There will always be the odd book or record you regret the disposing of. This is an inevitable rule of life. Norman Mailer‘s Advertisements for myself (1959) went the way of the charity shop in the last major house-moving cull. I reasoned duplication. That I had the crucial essayy, The white negro: superficial reflections on the hipster, his groundbreaking and influential essay of sub-cultural analysis, in Protest: the Beat generation and the Angry Young Men (1958), another bizarre anthology (bought in a charity shop) that had Kingsley Amis rubbing shoulders with Allen Ginsberg, John Braine with Bill Burroughs; something was happening but they didn’t quite know what it was. (The white negro is now readily available online).
This isn’t just an exercise in nostalgia, however. In one of Mailer’s advertisements he pugilistically discussed his rivals in the Great American Novel stakes and said of Truman Capote that he was “the most perfect writer of my generation” – a quote you can find in many places. I’d like to know now what else he said about him because I’m floundering (and I was not the only one in book group) as to why it has taken us five intense reading decades to get round to a book as exquisitely written as Truman Capote‘s Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1958). Probably it was just that back then very notion of a place like Tiffany’s was anathema to us, rang all the wrong aspirational bells, for a, um, generation that wanted to change the world. (It still is and does for that matter, but we move on.)
I am always drawn back to places where I have lived, the houses and their neighbourhoods. For instance, there is a brownstone in the East Seventies where, during the early years of the war, I had my first New York apartment.
That for instance is a bit of an understatement, because the narrator, a struggling writer, is unlikely to have met a woman like Holly Golightly before or since. She’s entrancing, annoyingly impulsive, adorable. There’s no denying she’s a prostitute in good time gal’s clothing but that’s just temporary, a practical career move, part of the process until something better turns up: “Anyway, home is where you feel at home. I’m still looking.” She hasn’t got the blues (she claims) but will admit to “the mean reds.” Set in the mid-1940s, hers is an extraordinary tale of transformation, an American dream, no less. As OJ Berman, who once tried to manage her, says, “She’s crazy. A phony. But a real phony, you know.” She scuppers his business plan for her on the West Coast because, “I knew damn well I’d never be a movie star. It’s too hard; and if you’re intelligent, it’s too embarrassing.” There are social snapshots galore, lots of lovely delicate descriptive touches and brilliant dialogue. There’s a narrative that pulls you in, a sort of denouement and a teasing mystery that remains. I loved it, will read it again and again (it’s a novella, just over 100 pages in paperback). There’s also the bonus of another 42 to add to that celebrated number’s roster:
… by the way, is Hemingway old?”
‘In his forties, I should think.’
‘That’s not bad. I can’t get excited about a man until he’s forty-two.’
I loved the book so much I got a DVD of the iconic 1961 Audrey Hepburn movie to see how it shaped up; not something I make a habit of, but Holly in the book – and that rare quality I see now of Audrey Hepburn as I remembered her on film – both enchant and intrigue. I’m offering nothing new here, but for the record, in the book she’s got short hair and he’s had a book actually published. Though much of the dialogue is lifted verbatim, there is no wild horse ride through the streets of New York in the film and the ending differs criminally (I cannot stress the latter enough). Crucially, there is no Joe’s Bar, so the essential framing narrative of the book is nowhere to be seen. In the book we are looking back, speculating – many years on – on what might have become of Holly; just the hint of her re-appearance (a contemporary wood carving chanced upon in Africa) brings three men together again in the bar that was a part of their’s and Holly’s lives. In the film – it’s still on the whole a decent watch in its own right if you can get over the disparities – one of these men is what can now only be seen as a deeply offensive (and even then demented) performance by Mickey Rooney as a comic Japanese. And that Moon river theme song that’s all over the film: it’s a perfectly good song, I’ll grant, but in the book what Holly plays and sings on the balcony in what we would call these days a rich slice of Americana.
I suspect – notwithstanding the contemporary success of Capote’s innovatory ‘true crime’ ‘faction’ (or ‘non-fiction novel’), In cold blood (1966) – that it was Breakfast‘s association with the rich milieu of Tiffany’s and, visually, via film posters, the other high society, the so-phisticated one, that kept him off our to-be-read piles and lists back then; not where we wanted to go at all. So it’s interesting to read about Capote’s ‘victory’ bash at the New York Plaza in no less a counter-culture year than 1966. Certainly ‘in crowds’ were an element of, say, 1967’s Monterey Pop Festival or London’s 14 hour Technicolour Dream, and the odd fashionable designer and their work may well have been in evidence, but high couture it was not. You can see why writers like Richard Brautigan or – Gawd help us, Hermann Hesse – caught our attention more.
Deborah Davis‘s Party of the century: the fabulous story of Truman Capote and his Black and White Ball (Wiley, 2006) is both fascinating and nauseating in turn. Flushed with the success of In cold blood Capote was flaunting it. From the start this was going to be the party; how hideous a notion is ““People are practically committing suicide because they didn’t get invitations,” Truman crowed.” (I shudder a trifle here when I hear an echo of Frasier‘s Niles and Frasier Crane, but that is high comedy). Try some of Davis’s chapter headings: The In Crowd; Making the List; The Place to Be; “Have you heard?”; How to be lovely; Plumage – all the angst and expense. While her style is mostly dead-pan reportage, irony plays alongside an effusive undercurrent as she describes the antics of the disparate melange of invitees: Truman’s Swans (the pampered beautiful international society women he courts), the Womens Wear Daily fashion crowd, politicians, the Kennedy connections, traditional New York ‘society’, the In true blood Kansas connections, and a selection of creatives headed by Frank Sinatra and his new wife, Mia Farrow. Rock and roll it was not (though there was an element of “twisting and frugging“).
As it turns out the party, while judged a success on the whole, turned out to be a fine de siècle affair for that particular tout le monde while setting the high water mark of Truman Capote’s literary career; and it was more than just the writing that was in decline – a sad denouement. Davis gives us an insightful short life of the writer before and after the Black & White Ball and it comes as a bit of a shock to discover how much of himself there is in Holly Golightly, never mind his mother. But looking back, Peter Duchin, the bandleader at the Ball and a privileged insider at such functions, said that the party “closed an era of elegant exclusiveness and ushered in another of media madness – the one in which we still live.”
Funnily enough, Norman Mailer was invited and went. I have to say I was disappointed at this, but somewhat reassured when I learn that as the rich, the great and goodish arrived and were instantly recognised in all their finery, the press had to ask various writers attending who they were, but
The literary bad boy was an exception. Because he was well-known, there was all the more reason to criticize him for wearing a rumpled trench coat that even he described as “dirty gaberdine.”
Brilliant. Norman Mailer, soon to write another great ‘faction’ himself – The armies of the night: history as a novel; the novel as history (1968), his account of the anti-Vietnam war march on the Pentagon, and also the first hardback book I ever bought for myself – turned up to the grand masqued ball looking like Lieutenant Columbo.
As can be seen from the book jacket I’ve used for Breakfast at Tiffany‘s above, there are three short story companion pieces. A house of flowers didn’t do much for me and A diamond guitar (a prison tale) was OK, but the last, A Christmas memory is an absolute beaut of a Christmas tale that deserves to be better known in the UK, and would make a welcome change from the never-ending round of A Christmas Carols on telly. Pretty much autobiographical, it’s the story of the friendship of a young boy and his friend, an elderly and simple cousin, and the cake-making highlight of their year; think Snowman in a rural American kitchen (without the flying).
And for all that I’ve said against the movie, the edition of Breakfast at Tiffany‘s I’ve just bought – there is a choice, even in Penguin paperback – is one with Audrey Hepburn on the cover.