Thanks For The Music: The Enduring Gifts of Alan Lancaster and Status Quo


Recently, at a friend’s birthday celebrations, I met Alan Lancaster, one of the founding members of Status Quo. The party attracted a fair representation of the arts, with a leaning towards musicians, songwriters and music industry personalities. Some performed, others shared their recollections during speeches, a few simply mingled and chatted, relaxed in their relative anonymity.

Alan spent much of the evening talking with long-time Quo fans. He is small, almost boyish, with the lean insouciance of a rock star and a shock of gray hair. His features recall the 13-year-old who, with fellow schoolmate Francis Rossi, honed their musical skills in the school orchestra at Sedgehill Comprehensive in Catford, a south London suburb that produced talents as diverse as guitarist Robin Trower, comedian Ben Elton and author Andy McNab.

At that tender age, Alan and Rossi formed a band that would evolve to become Status Quo in 1967. They were together through the hard-rocking period of chart dominance in the early to mid-1970s and when they racked up a fair proportion of Quo’s 64 UK Top 40 hits.

As is so often the case in the world of rock, Alan fell out with his partner and played his last gig with Quo at Live Aid in 1985. He’s been living in Australia since then.

At 64, he’s a little frail, a little unsteady on his feet, a result of his ongoing battle with MS, which was first diagnosed in 2002. Doubtless he’s been asked everything over the years so he’s heard it all. His recollections are mercifully free of the venom that would normally be excused from someone who has survived fame, fortune and the music industry.

Even a sideways swipe at the question du jour of pretty much every fan he talks to these days – the ignominious serving up for Coles supermarkets of Quo’s biggest hit like a slab of cold delicatessen lunchmeat, complete with current band members performing in giant red hands – diffuses the revulsion he must undoubtedly feel with a deliciously ironic sense of humour.

Alan Lancaster

As he was leaving, I shook his hand and asked if I could say something. He was probably expecting yet another request for a photo opportunity or some probing analysis of bass riffs on Piledriver.

Instead, I simply thanked him for the music, for being so much a part of my teenage years. If he thought it a strange comment, if he was taken aback, he hid it well, maybe a moment’s hesitation before he answered and maybe his eyes were a little brighter and a little shinier and maybe his handshake was a little firmer than it would ordinarily be.

It could be that a lot of people say what I did and it’s just another ordinary day for a former rock god. I don’t mind that much. I meant it. Music is so immensely important to me. It carries the full weight of my life, of the memories of all the years that have passed. There’s rarely a day that I don’t share with the music that means so much. My iPod turned high in the room where I’m writing, in the kitchen when I’m cooking, in the car while I’m driving. Each song is a hermetically sealed vessel containing emotions of a time and place and mood and sometimes even a person; vividly bright pieces of the jigsaw that is me.

Music unites our past and present, and most likely our future as well. I can listen now to a song that I first heard when I was young and callow and know that it may still be bouncing around my brain when I take my last breath. It will endure. It’s the same for those of us for whom music is more than just background noise.

Alan Lancaster (middle back row) and the classic 70s Quo line-up

My tastes meandered widely in those days, from Karen Carpenter and Van Morrison to Chicago, the Bowie of Ziggy Stardust and the Thin White Duke, Alice Cooper and Lou Reed. And while, as the 70s progressed, my nights were increasingly given over to disco, the long summer days were bracketed by Status Quo at their most potent, pounding out across a thousand hotel beer gardens and backyard parties.

I most likely had cassettes of Hello! or On The Level to play in my car. Quo were unavoidable and their songs seeped into my conscious like osmosis. Roll Over Lay Down, a song co-written by Alan, remains as vitally anthemic as it was then.

As is to be expected, the boffins have weighed in with a scientific rationale for why music means so much to us. In early 2011, researchers at the Montreal Neurological Institute found that people listening to their favourite songs experienced a rush of dopamine near the frontal striatum, the brain region associated with anticipating rewards, in tandem with a similar dose in the rear striatum, the brain’s pleasure centre. In essence, music activates the same pleasure responses as food and sex.

While music gives me such enjoyment, it can also take me to darker places. The weight of the past can become too heavy and there are those favourites I carried in my heart for decades, such as Bryan Ferry, that eventually came to represent my failures, far too painful to bear.

