You think Holly Golightly is a big deal now? Oh, sure, sure, every brunette who has ever done anything remotely kooky thinks she’s Holly Golightly. We all think that. I think that, too. You try adding some chocolate sauce to a chicken recipe and suddenly you’re an Oakie turned call girl who is still attached to the husband she married at 14.
And that is 50 years after the book came out.
You cannot conceive of the kind of big deal Holly Golightly was when Truman Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s originally came out. Everyone thought that they were Holly Golightly. One woman, Bonnie Golightly, sued Truman Capote for $800,000 claiming he had stolen the story of her life. Truman remarked “it’s ridiculous for her to claim she is my Holly. I understand she’s a large girl, nearly 40 years old. Why, it’s sort of like Joan Crawford saying she’s Lolita.”
Of course, Truman always contended that Holly was based off of someone, but Truman was also the kind of guy who was very, very good at telling people who they want to hear.
Apparently Doris Lilly, the author of How To Marry A Millionaire, telephoned a friend of Truman’s, very excited after reading Breakfast at Tiffany’s and exclaimed “It’s me! It’s me! It’s me! Me, me, me!” The friend mentioned this to Truman, and Truman replied “Honey, you tell her, her, her, for me, me, me, that it is her. So far it’s also Carol Marcus and Oona Chaplin.”
There was, however, probably one person Truman really loved and was completely honest with, and that was his longtime partner Jack Dunphy. People forget about Jack, they think Truman is somehow asexual, like Andy Warhol, but Jack was there, in spite of being forgotten about. And Truman told Jack that he was frankly surprised that anyone who knew him well did not immediately recognize the inspiration behind Holly Golightly.
And yet, everyone seems to agree that the true identity of Holly Golightly, nee Lula Mae Barnes, is a great mystery, and that her true inspiration can never be known.
Well, that was yesterday, this is today. I’m here to clear that up. Spoiler: it was Truman’s mom. Mystery solved. Let’s break this down and find all the parallels between the two, if their virtually identical birth names were not enough.
Lillie Mae Faulk – much like Lula Mae Barnes – was a beautiful Southern orphan (seen here in the headscarf), and God, she hated the country. Unlike Breakfast at Tiffany’s readers, she was not charmed by the fact that she was a southern orphan being sort-of, kind-of raised by her Aunt Jennie. Presumably, like Holly, she spent her youth in the South running through briar patches and stealing chicken eggs – but all she wanted to do was move to New York. Andreas Brown, a literary archivist claims:
“Lillie Mae Faulk was said to be a great Southern beauty. Not in the sense that we consider great beauties today [Ed note: I think this is an incredibly bitchy comment on Andreas Brown’s part] but at that time she was considered a very attractive and charming woman. By all accounts the prettiest girl thereabouts, just an inch or so about five feet, dark blond hair, barely sixteen, but today what we might refer to as a bubblehead. She certainly was irresponsible, childlike, a case of arrested development in the sense that she pursued adolescent values well into her thirties. She married the first fellow who came along who had any money.”
That fellow was Arch Persons. He came from a good family and wooed her with a sports-car, which he said he could use to drive her to every city she wanted to go to. And oh, Lillie Mae was on it. They married after a few weeks – and then Arch ran out of money on their honeymoon. Completely. He was actually broke. They were forced to return to the small town of Monroesville. In many ways, it sounds similar to Holly’s marriage at 14 to Doc Golightly, except that Arch turned out to be a con man.
As soon as Lillie Mae realized this she tried to get a divorce – only to find out that she was pregnant. She told everyone she wanted an abortion, but was never able to follow through with it – in large part because Jennie Faulk, the aunt who had raised her convinced her not to. She returned to Arch. He promised he was going to get rich and move to New York.
To that end, he started attempting a series of get-rich-quick schemes which took him around the country. The couple lived in hotel rooms for the next five years. Desperate to find a way to get out her marriage, Lillie began taking a series of lovers. Truman claimed later that his earliest memory as a baby had been his mother having a series of assignations with men in hotel rooms.
And then she left to move to New York.
She promised Truman – as Holly was always saying she promised her brother Fred – that just as soon as she got enough money she was going to send for him. She moved to New York where she told 5 year old Truman she’d support herself “hostessing.” It is somewhat up to you to decide what she meant by that.
Truman probably had his own ideas. Later in life, when interviewed, Truman said that Holly was a kind of American Geisha hostess who “was not precisely a call girl. She had no job, but accompanied expense-account men to the best restaurants and night clubs, with the understanding that her escort was obligated to give her some sort of gift, perhaps jewelry or a check … if she felt like it, she might take her escort home for the night.”
