The Sordid History of Truman Capote’s BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY’S

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Jeffrey Davies


Jeffrey Davies is a professional introvert and writer with imposter syndrome whose work spans the worlds of pop culture, books, music, feminism, and mental health. In addition to Book Riot, his writing has appeared on HuffPost, Collider, PopMatters, Spectrum Culture, and other places. Find him on his website and follow him on Twitter @teeveejeff and Instagram @jeffreyreads. He is also the co-host of a Gilmore Girls podcast, Coffee With a Shot of Cynicism.

For over half a century, Breakfast at Tiffany’s­—both the film and the novella on which it was based—have captivated fans across several generations. Much of the story’s success, it appears, is attributed to Audrey Hepburn, the beloved star who stepped into the shoes of one Miss Holly Golightly and never looked back. The role not only redefined her career and image but helped usher in the age of, to borrow a term from Helen Gurley Brown, “sex and the single girl.” Decades before The Mary Tyler Moore Show or Sex and the City, Holly Golightly slipped on her iconic little black dress with her best diamonds and singlehandedly proved that women could have it all.

Before Breakfast at Tiffany’s was adapted into a timeless film classic, the story of party girl Holly and the man infatuated with her was the brainchild of literary icon Truman Capote. Originally, he had sold the novella to Harper’s Bazaar for $2,000 but the magazine later backed out, claiming a story about an independent woman with multiple male friends and a prominent nightlife was just too risqué to publish. Capote, an expert at holding grudges, vowed to never associate himself with Harper’s again, and briefly alleged that Breakfast at Tiffany’s would never see the light of day. But just a mere few months later in October 1958, Random House published the novella and Esquire magazine, in its November issue, would serialize it in full.

As Breakfast at Tiffany’s has continued to assert its relevance with every new era, questions surrounding its true origin persist. Was Holly Golightly a real person? Was it someone from Truman Capote’s sordid past? To this day, myths continue to circulate about the “real” Breakfast at Tiffany’s, including women claiming to be the inspiration for Holly, each less credible than the last. The story’s real inspiration is the tale of a flamboyant young man from the Southern United States, grappling with abandonment issues and a love of the written word.

Once Upon a Time, in Monroeville, Alabama…

Truman Capote was born Truman Streckfus Persons on September 30, 1924 in New Orleans, Louisiana. His parents divorced when he was 4 and he was sent to live with his mother’s relatives in Monroeville, Alabama. The reason he was sent there was caused less by the divorce and more by the fact that his mother saw him as a burden. According to Sam Wasson’s Fifth Avenue, A.M.: Audrey Hepburn, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and the Dawn of the Modern Woman, Capote’s mother, Lillie Mae Faulk, had tried to abort her pregnancy.

After her divorce, Lillie Mae finally saw her chance to abandon her past life—AKA her child—and “make it” in the big city. In New York City, she would introduce herself as Nina, a wannabe fabulous party girl on the hunt for a big rich man to make all her dreams come true (what those dreams actually were, however, remain perpetually unclear). But she was never gone for long: every few months, Nina would turn up again in Monroeville, crying to her son over her broken heart.

“In a whirl of fancy fabrics, she would turn up unannounced, tickle Truman’s chin, offer up an assortment of apologies, and disappear,” wrote Wasson. “And then, as if it had never happened before, it would happen all over again. Inevitably, Nina’s latest beau would reject her for being the peasant girl she tried so hard not to be, and down the service elevator she would go, running all the way back to Truman with enormous tears ballooning from her eyes. A day or so would pass; Nina would take stock of her Alabama surroundings and once again, vanish to Manhattan’s highest penthouses.”

As a result, Capote spent the majority of his life indirectly dealing with his mother’s abandonment. Several biographers note that his tendency to hold grudges and cut people out of his life after minor mishaps was all linked back to his mother issues and unstable childhood, as well as his quirk of exaggerating reality and making claims that he was friends with rich and famous people he had never even met, such as Greta Garbo. And while other schools of thought claim that Capote being a homosexual was also caused by his relationship with his mother, it’s more likely that his adult dependency on drugs and alcohol were indirectly caused by Nina as well.

If There’s Nothing Missing in Her Life, Why Do These Tears Come at Night?

As Wasson observes, Holly Golightly was a composite of multiple nonfictions. “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 wrote. “He called them his swans.”

While there are several “swans” who are believed to have contributed to the fictional creation of Holly, including Gloria Guinness, Oona O’Neill Chaplin, Carol Marcus, and Gloria Vanderbilt, there is one in particular that is thought to have gone above and beyond in terms of inspiration: Babe Paley, the wife of William S. “Bill” Paley, founder of the CBS television network.

“I was madly in love with her,” Capote told Gerald Clarke, author of the 1988 biography Capote. “I just thought she was absolutely fantastic! She was one of the two or three great obsessions of my life. She was the only person in my whole life that I liked everything about. I consider her one of the three greatest beauties in the world, the other two being Gloria Guinness and Garbo. But Babe, I think, was the most beautiful. She was in fact the most beautiful woman of the twentieth century … [S]he was also the most chic woman I have ever known.”

