Truman Capote’s novella was published in 1958. The setting is 1940’s New York City. Social currents have flowed by, and reading the book now in 2021 makes it interesting to compare back to the era when Capote wrote. Some might feel the currents fast changing, some would lament at the slow pace when women and people from a different cultural background still strive for equal standing in our society today.
WWII is the background and Capote’s handling of a Japanese character is relatively gracious, for he never uses negative descriptions about his appearance; Mr. Yunioshi only shouts when irritated.
While the novella reflects the social culture and values of the time, what’s seemingly timeless is the iconic character, Holly Golightly, a café society gal of just around nineteen who has left indelible marks in the hearts of many men. Holly is a tough gal in a man’s world, and shows she has the iron will of doing things on her own terms; although sadly, she depends on men for her livelihood.
The unnamed narrator of the novella probably knows Holly best among all her numerous society acquaintances. He is a writer and her upstairs neighbour in the NYC East Seventies brownstone. The gal is a walking contradiction. He’s intrigued at first, in love––albeit unrequitedly––towards the end. Here’s how Capote describes his enigmatic yet mesmerizing protagonist Holly Golightly:
She was a triumph over ugliness, so often more beguiling than real beauty, if only because it contains paradox… the trick had been worked by exaggerating defects; she’d made them ornamental by admitting them boldly. Heels that emphasized her height, so steep her ankles trembled; a flat tight bodice that indicated she could go to a beach in bathing trunks; hair that was pulled straight back, accentuating the spareness, the starvation of her fashion-model face. Even the stutter, certainly genuine but still a bit laid on, had been turned to advantage. It was the master stroke, that stutter; for it contrived to make her banalities sound somehow original, and secondly, despite her tallness, her assurance, it served to inspire in male listeners a protective feeling. (44)
But it’s not merely her appearance that pulls at the heartstrings of the narrator’s, it’s what’s hidden. She’d clam up just the moment when you think she’s ready for ‘volunteering intimate information’. She doesn’t know what she wants, “when I find out you’ll be the first to know.” She avoids the zoo, ‘couldn’t bear to see anything in a cage,’ yet she’s always looking for a place she can call home. Once she finds it, she’ll give her cat a name. Her card says it all: Miss Holly Golightly, Traveling.
Tolkien had famously said, ‘not all those who wander are lost.’ Here’s a case of one who wanders and is lost yet enjoys it immensely.
Is she for real, or a phony? To be exact, she’s been called a real phony… that is, she believes in her own makeover of herself. Capote reveals Holly’s past history in a poignant way. Best to savour his storytelling first hand. But Holly, whoever she is now, will remain so and go on her diverting life path. The past is exactly where she has left it. At the story’s end, the narrator reminisces with bar owner Joe Bell whom he and Holly used to patronize. Both men know Holly will continue with her ‘travelling’––this time all the way to Brazil––and lament her leaving them behind with mere elusive memories.
Directed by Blake Edwards and screenplay by George Axelrod, Capote’s novella is transposed on screen in 1961 as a romantic comedy, a launching pad for a career takeoff for Audrey Hepburn as Holly Golightly. Capote’s intended female for the role was Marilyn Monroe. Apparently the filmmakers had an eye for the right one. In the movie, Hepburn is an almost exact fit corresponding to Capote’s descriptions, better yet, more mature and alluring, and the stutter replaced by witty eloquence. What more, Hepburn shows the confidence and independence Holly exudes which many thought Monroe could not have matched.
However, a casting that’s a discredit to an otherwise delightful movie is Mickey Rooney as Mr. Yunioshi, the neighbour on the top floor of the brownstone and whose bell Holly rings whenever she loses her front door key, often in the deep of night. In the book, Capote only mentions him shouting down from his top floor, but never describes his appearances. The movie makes a caricature out of Mr. Yunioshi, an offensive portrayal thick with demeaning stereotyped features and mannerism.
Film historian David Thomson refers Rooney’s performance as ‘toxically racist’, and further writes that ‘some people on that picture––the screenwriter George Axelrod, notably––fought with Blake Edwards, the director, about the characterization, but Edwards paid no heed.’ (Thomson, 402)
Notwithstanding, the movie has left audiences with some memorable moments and Hepburn had become an icon. The narrator is given a name and personality; George Peppard plays Paul with matching charm. His quiet and sensible demeanor is a sturdy support to Holly and a needed check to her unbridled exuberance. The pair save each other from their own foibles and failings, bringing the film to a happy romcom ending unlike the book.
The most memorable moment from the film is probably the tune that lingers after all these years. Henry Mancini’s ‘Moon River’ is sung longingly by Holly as she sits on the sill of the open window by the fire escape strumming a guitar. Incidentally, that was a scene at first intended to be cut out if not for Hepburn’s vigorous insistence to keep it in the movie. And we’re all glad that the strong-willed Holly Golightly had her way.
Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Truman Capote, first published by Random House, NY, 1958.
David Thomson’s quote is taken from his book The Big Screen, published by Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, NY, 2012.
Novellas in November on Ripple Effects, from book to screen:
Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Truman Capote