Truman was left with his southern relatives, the Faulks, who you might remember from stories like A Christmas Memory or Truman’s first novel Other Voices, Other Rooms. One upside to this was that he meet his neighbor Harper Lee (she based the character Dill in To Kill A Mockingbird on Truman) – as well as Sonny Boular who later became the inspiration for Boo Radley.
However, unlike Holly, Lillie did send for Truman. In 1931, when Truman was 8, Lillie married a successful South American businessman Joe Capote (Joe, not Jose, the successful South American Holly wanted to marry in Breakfast at Tiffany’s). Joe, according to almost everyone who knew him, was lovely. Phoebe Vreeland, who grew up near the Capotes and became a friend of Truman’s claimed,
“Joe was a darling guy, wonderful fun. If she was the first divorcee mother I met, he was the first Cuban. He had a wonderful accent, a Cuban accent, which is nothing like Puerto Rican or Spanish. He was funny, humorous and taught me how to rhumba. But Nina was his life. And he didn’t really know how to handle the whole thing. Of course, he couldn’t handle his financial life. He ended up in Sing Sing for embezzlement. I’ll never forget that, I mean, Sing Sing! That’s where Jimmy Cagney goes to jail. Not the nice guy who taught you how to do the rhumba.”
What day was it that Holly Golightly went to visit her friend at Sing Sing who was there for financial trouble? Thursday? Doesn’t matter.
And, of course, all that was later. Long before any difficulties Joe and Lillie moved to a spacious apartment on Riverside Drive, and, after hosting a going away party for himself which was crashed by the Ku Klux Klan (they were upset at the presence of black guests at an 8 year old’s party), Truman joined them.
He was surprised to realize that his mother had changed her name from Lillie to “Nina”. Desperate to disguise her roots, she had, just like Holly, adopted a bizarre accent. Nina sent Truman to the prestigious Trinity high school, and then, worried that Truman’s effeminate eccentricities might damage her rise in society, sent him off to military school.
The military schooling didn’t take. Truman returned home much the same – Nina and Joe lived for a while in Connecticut before moving to 1060 Park Avenue – and Nina’s friend Eleanor Freide (they met at the races) remembered:
“Truman came through in some kind of outfit, very chic, all dressed up in kind of a strange tie and things, and Nina said, “Where are you going?” He said, “well, I’m only going over to Bennett Cerf’s for dinner.” She said, “Well, what about that gray suit we just bought at Brook’s Brothers, you go back in there and put on the gray suit.”… Anyway, he did traipse back into the room. He came back in the gray flannel suit, looking wonderful, but he had on patent pumps. She said, “oh, go ahead.” Afterward, Truman said, “oh, my crazy mother!”
Nina became known for her parties. The floors at their apartment at 1060 Park were waxed to a high sheen, and she befriended luminaries – among whom were Doris Lilly, who was so convinced that Holly Golightly was all based on her, her, her! She prepared lavish Southern buffets, which she made entirely by herself (people were continually surprised that she was an excellent cook, but, like Holly, she could only cook certain dishes).
As he grew older, Truman came up with guest lists as well, and introduced his own friends. Phyllis Cerf recalled the parties at 1060 Park and claimed that she saw “everybody from Marlene Deitrich to Walter Winchell.”
Truman was also friends with Christopher Isherwood, whose Goodbye to Berlin inspired the musical Cabaret. His description of the bohemian cabaret singer Sally Bowles almost certainly influenced Truman’s later depiction of Holly Golightly. For a while, it would seem, they all had a perfectly marvelous time, with no mean reds to speak of.
However one of their friends recall a party that didn’t work out so well. On the day Joe – who had been, for some time, having financial difficulties – was accused of embezzlement. Nina was hosting a party. No one showed.
And so, Joe’s financial instability was revealed. He had never been able to make enough to really support Nina. He’d begun gambling in the volatile commodities market, and he soon began taking money from the company (Taylor, Pinkham & Co) that employed him. When the company was purchased by J.P. Stevens in 1952, they found close to $100,000 missing.
By that point, Truman had published his first novel, Other Voices, Other Rooms about growing up in the South, and was working on movie scripts (Beat The Devil). He sent Nina almost all of the money he made so that Nina would not have to move to a “cold water flat in the Bronx.”
Nina began drinking heavily.
Truman wrote in a letter to a friend “Odd, I seem to think about money all the time, I used to not ever. But the whole Nina-Joe situation has given me such a jolt; and it goes on and on and on – and I have to pay straight down the line because I don’t know what else to do.”
Nina began avoiding all her old friends, terrified that they would realize her difficult financial situation.
Eleanor Freide dined with Nina at the Plaza shortly before her death and remarked that she was shocked to see Nina’s roots showing. Her hair had always been dyed so expertly that Freide had thought she was a natural blonde (in Breakfast at Tiffany’s Paul goes through Holly’s trash at one point, and discovers that she “dyes her hair, and receives love letters by the bale.”). Towards the end of her life Nina could no longer go to the beauty parlor to have it done.
