In which I review Breakfast At Tiffany’s, Truman Capote’s 1958 novella about the fragile and flamboyant socialite Holly Golightly, set in the tawdry subculture of WWII-era New York City.
What it’s about: New York City, the 1950s: The unnamed narrator, a writer of indeterminate sexuality, visits his old neighbourhood in New York’s Lower East Side, and is reminded of his former friend Holly Golightly. This triggers the Narrator’s memories of moving to his first apartment in the mid-1940s, and his year of friendship with Holly, the attractive young party girl who lives in the apartment below his. The Narrator observes Holly at fashionable restaurants and nightclubs around town, and watches her feeding her cat or playing country songs on her guitar. One evening Holly climbs through the Narrator’s window, explaining that her date has turned violent, and asks to spend the night. Holly reveals that she makes her living as the companion of wealthy men, who give her “$50 for the powder room” and she receives a stipend for making weekly prison visits to the gangster Sally Tomato. The Narrator reads Holly one of his short stories, which she finds uninteresting. Holly dubs him “Fred”, saying her reminds her of her beloved brother Fred, an Army officer who is serving overseas in the war.
The next evening, Holly invites the Narrator to a riotous party in her apartment. There, he meets O. J. Berman, a Hollywood agent who discovered Holly as a teenaged runaway and unsuccessfully tried to turn her into a Hollywood starlet. Holly’s guests include Rusty Trawler, a millionaire from a prominent family whom she eyes as a potential new patron, despite his apparent homosexuality; and Mag Wildwood, an eccentric model who is engaged to the handsome Brazilian diplomat José Yberra-Jaegar. The Narrator has his first short story published, and he and Holly celebrate with a day in Central Park, shoplifting Halloween masks on the way home. Later, the Narrator discovers Holly at the public library, reading books about Brazil. On Christmas Eve, Holly gives him an antique bird cage she knows he has admired, and he gives her a St. Christopher’s medal from Tiffany’s, her favourite place in New York, where she goes to escape her depression (“the mean reds”).
In the new year, Holly returns from a trip to the Florida Keys, where Mag has accused her of having an affair with José. She and the Narrator argue and insult each other, and are again estranged until some months later when Holly’s estranged husband Doc arrives in New York. Doc reveals that Holly’s real name is Lulamae Barnes, and that they were married when Holly was just fourteen, after she and Fred escaped cruel foster parents and lived with Doc and his children. Doc begs Holly to return with him to Texas. She explains to the Narrator that she is no longer Lulamae, and puts Doc on the bus back to Texas.
The Narrator reads that Rusty Trawler has married Mag Wildblood and rushes home to tell Holly. He finds her apartment destroyed and Holly sick with grief and rage, having received news of Fred’s death. Holly tries to transform herself into a domestic housewife, in the hope of marriage to José, confessing to the Narrator that she is pregnant with José’s child. Holly announces that she is leaving with José to Brazil: she and the Narrator go horse-riding in Central Park, and narrowly avoid a serious accident. Holly is arrested on charges of conspiracy with Sally Tomato, and she miscarries. The Narrator visits her in the prison hospital, bringing her a letter from José who breaks off their engagement. Undeterred, Holly makes a plan to skip bail, fly to Brazil and find herself another wealthy husband.
The Narrator collects Holly’s possessions, including her cat, from her apartment and meets Holly in a bar, where they take a car to the airport. Holly asks the driver to stop in Spanish Harlem and drops the cat onto the street; she has a sudden change of heart and jumps out to search for the cat, without success. The Narrator promises to return to look for the cat, and Holly leaves for the airport. Sally Tomato dies in prison, making Holly’s indictment unnecessary, but she never returns to New York, sending the Narrator a postcard from Argentina. The Narrator keeps his promise and finds the cat, now comfortably at home in “the window of a warm looking room“.
