Category Archives: Truman Capote

Bugliosi’s Helter Skelter Bogus Conspiracy Theory?

"Truman Capote and Bobby Beausoleil at San Quentin " by Peter Beard

“Truman Capote and Bobby Beausoleil at San Quentin ” by Peter Beard

As my last post made all too clear, this week in True Crime we’re talking about the 1976 TV movie Helter Skelter. Last night, as a follow-up to the discussion of the film, we discussed the interview between Truman Capote and Bobby Beausoleil published in 1973 as “Then it All Came Down.” Capote went to San Quentin in 1972 to talk with Beausoliel who was (and still is) serving life in prison for killing Gary Hinman—the first of the Manson murders. What’s fascianting to me about this conversation is that it suggests Vincent Bugliosi’s Helter Skelter scenario argued during the Manson trial, namely that the various murders were committed to spark a global race war, is overstated.

Instead, the Sharon Tate and LaBianca murders were actually attempts to free the charismatic and handsome Beausoleil from prison. In fact, Capote lays this theory out pretty clearly in the preface to the published interview:

It all began with the murder of Gary Hinman, a middle-aged professional musician who had befriended various members of the Manson brethren and who, unfortunately for him, lived alone in a small isolated house in Topanga Can­yon, Los Angeles County. Hinman had been tied up and tortured for several days (among other indignities, one of his ears had been severed) before his throat had been mercifully and lastingly slashed. When Hinman’s body, bloated and abuzz with August flies, was discovered, police found bloody graffiti on the walls of his modest house (“Death to Pigs!”) ­graffiti similar to the sort soon to be found in the households of Miss Tate and Mr. and Mrs. LaBianca.

However, just a few days prior to the Tate-LaBianca slayings, Robert Beausoleil, caught driving a car that had been the property of the victim, was under arrest and in jail, accused of having murdered the helpless Mr. Hinman. It was then that Manson and his chums, in the hopes of freeing Beausoleil, conceived the notion of committing a series of homicides similar to the Hinman affair; if Beausoleil was still incarcerated at the time of these killings, then how could he be guilty of the Hinman atrocity? Or so the Manson brood reasoned. That is to say, it was out of devotion to “Bobby” Beausoleil that Tex Watson and those cutthroat young ladies, Susan Atkins, Patricia Krenwinkel, Leslie Van Hooten, sallied forth on their satanic errands.

So, after watching the TV movie which spends three hours articulating and celebrating the brilliance of Bugliosi’s elaborate conspiracy theory tying the Manson murders to the Beatles’s song “Helter Skelter,” Capote offers a very logical, condensed version in just two short prefatory paragraphs. Rather than buying into an overblown theory that The White Album was the basis of an impending global racial conflagration, Capote argues Manson and the family had come up with the bloodiest, most horrific way to get Beausoleil out of jail. Still twisted thinking, no doubt, but somehow more believable than the vision of Helter Skelter laid out during the trial. That said, I must admit Bugliosi’s elaborate theory is far more entertaining than Capote’s, and maybe that’s the point.

A Curious Still Life

in_cold_blood_xlgAs I mentioned in my last post, one of the things Paul and I are trying to do with blog posts, videos, etc. for the True Crime course is model some of what we want to see. The group that is leading the discussion on Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood did a good job with background information and summarizing what happened in the first half of the book, but any good discussion of a book needs to anchor its discussion and arguments directly in the text. One of the things you hopefully learn as an undergrad when taking a literature class is how to read closely. How to examine specific passages to pick-up on particular elements of style, voice, etc. At the same time you also need to connect how a given passage connects to the broader themes of the book.

For the second half of In Cold Blood Paul and I have asked each group member to do just that. Choose a passage or two from the book and closely examine its broader themes, particularly elements of style that also feedback into the ideas Capote is getting at in the book. An example we talked about in class on Thursday was from Section 1 and it’s a description of the back seat of Dick and Perry’s car.

Dick was driving a 1949 black 1949 Chevrolet sedan. As Perry got in, he checked the back seat to see a if his guitar was safely there; the previous night, after playing for a party of Dick’s friends, he had forgotten and left it in the car. It was an old Gibson guitar, sandpapered and waxed to a honey-yellow finish. Another sort of instrument lay beside it—-a twelve-gauge pump-action shotgun, brand-new, blue-barreled, and with a sportsman’s scene of pheasants in flight etched along the stock. A flashlight, a fishing knife, a pair of leather gloves, and a hunting vest fully packed with shells contributed further atmosphere to this curious still life. (22)†

I brought this passage up during class Thursday because it, like so many others in this book, foreshadows and encapsulates the tensions and themes that made this book a classic. One of the immediate elements of this passage frame possibly the most powerful theme in this book, namely that cold blooded murderers are actually people. Perry embodies this brilliantly here (and an issue that only gets more complicated as the book proceeds) as he is scanning the back seat for his guitar, which he actually plays at parties fro friends, has deep affection for and demonstrates he can actually create something (not only destroy). This is something that is echoed continually throughout the book as it focuses on Perry as both murderer and human at once—a complex framing of the banality of evil that might be the most horrific part of the whole text.

And this very theme is written brilliantly into this passage as the description seamlessly moves from the guitar to “another sort of instrument” right beside it, namely “a twelve-gauge pump-action shotgun” which captures the murderous side of Perry. What’s more, this shotgun does not invoke an idyllic hunting scene that focuses around pheasants, but rather scenes of two men hunting down a family based on a similarly fanciful vision of gold and treasures to be found on the Clutter farm. This is all further reinforced by the list of hunting sundries in the description that illustrate with painful detail how everyday tools quickly become monstrous when seen through the lens of violence this scene is literally driving towards.

Finally, the the last line of this passage, “curious still life,” made just as well be another name for the entire book. Not only is Capote introducing a more ethereal literary voice to this hardboiled situation, but he’s also providing a curious still life to a moment of time in American culture. The idyllic vision of post-war America running on a crash course with the underbelly of the dream embodied by lost souls like Perry. But this is not an excuse, or even an argument, but rather freezing a documentary moment of time into a literary tableaux —the mashing up of art and reality. A curious still life that at once pushes the story forward as much as it foreshadows what’s to come while at the same time brilliantly demonstrating the larger tensions, themes, and ideas that define this work of art.

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† We used this edition of the book for the discussion, so the page number for the quote copied above would be for that edition.