Like so many others, I came to know Breakfast at Tiffany’s through the Audrey Hepburn film, which I first watched as a teenager and have replayed incessantly over the past two decades. For me, Audrey is incomparable. Never mind Clara Bow; Audrey is the it girl I have always aspired to.
When I learned that London’s National Portrait Gallery was opening an exhibit dedicated to iconic portraits of Audrey paired with screenings of her films (including Breakfast at Tiffany’s), I decided it was high time to read Truman Capote’s book and discover the original story behind Holly Golightly. What I found surprised me.
The opening line
‘I am always drawn back to places where I have lived, the houses and their neighborhoods.’
The first thing that struck me about Tiffany’s was how slim it is – much more a character study in novella form than a full-blown novel. The second was how different it is from the film, much edgier and more provocative than what was finally allowed past the Hollywood censors.
In Capote’s book we have the reminisces of an unnamed narrator, an aspiring writer who first moves to New York City in the early 1940s. This barely masked version of Capote is drawn to and falls a little bit in love with his free-spirited neighbour – a Miss Holiday Golightly, Travelling – as initially identified from the card on her mailbox.
The narrator is on the peripheral of Holly’s life that summer: seeing her across the swanky restaurant 21 combing her hair and stifling a yawn among four men all grasping for her attention, waltzing at midnight with Australian army officers outside P.J. Clark’s saloon, answering her 2 a.m. doorbell when she forgets her key.
But their acquaintance turns into a friendship starting one night in September – ‘an evening with the first ripple-chills of autumn running through it’. The narrator climbs in bed with a bourbon and a novel when Holly tumbles in through the window, escaping ‘the most terrifying man downstairs. I mean he’s sweet when he isn’t drunk, but let him start lapping up the vino, and oh God quel beast!…eight martinis before dinner and enough wine to wash an elephant’.
Holly’s back story emerges as their friendship develops and deepens, and it’s as heartbreaking as it is inspiring. She walks away from a traumatic past, though the ghosts linger still, and rewrites the rules to suit her. She drinks martinis, smokes endlessly, throws mad-cap parties and escorts older men around town for the money they provide for the powder room and taxi fare home.
Through all her brazen and très fou posturing (which she sees as incredibly useful), she understands that living on the edge comes with a cost:
‘The mean reds are horrible. You’re afraid and you sweat like hell, but you don’t know what you’re afraid of. Except something bad is going to happen, only you don’t know what it is…What I’ve found does the most good is just to get in a cab and go to Tiffany’s. It calms me down right away, the quietness and the proud look of it; nothing very bad could happen to you there, not with those kind men in their nice suits, and that lovely smell of silver and alligator wallets. If I could find a real-life place like Tiffany’s, then I’d buy some furniture and give the cat a name.’
We, as readers, are spectators of the Holly Golightly show. She is the epi-centre of a world that has no easy answers, no clear-cut lines. Like the no-name alley cat she takes up with one day by the river, she unwittingly acquires the affections of the nameless narrator, and earns our compassion too. But what she craves the most is a sense of belonging – belonging without the complications that ownership brings.
Whether she finds it at the end of the book or not…well, I’ll leave that for you to discover.
If you’re at all interested in how the novel was turned into the film, do pick up 5th Avenue, 5 A.M., Audrey Hepburn and the making of Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Sam Wasson. It’s brilliant and the source of the information and quotes below.
At the core, Truman Capote’s inspiration for Holly came from his mother, Lillie Mae. Believing she was destined for greatness among high society, she fought endlessly to escape her humble southern beginnings and find love and glamour in the big city. Truman was abandoned and raised by relatives, but he too longed to be loved and accepted, to feel the permanence his mother wouldn’t – or more likely couldn’t – offer him.
As he became a celebrated literary figure in his own right, Truman looked to his glamorous surroundings to complete Holly:
‘She took her dreams of society from Truman’s own mother, her existential anxieties from Capote himself, but her personality, which seemed so intimately hers, would come from the tight-knit coterie of Manhattan divas Truman so flagrantly adored. He called them his swans.’
Oona O’Neill Chaplin, Gloria Vanderbilt, Carol Marcus, Gloria Guinness and most especially Babe Paley – these chic and powerful NYC wives captivated Truman completely. Captivated, but didn’t blind him. He slipped behind their defenses, took their confidences and put the juiciest bits of their gossip in his story.
He finished the book in 1958 and published it through Random House and as a serial in Esquire. Turning a deaf ear to the dissenting minority, Capote raked in the glory of an adoring public. Here, in Norman Mailor’s opinion, is the gist of the coverage:
‘Truman Capote I do not know well, but I like him. He is tart as a grand aunt, but in his way is a ballsy little guy, and he is the most perfect writer of my generation, he writes the best sentences word for word, rhythm upon rhythm. I would not have changed two words in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, which will become a small classic.’
And indeed it is. If you haven’t had a chance to discover the book behind the iconic film, I encourage you to pick up a copy immediately.