Why it’s a classic: Breakfast At Tiffany’s was published in 1958 when Capote was 34. Originally intended for Harper’s Bazaar magazine, its publishers the Hearst Corporation rejected it on the basis that Capote’s language and subject matter was unsuitable for publication. Capote re-sold the story to Esquire magazine, and it was republished in book form by Random House, along with three other of Capote’s short stories. Positive reviews of the book caused Esquire‘s sales to skyrocket, and Capote soon became a literary star and the toast of New York society.
The story received an exponential rise in popularity with the release of Blake Edward’s 1961 film adaptation, with a script by George Axelrod and starring Audrey Hepburn as Holly. Never one to resist publicising his opinions, Capote was horrified at the film, which radically altered his characters and storyline. The discreetly queer Narrator was turned into a strapping blond heterosexual architect named Paul (played by George Peppard) who becomes Holly’s love interest, and the tawdry details of Holly’s sex life are mostly erased, transforming her from a pseudo-prostitute into a more innocent party girl. There’s even a happy ending, where Holly finds the cat, and falls into Paul’s arms, abandoning her plans to move to Brazil. Capote was also vocal in his opposition to the casting of Hepburn, preferring his friend Marilyn Monroe, on whom the character of Holly seems partially based. (It’s also worth noting that Capote’s Holly is a blonde, suggesting Monroe as a better aesthetic fit than the resolutely brunette Hepburn).
Despite his complaints, the film became stratospherically successful, massively boosting his sales and public reputation. 60 years later, the film is still one of the most beloved Hollywood films of all time. Images of Hepburn-as-Holly in her little black Givenchy dress, accessorised with pearls, sunglasses and a cigarette holder are still endlessly reproduced and imitated in pop culture (see the finale of HBO’s series Big Little Lies) and appear on the walls of university dorm rooms all over the world.
Capote went onto even greater literary success with In Cold Blood, a chillingly forensic dissection of the true-life murder of a Kansas farming family that reads with the dramatic tension and thrilling characterisation of a great novel. True to form, Capote claimed that he’d invented a new literary form – the non-fiction novel – which wasn’t quite true, but he certainly popularised the genre, and the crystalline brilliance of his prose style is now generally viewed as some of the best writing of the 20th century. Norman Mailer, perhaps the most obnoxious alpha male novelist of the 20th century, later called Capote “the most perfect writer of my generation,” adding that he “would not have changed two words in Breakfast at Tiffany’s“.
Inevitably, modern readers have taken issue with some of the racial slurs in the book (“You’re such a slob,” Holly tells O.J; “You always nigger-lip“), which are now clearly unacceptable – though interestingly most print copies of Tiffany’s tend to leave the N-word intact. That said, this criticism of Capote’s writing pales in comparison with condemnation of the film’s racist depiction of Mr Yunioshi, Holly’s upstairs neighbour. A fairly minor character in the book, who gets enraged when Holly rings his doorbell but who is also susceptible to Holly’s promise of sex (“[I]f you promise not to get angry“, she says, “I might let you take those pictures we mentioned“), he becomes in the film an horrendous racist joke, played in yellow-face by Mickey Rooney complete with false buck teeth, cheek padding and slanty “Asian eyes”. (Seriously, what were they thinking?)
Bouquet or Brickbat: A bouquet bigger than a Tiffany’s diamond ring. True confession: I’ve read Breakfast At Tiffany’s many times before, though curiously each time I return to it, I feel as if I’m discovering it for the first time. I first read it in my 20s, shortly after reading In Cold Blood, and I was so overwhelmed by the haunting power of that much darker and more serious work that I dismissed Tiffany’s as something of a puff piece. I was also, I suspect, very much in the thrall of the film and the immense charms of Audrey Hepburn, which was the light fluffy soufflé version of a much darker story.
