Truman Tale

In November 1959, when Denver-based photographer Rich Clarkson heard about four murders in rural Holcomb, Kansas, he didn't foresee a blockbuster of national proportions. At least one of the Topeka newspapers where he was employed at the time ran an account of the crime on page one, but, he says, "it wasn't a screaming headline. I think it was only a column wide. It wasn't even the main story that day."

The New York Times' first report about the homicides fit into a single column, too, and was buried inside the paper -- and it might have stayed buried if writer Truman Capote hadn't spotted the article and followed up on it in memorable fashion. In Cold Blood, his 1966 book about four members of the Clutter family and the two men, Perry Smith and Richard Hickock, who were executed for killing them, became a critical and popular sensation, and a 1967 movie of the same name was equally acclaimed. Also receiving praise is Capote, a new film that's likely to earn Oscar nominations for Philip Seymour Hoffman as the title figure and Catherine Keener as Harper Lee, who was Capote's assistant in the months before the publication of her signature novel, To Kill a Mockingbird. Moreover, a second flick on the topic, titled Have You Heard? and co-starring Sandra Bullock and little-known Toby Jones in the Lee and Capote roles, is slated for a 2006 bow.

This flurry of Capote-related activity strikes close to home for Clarkson, who's 73. Although he's best known for capturing thousands of iconic sports images over his half-century-plus career, he also took the only photographs of Smith and Hickock's 1960 trial and won permission for television cameraman Paul Threlfall to shoot film of the proceedings. At the time, Clarkson remembers, Threlfall asked him, "How did you pull that off?" -- and the answer to this question and others shows how the media has changed in the past four and a half decades.

Toward the end of the '50s, Clarkson split his time between contract work for Sports Illustrated -- a relationship that flourished for thirty years -- and his position as head of the photography department shared by the Topeka Daily Capital and the Topeka State Journal. In the latter capacity, Clarkson covered the Clutters' funeral, and in January 1960, when Smith and Hickock were transported to Garden City, near Holcomb, after being captured in Las Vegas, he returned to the scene and arranged what he calls "a quiet little deal" with local authorities. He was the only shutterbug allowed to click photos of the killers as they were led up to the courthouse, and he was allowed inside to get pictures of them entering the building and sitting in their cells. "I had some unusual cooperation," he says.

Granted, competition was minimal. "There wasn't the kind of blanket media coverage of events back then, unless it was Marilyn Monroe supposedly committing suicide," Clarkson says. The reporting corps, such as it was, consisted of staffers from the Topeka papers, the Garden City Telegram, the Kansas City Star, the Denver Post, the Rocky Mountain News, AP and UPI, plus Capote and Lee, "this mousy little woman who never said anything."

In those days, Kansas was a dry state, "so the editor of the Telegram did us a favor and made us all members of the American Legion, because that was the only place where you could get a drink," Clarkson says. For that reason, the out-of-towners, Capote and Lee included, regularly gathered and guzzled at the Legion hall. "We all knew who Capote was, but I don't think any of us saw him as demanding or thought he was controlling things," Clarkson allows. "I had the impression he was trying to fit in as much as he could and not attract attention to himself. But he was quite a storyteller at night." Capote wasn't proprietary about interviews, either, as Capital journalist Ron Kull learned. According to Clarkson, "The townspeople would occasionally say to Ron, 'That Capote guy wants to talk to me, too. Can't we do it at the same time?'" Capote didn't write down anything during these mini-press conferences, but "when In Cold Blood came out, Ron read it and said, 'Goddamn it. I couldn't keep up with the notes, and he never took any -- and he had the quotes better than I did.'" Kull had better luck communicating with Hickock, whereas "Perry Smith and Truman hit it off," Clarkson says. "Perry was apparently gay, like Truman, and they bonded. They were exchanging notes."

For his part, Clarkson had a way with Roland Tate, the judge who presided over the week-long trial, which got under way on March 22. Back then, the American Bar Association argued against allowing cameras in the courtroom, but, he says, "I let the judge know they could be there at his discretion and suggested that we create a pool. And he asked me, 'What's a pool?'" In response, Clarkson proposed that he "sit in the back of the courtroom, shoot pictures without a flash, and distribute them equally to everyone." Once Tate okayed the plan, Clarkson then went to bat for Threlfall, who hadn't even bothered to ask for access, certain he wouldn't get it.

The stark tableaux Clarkson captured are reproduced well in Capote, but based on his descriptions, the filmmakers may have taken a few liberties. The sequence in which Smith and Hickock are led through a crowd into the courthouse/jail following their extradition takes place at night, even though Clarkson says they actually arrived in the afternoon. Likewise, the verdict is delivered amid bursting flashbulbs of the sort Clarkson didn't use -- and besides, he was only there for the first day of the trial due to what he calls "fiscal restraints," and he's confident no one else got in after he headed back to Topeka.

If there are other flaws, Clarkson hasn't caught them, since he says he's been too busy to see the movie. He used the same excuse to beg out of attending next month's premiere of Glory Road, a film about the 1966 Texas Western squad that won the NCAA basketball championship with five African-American starters -- the first to do so. The Jerry Bruckheimer-produced opus, which opens nationally in January with a cast led by Josh Lucas and Derek Luke, uses Clarkson photos over the closing credits, and a portfolio of his work will be part of a DVD release down the line.

Clarkson can more than justify his claim of being swamped. After working for publications such as the Denver Post and National Geographic, he started Rich Clarkson and Associates, a company that currently handles photography for the Broncos and the Rockies, and is readying massive tomes about the NCAA and Arlington National Cemetery. The firm also puts on well-regarded photography workshops (former second lady Tipper Gore attended one in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, earlier this year) and is looking for television tie-ins. A model for such projects is 50 Years of the Final Four: Behind the Lens of Rich Clarkson, a 2005 ESPN Classic documentary in which folks such as Bob Knight gush about Clarkson's work.

Far fewer people have seen his images of Smith and Hickock, especially lately -- and he never expected that these two psychopaths would still command attention more than forty years after they were put to death. "We just thought it was a good local story," he says. "But it became a lot more."

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts