller he wrote in 1966 about the murders.

In addition to the 1967 feature film, two other, more recent, screen versions about the book and its writing have been made, as well as one nonfiction account. There is at least one definitive Capote biography, and an episode of PBS’ American Masters is devoted to him. Countless academic papers have examined and evaluated his work.

However, in recent years In Cold Blood’s reputation has dimmed somewhat.

Ethical questions have been raised about Capote’s work process in creating what he called a “nonfiction novel,” which may explain—although not excuse—his narrative corner-cutting.

The author apparently made a sweetheart deal with the lead homicide detective working on the murder of the Clutter family. Capote is alleged to have traded insider access to the investigation in exchange for the investigator’s favorable portrayal in the book.

There was also a charge that Capote’s lifelong friend Harper Lee, who would later write the equally phenomenal To Kill a Mockingbird, did more than simply transcribe Capote’s interview notes for his book; that she may have conducted some, without credit.

And finally, the last two cinematic portrayals of the book and the author, Capote and Infamous, highlighted the fact that he dissembled to convicted murderers Perry Smith and Richard Hickock. That is, that he manipulated them into revealing much about their participation in the killings by feigning sympathy he did not feel. In the days before he watched the two men hang in a chilly Kansas prison warehouse, Capote even withheld from them the book’s damning title.

Janet Malcolm, the late New Yorker writer, famously asserted that all journalism is betrayal. In this case, Malcolm was writing about another sensational murder case—Joe McGinniss’ Fatal Vision, an account of Green Beret Dr. Jeffrey MacDonald’s murder trial. But she could just as easily have been thinking of In Cold Blood, since throughout Truman Capote’s literary career, betrayal was his stock in trade.

Now, in Roseanne Montillo’s engaging, compelling new book, Deliberate Cruelty: Truman Capote, the Millionaire’s Wife, and the Murder of the Century, Capote is himself put under the journalistic microscope. And it’s not a pretty picture.

In his short story, “The Thanksgiving Visitor,” Capote wrote: “There is only one unpardonable sin—deliberate cruelty.” This epigraph gives Montillo’s book its title—with good reason.

The book tells the story of the Oct. 30, 1955, killing of William Woodward Jr., a banker, horse breeder, and socialite, by his wife Ann, a former chorus girl. Ann claimed she mistook her husband for a nighttime intruder in their darkened Long Island mansion, firing two blasts from a shotgun, in what Life magazine called the “Shooting of the Century.”

There had in fact been a prowler reported in the neighborhood, and possibly even in the Woodward home, either the night before or the night of the shooting. Although members of William’s circle were nearly unanimous in their belief that the killing was intentional, if not premeditated, there was enough reasonable doubt that Ann was never charged with a crime.

Capote had only one interaction with Ann Woodward, a chance encounter at a Swiss restaurant. The newly widowed Woodward was sitting with her dinner companion, Claus von Bulow, who would later be convicted of murdering his own wife. Capote got up from his table and approached Ann, who was miffed at the interruption. Woodward called the diminutive author, who made no secret of his homosexuality, a “little fag” and, subsequently, a “little toad.” He replied by calling her “Mrs. Bang Bang.”

Thereafter the two despised one another.

However, Ann underestimated the author’s propensity for lethal mischief-making. As Montillo writes, she “should have known he was dangerous.”

Montillo begins her tale with alternating, unfolding biographies of Capote and Ann Woodward as they were propelled to their epic collision. Along the way, Montillo does some hip pocket psychoanalyzing of the pair, looking for deeper causes of their mutual hostility, which sometimes bordered on obsession.

Both Ann and Truman were quintessential arrivistes. They were hardscrabble, lower middle class, outsiders from the South and Midwest who were desperately trying to remake themselves and enter the elite ranks of New York social and literary circles.

“Truman’s mother was eerily similar to Ann Woodward,” each changing names and husbands as they clawed their way up to the city’s top drawer. Both Nina Capote and Ann’s mother Ethel even had memorial services at the same Manhattan funeral home.

“It is possible that Truman Capote loathed the socialite Ann Woodward because she reminded him so much of his mother,” she writes. “But he may also have been so cruel to her because Ann Woodward seemed so much like him as well.”

Although foreshadowed, the murder is not examined in detail until about the midpoint of the book. Even then it is interrupted by a lengthy section on In Cold Blood, published a decade after the Long Island shooting. Following the colossal success of In Cold Blood, Capote was desperate for a literary triumph that would be its equal.

But rather than a book, Capote chose to tell the story of the Woodward killing in a fictional section, in what he said was a forthcoming novel, Answered Prayers.

The section was published as a 1975 Esquire magazine short story, “La Cote Basque, 1965,” and left no doubt that the character based on Ann Woodward had murdered her husband. In the process, Capote also betrayed the confidences of the circle of wealthy, beautiful, socially prominent women he referred to “the swans,” presenting them in vicious caricature as vapid, bitchy gossips.

“By exposing their sins, [Capote] had committed literary and social suicide,” Montillo writes, cutting himself off forever for the same people who helped bring him to prominence.

Seemingly oblivious, Capote claimed not to understand the reason he became a social pariah.

Yet there was worse to come. In the days before the magazine hit newsstands, word of the content and the tone had leaked out. Ann Woodward committed suicide before the issue went on sale, and in the years to come both of her deeply wounded adult sons also killed themselves.

Much like In Cold Blood, the Woodward murder generated other treatments in popular culture, in addition to the fictionalized account in Answered Prayers.

In 1985, Dominick Dunne based another novel on the murder, The Two Mrs. Grenvilles, which became a television mini-series in 1987, and, later, an episode of Dominick Dunne’s Power, Privilege, and Justice cable series. Investigation Discovery’s A Crime to Remember series included an episode called “Who Killed Mr. Woodward?”

Susan Braudy wrote a nonfiction book about the case in 1992, This Crazy Thing Called Love.

Implicitly, the larger question Montillo raises in Deliberate Cruelty—which has been raised more frequently in recent years about other writers and artists—seems to be: Can good, even great art be created by bad people? In Cold Blood and “La Cote Basque, 1965,” are great reads, and remain so. Still, Truman Capote was unquestionably not a nice person. So, it’s the reader’s choice.

In the meantime, Deliberate Cruelty is a decidedly unguilty pleasure.