I read it again about five years ago as part of a creative writing retreat taught by my fabulous friend Wayne, who alerted me to the startling queerness of the story. “How could I have been such a fool to have missed this?”, I thought, as I took note of Capote’s queer coding that screamed out of practically every page. There’s Holly’s throwaway comments about dykes and relaxed approach to human sexuality (“A person ought to be able to marry men or women“) and her own playful-maybe-serious references to her own sexuality (“Of course people couldn’t help but think I must be a bit of a dyke myself. And of course I am. Everyone is: a bit. So what?” and “I’d settle for Garbo anyway“); her view that Rusty Tomato would be far happier if he settled down with “a nice fatherly truck driver”. Debate about the exact nature of Holly’s sexuality continues to intrigue literary scholars, including a 2018 article in the Paris Review sensationally titled “Was Holly Golightly Bisexual?”
Then there’s the Narrator’s waspish description of the other queer characters: Rusty Trawler, “a middle-aged child that had never shed its baby fat, though some gifted tailor had almost succeeded in camouflaging his plump and spankable bottom” who “had caused his godfather-custodian to be arrested on charges of sodomy“; and Quintaince Smith, the replacement tenant in Holly’s apartment “who entertained as many gentlemen callers of a noisy nature as Holly ever had” and ends up with black eyes. I agree with reviewer Kate Camp that there’s a drag sensibility to many of the characters, with their outlandish names (Rusty Trawler, Sally Tomato) and performative, larger-than life personalities (Mag Wildblood the stuttering six-foot tall model), all of whom feel strangely believable, despite the utter implausibility of their lives.
This time around – partially informed by the post-#metoo era but also just because of the passage of time – I read it more as a tragedy disguised as a farce. For all her high spirits and the optimistic promise of her invented surname, Holly Golightly is a horribly damaged character: an abused child and underaged bride, whose new identity has been constructed entirely by and for the pleasure of men, and who has no status or purpose in the world unless she’s appended to a wealthy man. In a contemporary novel, this would all be spelled out with heavy underlinings, to ensure the reader understood the injustice of Holly’s situation and lack of agency. Instead, Capote presents Holly largely as she presents herself to other people – a fun-loving good-time girl with little time for introspection or harrowing self-analysis – which adds huge emotional heft to the moments where her inner pain is revealed. There’s something hugely affecting about the gossamer thinness of her ambitions – a home for herself and Fred in Mexico, her fantasies of life as a diplomat’s life – that are all the more touching for not being lingered over.
Within the hard-boiled commercialism of Holly’s life, her friendship with the Narrator glows softly like a Tiffany’s lamp, since it’s her only non-transactional relationship with a man (apart from Fred, who is offstage throughout) and the only time when she feels no need to perform. “[W]e spent entire evenings together during which we exchanged less than a hundred words“, the Narrator explains; “[O]nce, we walked all the way to Chinatown, ate a chow-mein supper, bought some paper lanterns, and stole a box of joss sticks, then moseyed across the Brooklyn Bridge, as we watched seaward-moving ships pass between the cliffs of burning skyline…” With stunning precision, Capote gives us everything we need to know about the easy companionship and security offered by platonic friendship, as well as a sense of its fragility. Like the seaward-moving ships, Holly disappears soon after into unknown destinations (it’s never confirmed whether she was actually in Africa), and the cliffs of burning skyline discreetly signal the fireworks of her arrest still to come.
For all its wit and meandering charm, there’s a palpable sense of loss in this story that cuts deep and hits hard, though it’s only after you’ve put the book down that you realise quite how affecting it all is. Such is the mark of a truly great work of literature, written by the greatest prose stylist of not just Mailer’s generation but the entire 20th century. Though it’s a story about what it is to be young and making your way in the Big City, I never imagined that it would or could keep me company through my life – but so it has, and I hope it always will.
Quotable Quotes: “I don’t mean I’d mind being rich and famous. That’s very much on my schedule, and some day I’ll like to get around to it; but if it happens, I’d like to have my ego tagging along. I want to still be me when I wake up one fine morning and have breakfast at Tiffany’s…. What I’ve found does the most good is just to get into a taxi 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 that made me feel like Tiffany’s, then I’d buy some furniture and give the cat a name.”