Holly Golightly: Breaking Rules In A Little Black Dress

Audrey Hepburn i i

The iconic black dress worn by Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany's was specially designed by Hubert de Givenchy. Howell Conant/Paramount/ The Kobal Collection hide caption

itoggle caption Howell Conant/Paramount/ The Kobal Collection
Audrey Hepburn

The iconic black dress worn by Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany's was specially designed by Hubert de Givenchy.

Howell Conant/Paramount/ The Kobal Collection

Holly Golightly. Just saying the name of that free spirit from Tulip, Texas — for whom life wasn't exactly care-free — is bound to produce a smile.

The character Audrey Hepburn brought to life in Blake Edwards' 1961 film Breakfast at Tiffany's captured the imagination of an America on the cusp of the sexual revolution. But Hepburn's Holly is only a partial interpretation of the Holly that Truman Capote created in his 1958 novella of the same name.

In Fifth Avenue, 5 A.M. — Audrey Hepburn, Breakfast at Tiffany's and the Dawn of the Modern Woman, writer Sam Wasson shows how Paramount made a Hollywood hit out of a story about a call girl when some magazines deemed it too shocking to serialize.

One of the first hurdles, Wasson says, was how to handle the sexual orientation of Truman's characters at a time before the sexual revolution.

"One of the things that people forget about Holly in Truman's novel is that she had a bisexual streak and in fact the character of the narrator — who George Peppard played in the film — was himself gay," Wasson tells NPR's Jacki Lyden. "We know for sure that Paramount had a great deal of difficulty translating that aspect of the novel into a mainstream heterosexual romantic comedy."

Fifth Avenue, 5 A.M.
Fifth Avenue, 5 A.M.: Audrey Hepburn, Breakfast at Tiffany's, and the Dawn of the Modern Woman
By Sam Wasson
Hardcover, 256 pages
HarperStudio
List price: $19.99

Read An Excerpt

The man in charge of that translation was writer George Axelrod, who had to develop a more conventional romantic interest and storyline for Hepburn's Holly — something closer to the 1950s romantic comedies where the goal is to get two characters together or married so the movie can end. A tricky task, considering Capote's original storyline.

"When you're dealing with a call girl, they're already getting together," Wasson says. "So what's the conflict that you're going to build into the story to actually make it a feature-length film?"

Axelrod's solution, Wasson says, was "brilliant."

"If Audrey [Hepburn is] playing a call girl and George Peppard is playing a gigolo, the problem is not a lack of sex; the problem is too much sex — such that they're so tired by the time they actually do get together that they don't get together," Wasson says. "You see that in that scene when [Holly] first climbs into bed with [Paul]. They're not sleeping together — but they're two gigolos — because it’s the end of a long day's work. And George [Axelrod] is clever about suggesting all of this. He can't come right out and say they're gigolos, obviously, but the implication is strong. And it's because of that that the movie has the conflict that it has and the legs that it does."

But there are clues that Axelrod was in fact out to create the kind of sophisticated romantic comedy that he had always dreamed of writing. Take, for example, the scene in which Holly and Paul go to Tiffany's — Holly's place of retreat and imagination — to get a Cracker Jack ring engraved. They hand the ring over to the restrained salesman, played by John McGiver, and a memorable exchange follows:

Salesman: "Do they still really have prizes in Cracker Jack boxes?"

Paul: "Oh, yes."

Salesman: "That's nice to know. It gives one a feeling of solidarity, almost of continuity with the past. That sort of thing."

Holly: "Do you think Tiffany's would really engrave it for us? I mean, you don't think they would feel it was beneath them or anything like that?"

Salesman: "Well, it is rather unusual, Madame, but I think you'll find that Tiffany's is very understanding. If you will tell me what initials you would like I think we could have something ready for you in the morning."

Holly [to Paul]: "Didn't I tell you this was a lovely place?"

The scene shows an innocent side to Holly — a character Wasson views as the beginnings of the modern woman because, unlike Scarlett O'Hara or Cleopatra, Holly isn't punished for her sexuality. She gets away with her man and — in that little black dress — she looks good doing it.

"She's being rewarded — that's what the black is all about," Wasson says. "There were not many young women, girls, who got to wear black in the movies. You think of Debbie Reynolds, for instance, and most women of this era, [they] were wearing these ... little cute things with bright colors and patterns — the poodle skirt aspect of femininity. Yet here's Audrey Hepburn with a slight element of danger coming out of this cab in this sleek sophisticated black gown."

There's a touch of danger in Holly, Wasson says, "and we love her for it. She makes it OK. [Holly is] a girl that you can become."

And with the arrival of the sexual revolution, many women did.

Excerpt: 'Fifth Avenue, 5 A.M.'