Babe Paley’s chic influence was just too grand, opulent, and commanding to not be the central inspiration for Holly Golightly. As Wasson notes, she was almost “embarrassingly rich,” owning over one million dollars worth of Harry Winston, Cartier, Tiffany’s, and Van Cleef & Arpels. “She was, in short, everything Truman’s mother, and Holly Golightly, had wanted to be,” he observed. “But Nina was dead, and Truman, though he threw himself into the swans, would never find peace. Neither, for that matter, would his beautiful Babe.”

Although on the surface Paley had everything she could have ever wanted and more, she and Bill had a relentlessly unhappy marriage. According to Capote’s testimony to Clarke, Babe had twice attempted suicide, once with pills and once by attempting to slit her wrists, and both times Capote claimed to have saved her. “Babe was caught,” Wasson wrote. “Truman would fashion Breakfast at Tiffany’s so Holly Golightly wouldn’t be.”

Breakfast at Tiffany's film still

Breakfast at Tiffany’s Comes to Life

For all of his flamboyantly distinct eccentricities, Truman Capote was a precise, perfectionistic, and accomplished writer. He would openly scoff at writers who would not map out their work beforehand, as Capote preferred to map, plan, reconsider, plan, and map it all out again before he typed a single word. “With Tiffany’s, he intended to evolve his style away from the florid swirls of, say, [Other Voices, Other Rooms] and move toward a more measured, more subdued prose style,” stated Wasson. “The page, he told those who asked, was no longer his playground; it was his operating room, and like a surgeon—like Flaubert, one of his heroes—he endeavored to keep surprises to an absolute minimum.”

While Breakfast at Tiffany’s would later be adapted into a romantic comedy film by Paramount, that was never the story’s original intention. Aside from the fact that Holly Golightly was very much ahead of her time in terms of liberating herself from patriarchal oppression, selling herself in order to gain independence, the original novella is laced with something that was deliberately left out of its film adaptation: queer subtext. Holly is unfazed by the fact that Capote’s nameless narrator, whom she mysteriously calls “Fred” after her brother, is gay, and the character even laments at being a “bit of a dyke” herself.

Although it’s never explicitly stated or discussed, given that male homosexuality was still illegal in North America, “Fred” is indeed a homosexual, and Holly even refers to him as “Maude”—gay slang from the 50s. “[H]e and Holly are bound to one another by their sexually unorthodox positions,” Wasson observed. “Unlike Holly and her lovers, they share an intimacy that isn’t tethered to their erotic or financial needs. In other words, they can love each other freely, the way no two married people can.” In this sense, Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s was a faint precursor to Will & Grace. As Jamie Brickhouse from The Huffington Post wrote, “Sure, [Holly’s] the kind of woman straight men fall for. But she’s the kind of girl gay men adore.” Or, to put it in more modern terms: straight men want to be with her, straight women and gay men want to be her.

“Challenging the sanctity of heterosexual dominion, Capote is suggesting that the gendered strictures of who makes the money (men) and who doesn’t (women) might not be as enriching as the romance between a gay man and straight woman,” wrote Wasson. “This isn’t because he believed platonic relationships were somehow ideal, or because he considered straight people bores, but because in 1958, with wives across America financially dependent upon their husbands, being a married woman was a euphemism for being caught.”

As Capote himself later revealed in an interview, Breakfast at Tiffany’s was merely observing a trend he had noticed in New York City, one that was perhaps borne from his own mother, of young women flocking to the big city to become famous society girls, bedding famous men and having their names become mainstays in gossip columns. “The main reason I wrote about Holly, outside of the fact that I liked her so much, was that she was such a symbol of all these girls who come to New York and spin in the sun for a moment like May flies and then disappear,” he said. “I wanted to rescue one girl from that anonymity and preserve her for prosperity.”

From the Page to the Screen

After selling the screen rights for Breakfast at Tiffany’s to Paramount, it became somewhat common knowledge that Capote had one and only one actress in mind to play Holly Golightly: little girl lost herself, Marilyn Monroe. Several myths surrounding the actress not getting cast have continued to circulate, with the general consensus being that Marilyn was already considered to be a high-maintenance diva and too much of a liability, so Paramount refused to even consider her. But that was never entirely true.

While the real-life similarities between Holly and Marilyn practically write themselves (“I’ve never had a home,” Monroe once told Capote, “not a real one with all my own furniture”), Martin Jurow—producer of the Breakfast at Tiffany’s film—was merely unconvinced that Monroe was a strong enough actress for the role. “Holly had to be sharp and tough, and as anyone who saw Marilyn could sense, she was about as tough as a tulip,” Wasson wrote. “It was difficult to imagine a personality like that living like Holly, all on her own in the big city.” And, of course, there were very practical matters of film production to take into account. For all that we’ve come to love and appreciate about Marilyn now, she did have a reputation for chronic lateness and an almost pathological inability to remember dialogue, sometimes requiring upwards of 50 takes for a single line. “It’s not that she was mean,” remembered Billy Wilder, director of The Seven Year Itch. “It’s just that she had no sense of time, nor conscience that that three hundred people had been waiting hours for her.”