So while I was thanking Alan for his music, I was also thanking him for all the music. In essence, Alan was standing in for Karen and Van the Man and Peter Cetera and David Jones and Vincent and Lou and thousands more, everybody I’ve ever played more than a few times or nodded along to on the radio. I’ll never get the chance to personally thank all those great boys and girls so Alan had unwittingly become my conduit to the past and the person who grew up, for better or worse, with a love of the music of the times. For a moment, he was every singer of every song I hold dear.

He took it well, I thought. We shook hands, the barely heard echo of the passing decades gently faded and he wandered off into the night. I wish him well because a little bit of what make us all what we are travels with him.

Words © David Latta

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Sometimes A Schnitzel Is More Than Just A Schnitzel: Essen Restaurant And The Schnitzilla Challenge


There are many people who say there’s a time and place for fried food. And there’s the rest of us who exclaim “anytime and anyplace!”. For those in the latter category, a trip to Essen, a restaurant specialising in northern European cuisine, is a must. It’s located on Broadway close to Sydney’s CBD.

My love of this kind of food started in the early 1970s with regular visits to Una’s in Kings Cross. Una’s has always been dependable; great breakfasts and especially great schnitzels including the jaeger schnitzel (with mushroom sauce). When original owner Maggie sold out (and later opened a namesake operation just across from the El Alamein Fountain), the new owners branched out with a couple of satellite Una’s. One was on Broadway, sandwiched between the University of Sydney and UTS. That was seven years ago; a couple of years later, the partnership that took over Una’s split and this branch became Essen.

It’s been as dependable as the original Una’s; great jaeger schnitzel (in a choice of pork, veal or chicken) and superb slow-roasted pork knuckle with bread dumpling and sauerkraut. Essen is also notable for its excellent beers and ciders including a malty dark Dreher Bak beer from Budapest (a brewery better known for its export Pilsner Urquell). Essen on Broadway is especially good for those of us for whom Kings Cross has lost its charm.

The Contenders Await The Challenge

As an aside, it’s worth mentioning that Essen’s schnitzels are comparable to my all-time favourite, the legendary Figlmüller in Vienna, Austria. It’s here that the humble wiener schnitzel has been elevated to an art form. Figlmüller opened on Wollzeile, a short walk from St Stephen’s Cathedral, in 1905. I’d often reflect on the famous (and infamous) personalities who may have found their fried version of heaven within these walls – Freud (who undoubtedly would have suggested that a schnitzel is sometimes just a schnitzel); an unsuccessful painter of watercolours who just missed out on being named Schicklgruber; and Orson Welles, legendary lover of food in prodigious amounts who filmed The Third Man in the streets nearby

Figlmüller’s claim to eternal fame lies in a single piece of pork tenderloin, pounded into wafer-thin submission, crumbed and fried. At around 30cm in diameter, it smothers the plate on which it is served. It was always the first place I’d eat whenever I arrived in Vienna and the memories stay with me today.

When it comes to food, as with so many things, I claim observance to Dirty Harry’s creed that “a man’s just gotta know his limitations” and so it was at a recent media launch for Essen’s Schnitzilla challenge. I was on hand to watch a bunch of overly-ambitious journalists and media types attempt something no-one else had been able to achieve – defeating a man-made mountain of schnitzel.

Disbelief Sets In

The Schnitzilla is Essen’s newest menu item. Inspired by the Man v. Food television program, it encompasses a 3.5kg platter of chicken schnitzel, side dishes such as roesti and cabbage salad, and jaeger sauce. The idea is that if the dish is consumed within 45 minutes, the diner gets a limited-edition “I Got Schnit-Faced At Essen” T-shirt (presumably Size XXXL).

In the first month of the Schnitzilla, 70 diners tried but none reached the goal; the best performance was leaving 1.2kg. They get to take the leftovers home, where they will undoubtedly be recreating their challenge for the next few days.

There were more than enough contenders at the media launch. They took their places, their optimism as bright and eager as little bunny rabbits. But the Schnitzilla was the headlights on the highway. All were flattened by the juggernaut of fried meat. The best performing diner left 1.39kg.

Craig Donarski At Battle Stations

Human nature is such that we always believe we can conquer the impossible, tackling Everest or visiting Ikea on weekends being the most notable examples. So the Schnitzilla will continue to seduce thrill-seekers but it appears unlikely any will ever succeed.

On the other hand, the Schnitzilla –  at $49 – can be seen as outstanding value. It roughly equates to about four or five servings so do your best but don’t overdo it; the leftovers will feed a large family or 27 Russian supermodels.

