Connecting Capote, Cozumel, and the Killers of the Clutters

Copyright 2012, Ric Hajovsky

In 1959, Truman Capote read a story in the New York Times about the murders of the Clutter family and immediately began to write a book about the killers. It took him five years to finish writing it. He published his story first as a four-part series of articles beginning with installment number one in the September 25, 1965 edition of the New Yorker magazine under the title In Cold Blood: The last to see them alive. The book, In Cold Blood, was published immediately afterwards in 1965 by Random House. The book was made into a movie by the same name in 1967.

In the English version of the book, Capote writes that Perry, one of the two murderers portrayed in the story, read a men’s magazine article about Cozumel and fantasizes about going to the island. The article, Capote quoted in the book, was supposed to have said you could “shed your clothes, put on a relaxed grin, live like a Raja, and have all the women you want for $50-a-month!”

Capote then added: “From the same article he had memorized other appealing statements: ‘Cozumel is a hold-out against social, economic, and political pressure. No official pushes any private citizen around on this island,’ and ‘Every year flights of parrots come over from the mainland to lay their eggs.’”

Later in Capote’s book, Perry fanaticizes performing on stage and he composes a ballad which he sings for his companion, Dick:

“Every April flights of parrots
Fly overhead, red and green,
Green and tangerine.
I see them fly, I hear them high,
Singing parrots bringing April spring…”

Truman then writes: “Dick, on first hearing the song, had commented, ‘Parrots don’t sing. Talk, maybe. Holler. But they sure as hell don’t sing.’”

Truman says that Perry had often dreamt of going to such a place as Cozumel for adventure and since childhood had been sending off for literature that touted “Fortunes in Diving!” Train at Home in Your Spare Time. Make Big Money Fast in Skin and Lung Diving. Free Booklets…” Truman also writes that Perry was frequently answering advertisements like the one that said “Sunken Treasure! Fifty Genuine Maps! Amazing Offer!”

Above: The ad in Popular Mechanics Magazine January, 1959.

Capote has a scene in the book where Perry is planning a get-away trip to Mexico while sitting at a table in a diner and looking at a Phillips 66 map of Mexico that has Cozumel, Acapulco, Sierra Madre, and other places circled in red. Later, Perry and Dick drive their car to Mexico. They enter Mexico at Nuevo Laredo, stay their first night in San Luis Potosi, and then drive to Mexico City. After staying in Mexico City for a while, they drive to Cuernavaca, Taxco, and Acapulco. Finally, they drive back to Mexico City, sell the car, and take a bus back to Barstow, California. The closest they ever got to Cozumel was Mexico City.

Truman, however, DID eventually make it to Cozumel. He talked about his experience there in a September, 1975 interview with Richard Zoernik for issue number 3 of Playgirl magazine:

“Never rent a house in Cozumel sight unseen,” Truman Capote intoned, punctuating the warning with a giggle as he sat slumped on a dark leather banquette in the crowded smoked-filled cocktail lounge of the Hotel Carlyle in New York. Capote was tired. He had just returned from Cozumel, an island off the coast of Yucatan, where he paid his first visit to the house he had rented for the summer with his close friend and almost constant companion, Lee Radziwill and her sister Jackie Kennedy Onassis.

“They said the house was secluded,” Capote continued, straightening in his seat, sipping his screwdriver and peering at me from behind rose tinted lenses. “Oh, was it ever secluded all right!” Capote, growing more animated, made his mouth go rubbery, like a hand puppet’s, and dragged the guttural stresses from the corner of his lips. His famous laugh began in short staccato bursts. “So is Devil’s Island secluded! The house is on this, kind of, you know, on this bluff that overlooked the ocean. And, there was a clump of palm trees at the edge of the bluff. And, well…”

Capote paused to swallow his laughter. Composed again, he took another sip of his drink, twirled an open palm in the air and continued. “And so Lee and I got there just as it was dark. We got out of the car and there was this… this dark cloud, like some poisonous fog, just kind of hovering in the tops of these trees. And then, it started to move toward us! And… and Lee grabbed my arm and she said, ‘Truman! What is that?’“

Laughing harder now, Capote fought for breath and then began to wheeze. He wadded up a handkerchief in his palm and shoved a part of the fabric up under each rose-tinted lens, drying his cheeks and eyes. “The cloud was mosquitoes!” He jerked his fist-full of handkerchief in the direction of my glass, at the two soggy onions at the bottom of my Vodka Gibson. “Mosquitoes as big as those onions!”

Capote collapsed against the back of the banquette, his laughter erupting above the din in the crowded lounge. His laughter was contagious and soon we were both laughing as others in the room stared at our table.

The episode he was describing took place in March, 1973, when the Onassis’ yacht, the Cristina, anchored in Cozumel for a three week stay, departing the island on March 27. Gloria Guinness later described the end of the visit to the island in the book “Truman Capote”:

“I went with him to that terrible place…Cozumel. The beginning of the end. It’s hard to say when the beginning of the end did start, because it would start and then it would stop, which would make you very hopeful. But he was terribly depressed there, and that was frightening. He was immobilized. Anyway, we got out of Cozumel. I chartered a small plane and got him to the Paleys’ in Nassau. I knew there was a hospital there if necessary.”

In a later letter, Truman himself described Cozumel as:

“Cozumel, Mexico, an awful place Gloria and Loel Guinness rescued me from.”