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 brassiere 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