Essen

133-135 Broadway

Ultimo, NSW, Australia

Tel: 612 9211 3805

The Schnitzel Will Always Win

Words and photos © David Latta

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Adventures In Bread Pudding: An Easter-Themed Hot Cross Bun Bread Pudding


If you have a sweet tooth, like I do, Easter is heaven. While Christmas is traditionally savoury, with its emphasis on a wide variety of roast animals, Easter is all about chocolate and hot cross buns (spiritual considerations aside, of course).

Well known in Australia and the United Kingdom, hot cross buns might not be as traditional a fare in the United States so I’ll fall back on Wikipedia and describe them as sweet buns spiced with cinnamon and containing raisins, currants or mixed fruit. I have them toasted with marmalade jam which only points out just how recklessly I red-line my sweet zone. The traditional buns have been supplemented in recent years by such variations as chocolate chip, white chocolate and cranberry and even non-fruit (presumably washed down with a weak decaf non-dairy lattè with Equal).

This Easter, I was a little more careful than usual (maintaining my 20 kilogram weight loss from last year) but couldn’t entirely neglect my chocolate and hot cross bun habit. But once the Easter festival drags on and you’ve served them fresh, toasted, over easy, on horseback and every other which way, what else is there to do?

Try them in a bread pudding, of course. This recipe uses the traditional New Orleans-style Bread Pudding found in the Silver Palate Cookbook (Doubleday, 1981). The original recipe calls for one loaf of stale French bread or baguette but works equally well with ordinary stale sliced white bread or even brioche. Just about any bread or bakery item is fair game although maybe Cinnabon is going a bit far. There’s also a whisky sauce that comes with the original recipe but it’s your call as to whether it would be too much with the compounded richness of the hot cross buns. I say – you’ve gone this far, why not!

Oh, and before I forget, like all desserts, a scoop or two of ice cream is the perfect accompaniment.

Ingredients:

8 Hot Cross Buns

3 ½ cups milk

160 grams butter, softened

7 eggs

1 ½ cups sugar

2 tablespoons vanilla extract

1 cup icing sugar

4 tablespoons whiskey

For the PUDDING, in a large mixing bowl, tear buns into small pieces. Pour milk over and let stand for one hour.

Preheat oven to 160 degrees Celsius. Grease a baking dish (ceramic or Pyrex is fine – dimensions of about 30cm x 18cm x 7cm).

In another bowl, beat 6 eggs, sugar and vanilla extract. Stir this into bread mixture.

Pour into baking dish, place on the middle rack of the oven and bake until browned and set. It should take about 70 minutes. It’s better if it’s moist in the middle. Cool to room temperature.

For the WHISKEY SAUCE, blend the softened butter with the icing sugar in the top of a double boiler over simmering water until all the sugar is dissolved and the mixture is hot. Remove from heat. Beat remaining egg well and whisk it into sugar mixture. Remove pan from base and continue beating until sauce has cooled to room temperature. Add whisky to taste.

To serve, preheat griller. Cut pudding into squares and transfer to a heatproof serving dish. Spoon whiskey sauce over the pudding and place under the griller until bubbling.

Words and photo © David Latta

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You Like Me, You Really Like Me!!!!!!


Many, many thanks to long-time reader and avid travel blogger Ashley Paige (no, not the Californian bikini designer – for those who fret about such things – but the East Coast anthropology student) of the fortheloveofwanderlust blog for nominating me for a Versatile Blogger Award.

As a condition of my nomination I must list 15 of my favourite blogs, a tricky task as I subscribe to so few. I’ve put in a little research and found some wonderful blogs that align with my interests.

My list comprises:

1/ Alice Writ Large

2/ Cliff Bott’s Blog

3/ Espacio de Manon

4/ Get Up And Go

5/ The Licentiate

6/ Aaron Leaman

7/ The Thought Experiment

8/ Classic Las Vegas

9/ Fossil Cars

10/ Dear Old Hollywood

11/ Black Dahlia Reader

12/ The Daily Mirror

13/ Old Hollywood Glamour

14/ The Oz Hitztory Blog

15/ Blame Mame: A Classic Film Blog

I must also open up and list seven things readers may not know about me:

1/ I prefers cats to dogs and just about any other animals with the exception of monkeys.

2/ I wasn’t a child prodigy and I’ve been paying the price ever since.

3/ I’m a blue guy rather than a brown guy.

4/ Disco died for me sometime around 1981.

5/ Bacon is my favourite food group.

6/ If I had to choose one cuisine to eat for the rest of my life, it would be Chinese (Hunan preferably but Cantonese runs a close second).