After much convincing and deliberations over script objections, Audrey Hepburn would eventually become the star to fill the shoes of Holly Golightly on the screen. While director Blake Edwards would recall that Hepburn was hopelessly insecure on the Breakfast at Tiffany’s set and in need of constant reassurance that she wasn’t out of her league (an insecurity believed to be poked at most by her sometimes chaotic marriage to Mel Ferrer), Holly would become the most iconic performance of Hepburn’s career. While the actress would later testify that Holly was her most difficult role since she was an introvert playing an extrovert, the film’s timeless quality would ultimately be attributed to what Breakfast at Tiffany’s, both the novella and its film adaptation, did for the liberation of women during second-wave feminism.

“The woman in me really likes Audrey Hepburn because she is successful at what she’s doing, she’s sort of in charge of herself, and is a realist beyond being so cute and attractive,” said film critic Judith Crist in 2009. “That appeal—a woman’s appeal—comes from the very basic idea of the gamine, and not just the gamine’s physical being, but the idea of her cleverness. Marilyn didn’t have that, but Audrey did. As a gamine, shrewdness was available to her. So she’s a call girl, but we let her have it. There’s even something very appealing about it. We won’t admit it, but don’t we, really, all secretly admire her for it? Because she gets away with it? Because she’s so imperious, and at the same time is slightly, shall we say, immoral?”

As for Truman Capote’s opinion on the final product of the film? Aside from one drunken incident in which Patricia Snell, Blake Edwards’s first wife, recalled that Capote told her he was “thrilled” with the result of her husband’s work, he spent the rest of his life trashing the Breakfast at Tiffany’s film adaptation. In an interview years later, when asked what he thought was wrong with the film version, he replied, “Oh god, just everything.” He referred to it as the “most miscast film” he’d ever seen and that it made him want to throw up, particularly the one element that just about everyone can agree did not age well about the Breakfast at Tiffany’s film: Mickey Rooney as Mr. Yunioshi. Capote also called Edwards a “lousy director” and badmouthed George Axelrod’s script, claiming that they had offered him the job of writing the script but he had turned it down. Always one for inventive fictions, Capote was never offered that job, as Paramount wanted someone who wouldn’t fight their changes.

Will the Real Holly Golightly Please Stand Up?

After the first publication of Breakfast at Tiffany’s in 1958, flocks of women all over New York City began to announce that they were the real-life inspiration for Holly Golightly, beginning what Capote referred to as “The Holly Golightly Sweepstakes.” In 1959, bookstore owner Bonnie Golightly sued the author for $800,000 of libel and invasion of privacy charges, claiming that she also lived in a Manhattan brownstone, loved cats, and was an avid folk singer in her spare time.

In a bizarre attempt to rectify things, author James Michener wrote a letter to Random House in Capote’s defense, claiming that he knew Bonnie’s claims were false since the author personally told him the inspiration for the character came from a “wonderful young girl from Montana.” However, the letter never made it to the publisher, as once Capote caught wind of it, he demanded that Michener burn it, in fear that this woman would sue, too. Michener claimed to have met the Montana woman, someone with “maximum beauty and a rowdy sense of humor.” Ultimately, neither woman ended up taking a case to court: Bonnie was ridiculed into backing out of her lawsuit, and the Montana woman supposedly rode out her 15 minutes of fame.

Later, Capote claimed that the inspiration for Holly Golightly came from a German refugee, a young girl of just 17 years who arrived in New York City at the beginning of World War II. “Very few people were aware of this, however, because she spoke English without any trace of an accent,” he said. “She had an apartment in the brownstone where I lived and we became great friends.” He claimed that Holly’s friendship with gangster Sally Tomato was fictionalized, but based on true events that happened to the real Holly. Gerald Clarke said that Capote told him a similar story. “But in the version I heard she was Swiss. He even gave me her name. I could never find any of his friends who remembered her.” Clarke was also well aware of women who continued to claim they were the real Holly Golightly even decades later, all of them alleging they were friends with Capote at one time or another. “There were lots of women like that in those days,” he said, “and my guess is that Holly owed something to any number of them.”

Perhaps it’s Holly’s effervescent quality and her attempt to feel everything at once and nothing at all that continues to propel her forward in time. “[I]n her reckless love of individuality, whether she knows it or not, Holly rustles with the fervor of the next generation,” Wasson stated. Everything grows older with time, but it’s the mark of an outstanding literary achievement to create a character and a story that continues to awake and inspire each new generation that discovers them. Since Truman Capote liked making up stories so much, it’s most likely that his precious Holly was always meant to be an enigma: of his imagination, and of our hearts.