If ever there was a subject worthy of a Broadway musical, it would be the coterie of elegant swans that surrounded Truman Capote. Beautiful, stylish and inevitably wealthy, they came from all manner of backgrounds but what they had in common was that New York City was their world and the world was their playground, much as it was his.
That Capote could charm such creatures was no real surprise. His wit, as sharp and entangling as razor wire, was the perfect accompaniment to every dinner party and social soiree.
When Breakfast At Tiffany’s appeared in the pages of Esquire magazine in November 1958, the burning question became: who was the real Holly Golightly? Even more pressing, amongst his circle of friends and admirers, was – could it be one of us?
Early in Capote’s novella, the unnamed narrator meets one of Holly’s friends, a West Coast agent by the name of O.J. Berman. He tells the story of “discovering” a 15-year-old Holly at the Santa Anita racetrack in Los Angeles. She was involved with a jockey at the time and, despite thick glasses and an almost impenetrable Okie accent, he detected certain qualities that could have made her a star.
“…it took us a year to smooth out that accent,” Berman confides. “How we did it finally, we gave her French lessons; after she could imitate French, it wasn’t so long that she could imitate English. We modelled her along the Margaret Sullivan type, but she could pitch some curves of her own, people were interested….”
Berman arranges her to test for an upcoming movie, The Story of Dr Wassell, starring Gary Cooper and directed by Cecil B. DeMille. The day before she’s due to audition, Berman gets a phone call from Holly saying she’s in New York and has no intention of returning.
This is one of the principal clues towards identifying the real Holly. There actually was a Story of Dr Wassell, with Cooper and DeMille, which was released in 1944. Gerald Clarke in Capote: A Biography (1988) ventures that this was a reference to Doris Lilly, described as a “tall, pretty, streak-blonde starlet”. Wassell is Lilly’s only Internet Movie Database entry, where she is rather ingloriously listed as “Civilian (Uncredited)”.
Lilly went on to become a journalist and author, best known for her 1951 bestseller, How To Marry A Millionaire. Interestingly, the 1953 movie adaptation co-starred Marilyn Monroe, a close of friend of Capote, who had futilely championed her as Holly in the film version of Breakfast At Tiffany’s.
Lilly was interviewed by George Plimpton for his 1998 book, Truman Capote: In Which Various Friends, Enemies, Acquaintances and Detractors Recall His Turbulent Career.
“There was a lot of wondering about who the original Holly Golightly was,” she said. “Pamela Drake and I were living in this brownstone walk-up on East 78th Street, exactly the one in Breakfast At Tiffany’s. Exactly. Truman used to come over all the time and watch me put make-up on before I went out…There’s an awful lot of me in Holly Golightly. There is much more of me than there is of Carol Marcus and a girl called Bee Dabney, a painter. More of me than either of these two ladies. I know.”
Carol Marcus had fallen in with a teenage Capote in the early 1940s and introduced him to a circle of friends, including Oona O’Neill (daughter of playwright Eugene O’Neill, who married a 54-year-old Charlie Chaplin when she was 18 years old) and heiress Gloria Vanderbilt and the group prowled such celebrated nightclubs as El Morocco and the Stork Club.
Marcus had a short-lived career in Hollywood as Carol Grace; she was best known for marrying author William Saroyan twice (the first time when she was just 16) and then actor Walter Matthau. “I married Saroyan the second time because I couldn’t believe how terrible it was the first time. I married Walter because I love to sleep with him,” she later said.
Bee Dabney was an artist who was briefly engaged to George Plimpton although it ended badly; she ran off with a man she met at the engagement party.
With the hardcover publication of Breakfast At Tiffany’s, Capote’s career soared further and, inevitably, the search for the real Holly became more frantic. A woman who shared Holly’s surname sued Capote for $800,000 but the suit quickly stalled. Capote was quoted as saying: “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.”
(As an aside, it’s interesting to note that Doris Lilly would later become a close friend of Crawford, from 1967 living in the same apartment block.)