7/ If it’s your shout, I’ll have a Ketel One martini, very cold, very dry, with a twist. Oh, and a bag of pork rinds, thanks.

Sorry for gushing (although with the Oscars approaching, my Sally Field moment is perhaps excusable) but thanks again to Ashley Paige and to all my readers.

Words and photos © David Latta

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Nuts and Cream: Bircher Muesli and Nineteenth Century Dietary Radicalism


For more than 20 years, I travelled extensively around the world and one of the things I looked forward to was staying at hotels I’d normally never be able to afford. There’s something wonderfully indulgent about five-star hotels, whether they be in New York, Hong Kong or Paris, and my first mornings would always follow the same path – trooping off to the hotel dining room with that day’s copy of the Herald Tribune and the heady anticipation of what the breakfast buffet would hold. I’d first check that bircher muesli was available; I considered then, and still do, that a hotel could best be judged by the quality of that one dish – moist, creamy, sweet and welcoming, the perfect introduction to a new destination.

This was especially so in Asian hotels during the 1990s, when the international five-star brands were more often than not staffed by European food and beverage executives, trained in classic traditions by the finest Swiss hotel schools. Even if the eggs were incinerated at blisteringly high temperatures and the “bacon” was beef or turkey, I could generally count on the bircher muesli as authentic.

In recent times, my travel has tailed off but my love of bircher muesli has not. In my local neighbourhood, I’ve found only one café that serves it and, while it’s a fair approximation, it’s not exactly my ideal.

Maximilian Bircher-Benner With A Few Of His Favourite Things

With this in mind, I started fiddling with the numerous recipes available on the Internet. Most create the muesli from scratch, with oats and nuts, then adding grated apple, yoghurt and milk, at which point they often spin wildly off into a galactic black hole of improvisation. It’s not unusual to find such oddities as agave nectar, sunflower seeds and apple slices pan-fried in maple syrup and cinnamon.

I wanted something simpler. I figured there’s no reason I couldn’t start with readily-available pre-mixed supermarket muesli. Through trial and error, mostly error, I’ve devised one that comes pretty close to those wonderful concoctions I remember from my travels. Just how wicked it becomes, calorie-wise, depends on whether you use cream or milk or a combination of both. You can even substitute low-fat or skim milk and the taste will not suffer that much.

Firstly, though, a little background. Hats off to Maximilian Oskar Bircher-Benner, a late 19th century Swiss doctor and early advocate of healthy eating. The basis of his teachings was to avoid meat and concentrate on fruit, vegetables and nuts. Around 1900, at his clinic in Zurich, with the Alps resonating in the background, he mixed together a few of his favourite things and came up with museli.

John Harvey Kellogg Says Nuts To Healthy Living

Interestingly, across the Atlantic, this philosophy was mirrored by John Harvey Kellogg. At his Battle Creek Sanitorium in rural Michigan, Kellogg pushed the boundaries of healthy living way beyond his Seventh-day Adventist adherence (which already renounced alcohol and tobacco) and embraced vegetarianism. A firm believer in the benefits of nuts and whole grains, in the late 1890s he started a company with his brother, Will Keith Kellogg. No prizes for guessing where this is going, right? Along the way, Kellogg invented Corn Flakes and no suburban breakfast would ever be the same again.

And while I have Max to thank for my favourite breakfast, I have to admit that Kellogg was a much more interesting individual. He took weird and perfected it in ways that defy definition. As evidence, seek out the 1994 bio-pic, The Road To Wellville, with Anthony Hopkins as Kellogg and Dana Carvey as his brother and a supporting cast that includes John Cusack, Matthew Broderick and Bridget Fonda.

Kellogg’s overall philosophy was one of moderation and abstinence from all vices, sex included. Self-determination, if I may employ a euphemism, was especially abhorrent; Kellogg considered that such practices led to urinary disease, impotence, epilepsy, cancer, insanity and, eventually, death. These days, he’d probably throw in global warning and Republicanism.

So, keeping in mind the matter of full cream over low fat, what better time to segue to my bircher muesli recipe?

DL’s Bircher Muesli Recipe:

Ingredients

2 cups supermarket muesli (raw, not toasted)

250 mL milk (any type, even low fat or skim, or full cream)

125 mL apple juice

175 mL tub of yoghurt

1 tablespoon honey

½ medium apple, peeled and grated

Method

1/ Combine all ingredients in a bowl. Cover and refrigerate overnight.

2/ Before serving, the mixture may need a little extra milk. It should be moist but not wet, with a consistency a little on the porridge side.

