Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Holly Golightly, Traveling

This week I read my favorite story, Truman Capote's Breakfast at Tiffany's (1958), for the fourth or fifth time. I'm reviewing all my Capote books, working backwards in chronological order from Answered Prayers to Other Voices, Other Rooms.

Breakfast at Tiffany's is a very short novel - a novella - but also something of a long sauntering ode to a number of women in Truman's life, the Holly Golightly character a composite. Who these women were is a matter of some speculation; many claimed Holly's tiara. One Manhattanite, Bonnie Golightly, sued (unsuccessfully) the author for libel and invasion of privacy.

The photograph at the top is of Dorian Leigh, certainly one of the Holly prototypes, a top tier fashion model and friend of Capote's whom he'd dubbed Happy Go Lucky.

Most interesting, I think, are the very striking parallels between Holly and Truman's mother: Both were born in the rural South with very similar rustic names that they changed (Holly Golightly née Lula Mae Barnes in Texas, Nina Capote née Lillie Mae Faulk in Alabama); both married as teens then deserted their husbands, and abandoned close relatives to go to New York City; both attained cachet through involvements with rich men. Nina Capote must've been Holly, Mach 1.

So, a love poem to the enigmatic female, this sliver of a strange and beautiful teenager in the apartment below: her mouth full of French phrases and American slang; a girl who lived by her wits but needed to be buzzed-in at all hours because remembering to carry a key was beyond her grasp; the new neighbor he spies late one evening in front of a saloon, the lone lass with a shipload of wartime sailors, gaily dancing with them on the sidewalk, being tossed about like "a scarf."

Eventually they meet when the dream crawls through his window in the wee hours, eluding an oaf in her bed. Holly freely spills all sorts of personal details, a cup running over. But when he asks her a question? She hates "snoops" and flees the way she came!

They become friends and grow close, share nutty adventures, before a falling out, then a reconciliation. In trouble with the law, she flies the coop, leaves the country - traveling - points, eventually, unknown. It's the story of a friendship: fleeting and haphazard, brief yet leaving a watermark on the soul.

Breakfast at Tiffany's has paragraphs - sentences! - so beautiful, so revealing, so human, that you have to take an occasion to catch your breath, to cry, to savor knowing that there was a person who could capture life with such clarity.

Also of note for the Tru believer is an even slimmer volume, A House on the Heights. Originally an article that appeared in Holiday magazine, written concurrently with Breakfast at Tiffany's, it was published in hardcover by The Little Bookroom in 2002, with an introduction by George Plympton.

Part history, part travelogue, A House on the Heights covers Brooklyn Heights, the section of New York City he was calling home. A mural is painted of the area from an idyllic 19th century inception to its hard times in the early-20th century to a present of abandoned manses being reclaimed and refurbished by ambitious young families. In this freshly-minted halcyon age, he takes the reader on a tour of the Heights' shops and restaurants, odd and alluring, sketching portraits of local characters along the way.

He insists, he could live in Manhattan, but he chooses to live where he is.

The book ends ends with Truman trailing off the beaten path, down a hill to a scraggly waterfront community, challenged by its turf-holders, The Cobras, denim 'n' leather clad fellows who seem eager to relieve the pint-size egghead of his expensive camera, before he sprints, breathless, all the way home, to the safety of his apartment in a house on the Heights.

I only saw Truman Capote once. It was in the late-seventies when I lived at 85 South St in lower Manhattan, across the street from what's now The South Street Seaport Museum. The World Trade Center loomed a few blocks on the other side of the island. It was desolate after 5:00, the only activity centered on the Fulton Fish Market a block or two to the north, even as plans were actively afoot in City Hall to transfigure the real estate into a massive tourist trap and corporate zone.

One eventide a party was being thrown on a big old boat by Robert Stigwood. A group of 85 South St peasants milled about, arms crossed, hands in pockets, watching the rich and/or famous board the yacht. We saw Jackie O. (I recall her being alone, in a short black dress, wearing sunglasses after dark - but some or all that could be a trick of memory.)

Then Truman arrived. We broke into a spontaneous ovation, whereupon he turned to us with a curtsey and a smile before joining the party
Truman Capote, photograph by Irving Penn