Capote himself was not beyond muddying the waters to maintain interest in his most famous creation. In a 1968 Playboy interview, he spun an elaborate story about the real Holly being a German immigrant he met when they both lived in the same brownstone on the Upper East Side.
Another interesting clue comes by way of another of Capote’s friends, author James A. Michener, whose novel Tales Of The South Pacific (1947) was adopted as a Broadway musical and subsequent movie, South Pacific. In an essay penned as the foreword for Lawrence Grobel’s Conversations With Capote (1985), Michener tells of a woman he firmly believed to be the model for Holly. Although he doesn’t name her, he describes her as “…stunning would-be starlet-singer-actress-raconteur from the mines of Montana. She had a minimum talent, a maximum beauty, and a rowdy sense of humour. Also, she was six feet, two inches tall, half a head taller than I, a head and a half taller than Truman.”
This occasioned a competition between Michener and Capote for the woman’s affections, although she leaned (in more ways than one) more towards Capote. “They made a stunning pair, this statuesque miner’s daughter soaring above the heavens, this rotund little gnome dancing along beside her,” Michener wrote.
As an accompaniment to his celebrity status, Capote undoubtedly loved the attention as much as the scarlet swirl of notoriety that swept along the discussion of Holly’s origins.
In all probability, Holly was a mix of many women. A little of this one, some more of that one. Doris Lilly, Carol Marcus, Michener’s unnamed companion, Capote’s mother, Capote’s own idealised alter ego, and maybe even splashes of his very own coterie of gorgeousness he called his “swans” which included Gloria Guinness, Babe Paley, C.Z. Guest, and Slim Keith.
Capote’s fiction draws so heavily from his own life and the people he knew that sorting the real from the imaginary is a Herculean task. In his most famous work, the 1966 In Cold Blood, he approached this from a different angle, creating an ambitious mix of real-life events and improvised reportage that, for want of a better description, was labelled a non-fiction novel.
Yet, unknown to anyone, let alone the beguiling members of New York society who had allowed this strangely beautiful interloper into their lives, he had another agenda. He was planning a literary masterpiece peopled with his friends and foes. In essence, he’d been planning it even before he finished Breakfast At Tiffany’s, giving it the title of Answered Prayers.
He finally signed a contract for it in 1966, hot on the heels of In Cold Blood; deadlines, however, came and went, contracts were renegotiated and it wasn’t until the mid-1970s that a couple of unconnected chapters appeared in Esquire.
By that time, Capote was well used to people quizzing him about whether they would appear in the book, whether they could expect literary glorification or abject and enduring humiliation. The longer the project meandered, the more it seemed the result would be the latter rather than the former. He was well aware of, and even delighted in, the power he held. When the question inevitably arose, he would tease: “Not yet but, like Forest Lawn cemetery, I’ve reserved a plot for you”.
When Esquire printed these tantalising glimpses in 1975-76, it made for turgidly compulsive reading. The overall effect was to rankle his social circle. Secrets that had been shared with him, sometimes over decades, made their way into print. Mojave was a thinly-disguised tale of one of his closest and oldest friends, Babe Paley and her husband, television executive William S. Paley. Le Cote Basque followed; if Mojave was a snide aside in a crowded room, Le Côte Basque, which referred to a fashionable restaurant preferred by New York society, was a screaming hissy fit that, however artfully, made public all manner of indiscretions.
Babe never talked to Capote again, the real-life model for one of the main characters committed suicide and New York society turned their elegant backs en masse. He had driven his swans away. By the end of the decade, Capote was alone with the demons that had always haunted him, increasingly filtered by prescription drugs and alcohol.
Answered Prayers was never to see publication beyond the chapters that originally appeared in Esquire. Through the late 70s and early 80s, whenever questioned about its progress, he continued to obfuscate. Close to the time he died in 1984, he even handed a close friend a safety deposit box key, claiming it held the completed manuscript. No trace of it was ever found.
Words © David Latta