10.13.2008

Holly Golightly: A Child of the Great Depression

I'd wager that millions more people have seen the movie Breakfast at Tiffany's than have read Truman Capote's story. While I plan to discuss the movie version in a future post, I'm gripped by the original novella. I haven't seen the film in a long time, but I've recently read the story for the first time. While I can certainly remember Audrey Hepburn's defining portrayal of Holly Golightly, the character that jumps off Capote's pages is memorably different, a street-wise young boyish woman who would seem at home in a Depression-era two-reeler.

And so she is. Capote's story is mostly set in New York during World War II, and the narrator, a budding writer, tells the story of Holly Golightly, born in 1924 (same year as Truman Capote) as a flashback from the vantage point of 1956. Attempting to understand this beautiful self-made and self-invented character of his memory, Capote reveals bits and pieces about her childhood as the story unfolds. The narrator, known as "Fred," the name Holly affectionately gives him as a surrogate for her soldier brother, becomes obsessed with unraveling her compelling story and personality. As an inquisitive writer, he takes notice of her every move, including an episode where he stalks her to the New York Public Library.

Early in the story, "Fred" notices several facts about Holly, including her diet of melba toast and cottage cheese, the fact she dyes her own "vari-colored" hair, a reading list that consists of "tabloids and travel folders and astrological charts," a large collection of V-letters from someone in uniform, and two important items - an unnamed cat and a guitar. When he hears her playing and singing on the fire escape of the brownstone they share, he stops to listen to her voice - "in the hoarse, breaking tones of a boy's adolescent voice." While she sings a repertory of Cole Porter, Kurt Weill, and show tunes from Oklahoma!, she also selects songs that reveal a distant story, ones of "wandering tunes with words that smacked of pineywoods or prairie." So, definitely not "Moon River" but songs with lonesome twang.

When Holly and the narrator meet, she begins to reveal facts of her background. Speaking of her beloved brother Fred, she says, "We used to sleep four in a bed, and he was the only one that ever let me hug him on a cold night." Soon enough, we learn that she left home at the age of fourteen, lives off her wits, but she mainly lives off of her transactions with men. Holly's choice of words in Capote's novella, purged in the film version, belies her rural background. Reacting to Fred's reading of one of his stories about two schoolteachers, Holly launches into a diatribe about "dykes." In fact, lesbianism becomes somewhat a favorite topic for Holly, even faking as a lesbian to hide a straight relationship. At one point, she comments that she wouldn't mind marrying Garbo.

Holly's hardened repressed feelings from her upbringing come to the foreground during her major fallout with the narrator. Holly dismisses his first published story about "Negroes and children" as simple meaningless description. She uses the "n" word. The narrator is rubbing oil on her sunburnt skin while she's talking to him, betraying her ignorance with her words, and he feels like slapping her. As children raised in the rural South during the Great Depression, they've hit a nerve. It becomes clear she's running away from southern poverty while he's writing his way through it.

The Depression story reveals itself in full when Doc Golightly of Tulip, Texas arrives on the scene searching for Lulamae, his runaway child bride. She was 14 when she married the widower Doc, becoming the child stepmother of his four children by the previous marriage. The year was 1938. The orphans, Holly and her brother Fred, had run away from the "mean, no-count people" a hundred miles to the east of Tulip, and Golightly's child Nellie caught them stealing milk and turkey eggs. Doc explained that they all doted on her, and she didn't have to raise a finger. Doc gave her the guitar and taught her how to play it. She thumbed through magazines, looking at the "show-off pictures," and these pictures made her want to run away, Doc explains. Holly first moved to Los Angeles before coming east to New York.

Truman Capote, the writer, is much like the narrator of Breakfast at Tiffany's, but he's Holly, too. He and the narrator share the same birthday and write similar types of stories, but like Holly, Capote demonstrated significant talents in the category of glamor and self-invention. Capote moved away from the South at the age of nine to live with his mother's new husband in Manhattan, and once he arrived, he kept walking. As Doc Golightly says, "Every day she'd walk a little further: a mile, and come home. Two miles, and come home. One day she kept on."

Images: Migratory laborer's wife with three children (not in photo). Near Childress, Texas. Dorothea Lange, photographer.1938 June.

Part of family come for work in potatoes. Tulelake, Siskiyou County, California. Left their home in Turkey, Texas, November, 1938. Picked cotton in Arizona till March. Picked fruit in Oregon till June. Picked prunes in Idaho till September 15th. Dorothea Lange, photographer. 1939 Sept.

New York, New York. Fifth Avenue at noon on a Saturday. Roger Smith, photographer. 1943 June.

All from the collection of the Office of War Information (OWI), American Memory Collection, Library of Congress.

See also The Golightly Variations: Introduction to a Walk and The Golightly Variations: Shopping for the Most Affordable Thing at Tiffany's.

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