Words  © David Latta

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Will The Real Holly Golightly Please Stand Up: Truman Capote Mines His Friendships For Art


Truman Capote As A Young Man

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….”

Babe Paley photographed by Horst P. Horst

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.”

C.Z. Guest photographed by Cecil Beaton

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.)

Gloria Guinness

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.

Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast At Tiffany's

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.

Doris Lilly

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

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Spitting The Dummy Into Moon River: Truman Capote, Audrey Hepburn and Breakfast At Tiffany’s


To state the bleeding obvious, our perceptions are molded (or mouldered, as the case may be) by what we know. Yet it’s occasionally delicious to explore what could be and this is certainly the case with film when the final product is often radically different than what may have been. Would our enjoyment of so many great movies be the same if, as producers originally intended, Christopher Walken or Al Pacino had taken the part of Han Solo in Star Wars, Tom Selleck played the lead in Raiders Of the Lost Ark, John Travolta appeared as Forrest Gump, or James Caan was the 1978 version of Superman (or even the bizarre casting of Nicolas Cage in the abortive mid-90s Tim Burton remake)?

The faltering bridge between literature and film provides even more wondrous examples. Perhaps the best of these is Breakfast At Tiffany’s. The 1961 Audrey Hepburn vehicle has become so ingrained in pop consciousness that few people today even realise it was based on a book, let alone have ever read it.

Yet it’s a prime example of how a literary property, so celebrated as a work of art by one of America’s most celebrated novelists, was turned into something entirely different by Hollywood. And, despite such apparent limitations, it becomes such a classic of its own right.

Compare the movie to the book and the shortcomings of Audrey Hepburn become obvious. Yet, read the book and it’s impossible not to hear Audrey’s voice in Holly Golightly’s dialogue. Her dark-haired, pale-skinned feisty fragility, her elegance, the black dress and gloves, tiara and long cigarette holder, all create the Holly as we know her rather than the Holly as she sprang from Truman Capote’s imagination. Audrey was the daughter of a baroness and her Holly is regal in the way very few from her character’s background (a dirt-poor former child bride from Tulip, Texas) could ever hope to be.

A raft of other changes were made along the way; Hollywood scrubbed Capote’s novella to remove anything that could compromise an image of Audrey that had already been set in place with Roman  Holiday, Sabrina and Funny Face.

Breakfast At Tiffany’s was written in 1955-57 at a time when Capote generously considered himself to be America’s Proust. Although described as a novella, it is more an over-long and occasionally meandering short story; Capote’s self-indulgence, which had been gavaged out of all proportions by the critical acclaim of his first novel, Other Voices, Other Rooms in 1948, had his editors too terrified to wield the blue pencil.

The story opens in the 1940s, just after America entered World War II. Upon moving into an apartment on Manhattan’s East Side, the unnamed narrator meets his upstairs neighbor. Holly Golightly is 18 years old and blonde (“the ragbag colours of her boy’s hair, tawny streaks, strands of albino and yellow…”, as Capote described it). She’s also a hooker although, to be fair, it’s in an unorganised, amateur sort of way. She attaches herself to wealthy men who give her money and expensive gifts but her philosophy to such a career choice is unambiguous. “…you can’t bang the guy and cash his cheques and at least not try to believe you love him. I never have,” Holly explains rather ingenuously.

The narrator is an aspiring novelist and it’s soon obvious that Capote is describing himself; his birthday, 30 November, is Capote’s own.

Outre Talent: Truman Capote

It’s also apparent that Holly is another version of Capote, the person he would prefer to be – independent, self-confident and worldly. Some of Holly’s biographical details have been cribbed from Capote’s mother. Holly grew up in a dirt-poor rural backwater; Capote’s mother was born and raised in Monroeville, Alabama. Holly leaves her husband (who she married at 13) and step-children behind  to reinvent herself in New York City; Capote’s mother abandoned her husband and young son to move to New York City to be close to her married lover (one of a string that included world champion prizefighter Jack Dempsey). Holly’s real name is Lulamae Barnes but changes it to Holly Golightly to assume an urbane sophistication; Capote’s mother’s real name was Lillie Mae Faulk but adopted Nina to camouflage her origins. The most prominent of Holly’s lovers in Brazilian; Capote’s mother’s was Cuban.