Fifth Avenue, 5 A.M.
Fifth Avenue, 5 A.M.: Audrey Hepburn, Breakfast at Tiffany's, and the Dawn of the Modern Woman
By Sam Wasson
Hardcover, 256 pages
HarperStudio
List price: $19.99

Chapter One

Thinking It
1951-1953

The First Holly

Traveling was forced upon little Truman Capote from the beginning. By the late 1920s, his mother, Lillie Mae, had made a habit of abandoning her son with relatives for months at a time while she went round and round from man to high-falutin' man. Gradually the handoffs began to hurt Truman less — either that, or he grew more accustomed to the pain — and in time, his knack for adaptation turned into something like genius. He was able to fit in anywhere.

After his parents' divorce, five-year-old Truman was sent to his aunt's house in Monroeville, Alabama. Now was Lillie Mae's chance to quit that jerkwater town and hightail it to a big city. Only there could she become the rich and adored society woman she knew she was destined to be, and probably would have been, if it weren't for Truman, the son she never wanted to begin with. When she was pregnant, Lillie Mae — Nina, as she introduced herself in New York — had tried to abort him.

Perhaps if she had gone away and stayed away, young Truman would have suffered less. But Nina never stayed away from Monroeville for long. In a whirl of fancy fabrics, she would turn up unannounced, tickle Truman's chin, offer up an assortment of apologies, and disappear. And then, as if it had never happened before, it would happen all over again. Inevitably, Nina's latest beau would reject her for being the peasant girl she tried so hard not to be, and down the service elevator she would go, running all the way back to Truman with enormous tears ballooning from her eyes. A day or so would pass; Nina would take stock of her Alabama surroundings and once again, vanish to Manhattan's highest penthouses.

Had he been older, Truman might have stolen his heart back from his mother the way he would learn to shield it from others, but in those days he was still too young to be anything but in love with her. She said she loved him, too, and at times, like when she brought him with her to a hotel, promising that now they'd really be together, it looked to him as though she finally meant it. Imagine his surprise then when Nina locked him in the room and went next door to make money-minded love with some ritzy someone deep into the night. Truman, of course, heard everything. On one such occasion, he found a rogue vial of her perfume and with the desperation of a junkie, drank it all the way to the bottom. It didn't bring her back, but for a few pungent swallows, it brought her closer.

For the better part of Capote's career as a novelist, that bottle — what was left of his mother — would be the wellspring of most of his creations. The idea of her, like the idea of love and the idea of home, proved a very hard thing to pin down. He tried, though. But no number of perfume bottles or whiskey bottles, no matter how deep or beautiful, could alter the fact of her absence. Nor could most of the women or men to whom Truman attached himself. They could never pour enough warmth into the void.

In consequence, Capote was equal parts yearning and vengeance, clutching at his intimates with fingers of knives that he would turn back on himself when left alone. However sharp, those fingers pulled his mother from the past and put her on the page where, in the form of language, he could remake her perfume into a bottomless fragrance called Holly Golightly. That's how Truman finally learned the meaning of permanence.

Once the reading world got a whiff of it, eau d'Holly made everyone fall in love with Truman, which, since his mother had left him that first time, was the only thing he ever wanted. That and a home — a feeling of something familiar — like an old smell, a favorite scarf, or the white rose paperweight that sat on Truman's desk as he wrote Breakfast at Tiffany's.

The White Rose Paperweight

When he was in Paris in 1948, soaking in accolades for his lurid first novel, Other Voices, Other Rooms, Truman was delivered by Jean Cocteau to Colette's apartment in the Palais Royal. She was nearing eighty, but the author of Gigi, the Claudine novels, and countless others, was still France's grandest grande dame of literature.

In full recline, Colette, racked with arthritis, no doubt smiled at Truman's author photograph on the dust jacket of Other Voices. Staring out at her with his languid eyes and slick lips, the boy's salacious look was one the old woman knew well; in her day, she had rocked Paris with a few succes de scandales of her own, both on the page and off. Now here was this rascal with his angel's face — a hungry angel's face. How delicious. She felt for sure there existed a kind of artery between them, and even before he entered her bedroom, Truman sensed it too. "Bonjour, Madame." "Bonjour." They hardly spoke each other's language, but as he approached her bedside, their bond grew from assured to obvious. The artery was in the heart.

After the tea was served, the room got warmer, and Colette opened Truman's twenty-three-year-old hand. In it she placed a crystal paperweight with a white rose at its center. "What does it remind you of?" she asked. "What images occur to you?"

Truman turned it around in his hand. "Young girls in their communion dresses," he said.

The remark pleased Colette. "Very charming," she said. "Very apt. Now I can see what Jean told me is true. He said, 'Don't be fooled, my dear. He looks like a ten-year-old angel. But he's ageless, and has a very wicked mind.' " She gave it to him, a souvenir.

Capote would collect paperweights for the rest of his life, but years later the white rose was still his favorite. Truman took it with him almost everywhere....

From Fifth Avenue, 5 A.M.: Audrey Hepburn, Breakfast at Tiffany's, and the Dawn of the Modern Woman by Sam Wasson. Copyright 2010 by Sam Wasson. Excerpted courtesy of HarperCollins Publishers.

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