One night, Nina had a fight with Joe, and he went to stay at the best hotel he could afford, the West Side Y.M.C.A. No one knows precisely what happened, but sometime in the next few hours, Nina swallowed a lethal dose of Seconal sleeping pills. The next morning, when he found her, Joe saw that the phone was off the hook, and wondered if she’d tried to call anyone. The windows were also open – it’s possible that she thought the cold air would stop her from passing out. It did not. She was taken to the Knickerbocker hospital where she died, a few weeks before her 49th birthday.
Upon hearing of her death, Truman, who was in Paris with Jack at the time, wept “she didn’t have to do it. She didn’t have to die. I’ve got money.”
His lover, Jack, describes taking Truman to the bus to fly to Nina funeral, in a way that sounds remarkably similar to Doc’s departure in the book. He said, “I put him on the bus to the airport – he was the only one – all the other passengers had driven out, presumably in their own cars. The Driver said “look, Mr. C, you hve the bus to yourself.” Truman was holding his dog. He looked at the driver, then at me, and then, to please the driver, he said something he would never say if he’d not been so desolate: “that’s because all the other passengers are so rich” he said – making a joke. Then he drove away in that big blue bus. It began to snow. It sounds like a story, but it really did snow – and the wind rose – and it was freezing cold.”
At the funeral, which was held at Frank Campbell’s funeral parlor on Madison Avenue, because it was commonly agreed to be the best in the city, Joe and Truman told everyone that Nina had died of pneumonia.
Shortly after, the district attorney concluded his investigation of Joe, and Joe was sent away to Sing Sing. Truman visited him consistently while he was there, but vowed never again to loan money to anyone.
I cannot help but feel that this explains so much, afterwards.
Yeats said “I have often had the fancy that there is some one myth for every man, which, if we but knew it, would make us understand all he did and thought.” Truman forever afterwards seemed obsessed with wealthy people, the really, truly rich, and he always seems to betray them. He integrated himself into their lives, and he became their closest confidante – but then, he published all their stories without concern for ostracizing himself in the process.
He did this, even, seemingly, with the people he loved. He almost certainly did love Babe Paley – he died whispering her name – but he published all her most intimate and humiliating secrets.
I think probably Truman’s motivation for doing all of that were unclear, even to himself. But I do think that no matter how much he loved it, he might have been gripped by certain impulse to humble the world that so enthralled his mother that it brought about her demise. And he did, even if it meant the he ended life utterly alone.
But there is one nice moment, in all of that, or a moment I always think is nice.
When Truman Capote was throwing the Black and White Ball, which was, well, probably the most majorly publicized party of all time (one critic suggested that the guest list was comprised of everyone who’d be first to the guillotine) one man came to Truman. His wife was a social climber who wasn’t really prestigious – and Truman had been almost gleefully turning away major socialites who were begging for invitations – and the man said that his wife was so upset that she hadn’t been invited that she’d taken to her bed and had been taking all kinds of sleeping pills. As soon as he heard that, Truman immediately ran to the phone, called her, and apologized for having lost her invitation in the mail, and told her that he expected to see her there early at his party.
That was a nice thing he did.
Long before that, though shortly after Lillie/Nina’s death, Truman wrote Breakfast at Tiffany’s. The title is borrowed from a story Truman heard about a young marine. The marine spent the night with a middle aged man in New York. The next morning, the man was so grateful he offered to take the marine anyplace he wanted for breakfast. “Pick someplace fancy,” he said. The marine had only heard of one fancy place in New York. “Well,” he said, “let’s have breakfast at Tiffany’s.” Neither Truman nor his mother were probably ever quite that naive, but, considering where they came from, they might have been close.
Truman said at the beginning that the novel was about a woman who wanted a calm place to go to, amids “that lovely smell of silver and alligator wallets.”
Breakfast at Tiffany’s does not end, as the movie does, with that woman finding that calm place in another person. But one day, the narrator does see Holly’s former cat looking well taken care of and contented in a windowsill, and he hopes that, wherever Holly is, she is, too. Perhaps he felt a desire to make her so. But perhaps he also realized that would have been pushing things too far.
Even if she never found that sense of calm, Nina did get to live for a while amid the lovely smell of silver and alligator wallets. In doing so, she gave birth to not only one of the greatest writers of the 20th century, but, as far as I can tell, one of the greatest characters. I think even Holly Golightly, always top banana in the shock department, would have been impressed.
Pics via Paramount Pictures Breakfast At Tiffany’s.
Capote: A Biography
Party of the Century