Breakfast At Tiffany’s appeared  in the November 1958 issue of Esquire, then collected with some short stories and published in book form by Random House shortly afterwards. It attracted significant attention; another young lion of American fiction, Norman Mailer, was fulsome in his praise: “He is the perfect writer of my generation, he writes the best sentences word for word, rhythm upon rhythm. I would not change two words in Breakfast At Tiffany’s.”

As was to be expected, Hollywood came calling but the experience eventually left Capote bitter and twisted. He had always envisioned his good friend, Marilyn Monroe, in the part of Holly and rejected any offers that would compromise that choice. “Marilyn was always my first choice to play the girl, Holly Golightly,” Capote was quoted at the time. After much deliberation, he sold the film rights to Paramount Pictures; although the wheels hadn’t yet come off, they were wobbling precariously.

As Capote explained to Lawrence Grobel in Conversations With Capote (New American Library, 1985): “It was the most miscast film I’ve ever seen. It made me want to throw up…And although I’m very fond of Audrey Hepburn, she’s an extremely good friend of mine, I was shocked and terribly annoyed when she was cast in that part. It was high treachery on the part of the producers. They didn’t do a single thing they promised. I had lots of offers for that book, from practically everybody, and I sold it to this group at Paramount because they promised things, they made a list of everything, and they didn’t keep a single one. The day I signed the contract they turned around and did exactly the reverse. They got a lousy director like Blake Edwards, who I could spit on!”

The film kept very little of the novella: the title, setting and some characters, Holly’s ginger cat and her guitar playing (while inserting the abysmal Henry Mancini-penned Moon River, a song that is as annoying in its inability to fathom as Send In The Clowns).

One of the greatest changes was in transforming the unnamed narrator, such a mirror-image of Capote that he radiated the confused emotional yearnings of a young gay man not yet comfortable with his life choices, and turned him into George Peppard, a vibrantly hetero Hollywood leading man as Holly’s love interest.

Still, if you had no previous knowledge of the book, you could understand why the film of Breakfast of Tiffany’s became one of Hollywood’s great classics and Hepburn a style icon who has transcended the ages. The little black dress, designed by Givenchy, that Audrey wears at the beginning of the film is most likely one of the most famous clothing items of all time. Another of the dresses that Givenchy designed for the film sold at auction in 2006 for $US947,000, such is the power the film still holds.

Holly Golightly In An Alternate Universe: Marilyn Monroe circa 1960

Having a wildly successful book and film didn’t stop there. In 1963, a Broadway producer optioned the book with the intention of turning it into a musical. Legendary choreographer, writer and performer Bob Fosse was brought in as co-writer, intending his long-time partner, Gwen Verdon, to play Holly.

Capote objected, saying Verdon was far too old (in her late 30s) to play Holly and the project died. A few years later, Capote  OK’d the 30-year-old Mary Tyler Moore to star in a musical version. The production, beset by numerous problems, closed on Broadway after four performances.

In the early 1980s, plans were well advanced for a remake of the movie with Capote enthusiastically endorsing the choice of a 22-year-old Jodie Foster as Holly. Although he went as far as declaring Foster as “ideal for the part”, nothing ever happened and it remained in the realms of what if?

Would Marilyn Monroe have made a better Holly Golightly than Audrey Hepburn? It’s difficult to even begin to consider this point. At her best, she would have offered up a completely different interpretation; Marilyn’s vulnerability would have been a fitting counterpoint to the froth and bubble and have shaded the character more realistically. Certainly the abandonment issues she shared with Capote and, by extension, Holly, would have provided a stronger core and drawn out a motivational complexity.

But in the closing months of 1960, when filming took place (Marilyn was then on location for The Misfits, her final complete film), she was far from her best. Her life, like her career, was starting to slide precariously close to the chasm that would swallow her up less than two years later.

While Capote had been such a strong supporter of her initially, he later amended his views. As his own glory days were behind him, at which time he was more famous for the parties he attended and the barbed bon mots he indiscriminately tossed out like hand grenades, he had no sympathy for those whose own fortunes so closely resembled his own.

In an essay he wrote on Marilyn, collected in The Dogs Bark: Public People and Private Places (Random House, 1973), he was merciless. He excoriated his once-favourite dance partner and confidante for “…her slippery lips, her over-spilling blondeness and sliding brasserie straps, the rhythmic writhing of restless poundage wriggling for room inside roomless décolletage – such are her emblems”.

Maybe we should just be content with Audrey as Holly and the cat named Cat and that horrendous song and the little black dress and leave what could be alone. Sometimes, when you get to where you’re going, it hardly seems worth the journey.

Words  © David Latta

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