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Did “Willie-Jay” Really Exist?

A while back, while doing research for this book, I was asked, “Is there any evidence that the character Willie-Jay in “In Cold Blood” really existed? Truman Capote said he was one of the only characters whose real name was not used.” — My response: 

“Willie-Jay” was the pseudonym Truman Capote gave to John McRell, the young assistant prison chaplain at Kansas State Penitentiary during Perry Smith’s first incarceration there, from March 1956 to July 1959, while serving time for burglary and grand larceny.

John McRell aka ”Willie-Jay”

Capote’s depiction of the relationship between Perry Smith and the real-life McRell was largely accurate. In research for my book on the Clutter murder investigation, And Every Word Is True, I found McRell to be a deeply religious man who spent most of his life in various prisons for such crimes as burglary and robbery. Prison records indicate that by age 30, about the time he met Smith, he had already served five separate sentences in three penal institutions, and would continue this pattern well into his 80s, apparently drawn to a life of service behind bars until his death in January 2017.

Though lacking much formal education, McRell was intelligent and deeply insightful, with a caring and positive influence on fellow inmates. Perry Smith, whose tragic childhood and lack of encouraging role models left him cautious and mistrustful of most people, found in McRell the type of man he deeply wanted to be. In Perry’s mind, McRell was the only person who really understood him. Were it not for the damaging influence of Richard Hickock, his partner in the Clutter murders, Perry would very likely have lived a much different life—one aligned with the many dreams and aspirations he recorded in his as-yet unpublished personal journals.

As for why Capote chose a pseudonym for McRell in In Cold Blood (along with one other character in the book, Perry’s sister “Barbara Johnson,” whose real name was Dorothy Marchant), the most likely reason was that Capote was unable to get formal consent to use either person’s actual name. As is standard legal practice, the New Yorker magazine required releases from any living character the author might use in the book, and presumably neither gave such permission.