NEW YORK — The scene that made it excusable to wear a tiara to breakfast: Audrey Hepburn, gowned in Givenchy black with long gloves, fat pearls and oversized sunglasses. She peers through a Tiffany’s window with Danish and coffee in hand.
Having breakfast on the street was never so glamorous. Hepburn’s role as Holly Golightly, the eccentric party girl of the 1961 film “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” turned the actress into an icon and role model for young women who fantasized about moving to New York to live the same freewheeling, urbane lifestyle.
Truman Capote hated Hepburn in the part.
The author had wanted Marilyn Monroe for the Hollywood adaptation of his 1958 novella contained in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s: A Short Novel and Three Stories.” He complained that the elegant Hepburn was miscast as Holly, a Texas runaway who reinvents herself as a Manhattan It Girl. The Holly of Capote’s imagination was a blonde like Monroe, who had a challenging childhood growing up as Norma Jeane Baker.
The movie tidied and glossed over the deeply tragic undercurrent of Capote’s story: an aimless bachelorette who uses sugar daddies as her income and a crutch to avoid the pain of her past. It added a happy ending and romance with a writer named Paul (George Peppard), a kept man who ditches his sugar mamma when he falls in love with Holly.
“The book is more authentic,” says Capote biographer Gerald Clarke, who deems it a “valentine” to free-spirited women rather than a cautionary tale about a little girl lost in the big city. “The movie is a confection — a sugar and spice confection.”
“Breakfast at Tiffany’s” continues to sell about 30,000 copies a year, and was recently reissued in a 50th anniversary edition by Vintage. The cover design shows a pale bejeweled hand clasping a pencil; the black foreground has been torn, revealing red underneath and the famous title scrawled in white.
Holly had a spare walk up apartment, scores of admirers and a cat she refused to name. She also suffered from what she called “the mean reds,” her term for anxiety. Her cure for that was to hail a cab to the Tiffany’s flagship store on Fifth Avenue.
“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 the lovely silver and alligator wallets,” she declared. “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.”
Amalgam of different stylish women
Clarke says Holly was Capote’s favorite creation and an amalgam of different stylish women in his circle: Gloria Vanderbilt, Carol Matthau, Oona Chaplin, Doris Lilly and his mother, Nina, who vanquished her rural Southern upbringing by dropping the name Lillie Mae. (The fictional Holly’s real name: Lulamae Barnes.)
According to Clarke’s biography “Capote,” Lilly — a fun-loving girl about town — called up a friend after the book was published, screaming, “It’s me! It’s me!” Everyone claimed to be Capote’s muse in what he called The Holly Golightly Sweepstakes.
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But Holly is also a projection of the “In Cold Blood” author, as famous for his writing as his social networking. In 1966, he gave a masked ball at New York’s Plaza Hotel in honor of Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham. Invites were tough to get. Frank Sinatra and wife Mia Farrow danced with various Vanderbilts and Rockefellers, and the literary giants of the day, like Norman Mailer. Capote’s Black and White Ball was later memorialized in a book called “Party of the Century,” which for many it was.
It was the type of event Holly certainly would have crashed.
“She was a free spirit,” Clarke says. “She lived her life, she took life on her terms, she did just what she wanted — and got away with it. And Truman did the same thing. He did just what he wanted, and most of the time got away with it.”
Neal Gabler, an author and cultural critic, wonders if the sparkly heroine could only have been imagined by a gay man such as Capote.
“Because a heterosexual man wouldn’t have imagined her, and I’m not sure that women would have imagined her that way,” says Gabler, whose books include “Life the Movie: How Entertainment Conquered Reality.”
Portrayed bewitchingly by Hepburn, Holly represented a “winsome rebel” without a cause — a female type not seen in movies of the time that were dominated by the lone Male Maverick as embodied by actors like Marlon Brando, Paul Newman and James Dean, Gabler says.
The upwardly mobile Holly lived the good life — thanks, in no small part, to the rich men who paid her $50 to go to the powder room. Despite her checkered past, she had a chic fashion sense. Black and pink and loaded with accessories like a big hat and extra-long cigarette holder, Hepburn’s wardrobe of Givenchy dresses dazzled against the early 1960s Manhattan dreamscape.
“What you get from this movie is a perfect idea of how to marry glamour and eccentricity and style,” says Simon Doonan, the creative director at Barneys New York. “Just being turned out and glamorous doesn’t make you necessarily fashionable. What makes Audrey Hepburn’s character so memorable is that there is a genuine eccentricity and quirkiness to her style. For example, the little tiaras. The stripe in her hair. ... That movie should really be mandatory for every girl to watch.”
Fizzy cocktail of urban sophistication
The film version of “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” marketed a fizzy cocktail of urban sophistication and the illusion of New York as a playground for young single women, says Ramona Curry, a film professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
Besides Hepburn, other star ingredients were: the Tiffany’s store; Holly’s glam wardrobe; the jazzy-nostalgic Henry Mancini score featuring the Oscar-winning song “Moon River,” sung by Hepburn in the movie; and the backdrop of New York City itself.
“If the story had been set in a small town ... it wouldn’t have had the appeal or wouldn’t have been made,” Curry says.
It’s safe to say there will never be another actress like Hepburn, who died of cancer in 1993, a true original like Holly. Over the years, other heroines of TV and film have adopted the winsome rebellion of her iconic character to varying degrees — “Sex and the City,” for example.
Carrie Bradshaw’s irreverent personality, unabashed materialism and colorful romances on the HBO series inspired who knows how many women to move to Manhattan where they, too, might drink cosmos, wear giant flower pins and meet their Mr. Big.
Carrie wound up with Big in the series finale, angering some fans who felt that the ending ran contradictory to what the show was really about: so-called female independence.
The Hollywood version of Holly found love — and a home — in the arms of George Peppard.
Capote’s ending was far more bittersweet.
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