Skip to main content

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.









Popular posts from this blog

North Towards Autumn: A Day Trip on the Metro-North Hudson Line

The peak of autumn colors in New York City tends to fall sometime in the days following Halloween, but those anxiously waiting leaf change can simply travel north.  Near Beacon, a view of autumn colors from the Metro-North Hudson line One way to speed the fall season is to take the Hudson line of Metro-North north of the city and watch the greens fade to oranges and yellows and the occasional burst of red.  Autumn light in Hastings-on-Hudson Weekends during the month of October are ideal times to make the trip. The air tends to be crisp with bright blue skies, and the Hudson River glimmers like a mirror in the light of autumn. As the Hudson line hugs the river for much of the distance north, the train ride alone provides plenty of opportunities for sightseeing. Try to grab a window seat on the river side of the train car for views of the Palisades and the bends of the Hudson Highlands later in the trip.   Autumn leaves on the Old Croton Aqueduct Trail in Hastings Still, October is a gr

Early Voting in Washington Heights, and A Walk

Early voting for the 2020 federal election in New York began on Saturday, October 24 and continues through Sunday, November 1. The weekend was overcast and autumnal, with the bright yellows of fall on display. In New York City, thousands of New Yorkers turned out at the 88 early voting locations and waited in long lines, many stretching around the block.  A line to vote in Washington Heights. The line stretched around the block multiple times. Madison Square Garden in Manhattan and the Barclay’s Center in Brooklyn were two of the well-known sites, but most voting places were typical neighborhood places such as schools, churches, and hospitals.   The scene outside the entrance to the Russ Berrie Medical Science Pavilion, one of the early voting locations in Washington Heights. In Washington Heights in Upper Manhattan, two early voting locations were within a short walk of one another, causing some confusion for voters emerging from the 168th Street subway station. The Columbia Universit

The Lonesome Metropolis: A Walk from Grand Central Terminal to Rockefeller Center

As New York City reopens, why do the attractions of the great metropolis still look mostly deserted on a summer morning? A morning walk from Grand Central Terminal to Rockefeller Center sought to address this question. As it turns out, there are several adequate explanations. But for what happens next, there are no right answers. Grand Central Terminal, 9:40 am. Wednesday, July 22, 2020. Many neighborhoods outside of tourist New York are still buzzing along. While some residents of wealthier neighborhoods have largely decamped to mountain cabins, beach houses, and other second homes, the less wealthy have nowhere to go and may still be working. Just visit Washington Heights or Corona or Flatbush, and you’ll see sidewalks full of shoppers and summer evening street partiers. Those who fled the city remain only a fraction of the total population.   Grand Central Terminal, 9:40 am. Wednesday, July 22, 2020. Other renowned parts of the city such as City Hall and Brooklyn Bridge have been fr

Walking It Off: Coping with Holiday Stress During the Pandemic

When I began this series, “Pandemic Posts from the Pause: New York City in the Age of Coronavirus” in March of 2020, I could see the first young greens of spring from my window. New Yorkers were told to stay home then and away from others. As someone who enjoys walking in the city, I knew that I would need to sacrifice many things this year. I was not going to give up walking. I quickly figured out that I could safely go to Inwood Hill Park near my house and wander the trails in the old forest. In March, I could breathe in the spring air away from others. There was little else to do during those early days of the “pause.” New Yorkers suffered greatly at the beginning. In a few months we were able to get the numbers down and to manage some semblance of human interaction, at a distance and masked.  Now, with the beginning of the holidays, the city and nation faces the existential threat of the virus’s return, the political assault on democratic norms, and the ongoing threat of the clima

An Early Autumn Walk in Central Park: 2020 Edition

This week, the singer Diana Krall released a cover of “Autumn in New York,” the standard by Vernon Duke. An accompanying video , filmed in New York by Davis McCutcheon and directed by Mark Seliger, portrays the city in moody yet beautiful black and white tones. Beyond the lack of autumn colors, the film shows the empty streets of the pandemic city. The mood riffs on the underlying melancholy of the song’s lyrics, that the fall season “is often mingled with pain.” Approaching The Mall in Central Park  When I think of autumn in New York, I automatically imagine walking in Central Park in the vivid colors of the season. The images here, from a meandering one-mile stroll this past Saturday, show only a hint of autumnal glory but reflect more conventional representations of both the season and the song. Yet, walking in Central Park at the beginning of autumn is tinged for me with a hint of sadness, or truthfully, with some anxiety about the coming months. The Mall in Central Park I hadn’t v

MoMA in Masks

Update. Beginning September 28, MoMA will require all members to reserve tickets in advance.* Walking into the gallery devoted to Claude Monet’s Water Lilies (c 1920) at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) on Saturday afternoon, I saw a woman seated on a bench. She was looking at the artist’s dreamy depiction of his garden at Giverny, and I thought for a moment she might be dreaming as well. As she was the only person occupying what is usually a packed room for fans of Impressionism, I was hesitant to invade her private garden reveries. At MoMA I would enjoy my own such private moments with my favorite MoMA works that afternoon, including Marc Chagall’s I and the Village (1911). The painting depicts a colorful and geometric fairy tale of peasants and animals, memories of the artist’s childhood home outside Vitebsk. And I had a long time to feel the scorching sun of photographer Dorothea Lange’s Woman of the High Plains, Texas Panhandle (1938), a setting closer to my hometown. Later I wou

The City Turned Inside Out: A Walk from Battery Park to Fulton Street

While the cast of HAMILTON sings “The World Turned Upside Down,” New Yorkers could easily hum along to “The City Turned Inside Out” this summer. (not a real song) Where once a city’s important work took place indoors - within the soaring office buildings, famous restaurants, legendary museums, and storied performance halls, the COVID-19 epidemic has literally turned the residents outdoors.  New landscaping in Battery Park At least it’s summer in the city, when spending time outdoors is common and pleasant enough. Still, the city remains strange this summer of 2020.  Shade plants like hosta thrive in Battery Park. The Statue of Liberty is in the distance. With the absence of tourists, and with office workers connecting virtually from home, many of the city’s main attractions aren’t attracting many visitors. A walk from the Battery to Fulton Street on a pleasant Thursday afternoon bore this out.  Statue Cruises is still sailing. It’s uplifting to at least find plants that are alive and

The Season of Owls

 A walk in Inwood Hill Park. The days following the holidays and the first of the year make a good time to check in on life in the winter forest. I have a forest just down the street from me in Inwood Hill Park in Northern Manhattan. There, a vast old growth forest still stands. A Barred Owl faces the setting sun in Inwood Hill Park in Northern Manhattan. A few weeks ago, someone on a local Facebook page posted a snapshot of a Barred Owl, and I was keen to go looking for it in the park. I didn't find the owl on the first day, but the next day I saw it. A handful of birder enthusiasts were already on the scene and kindly pointed it out high up in the pines. What a beautiful creature!  A stand of White Pines provides the habitat for the Barred Owl. The owl is in this picture. I know, hard to see.  Since my first owl visit, everyday life during the otherwise dreary post-holiday doldrums has taken on a finer aura. I have returned several times, each taking a different path up to the o

NYC Re-openings and Travel Advice

What will open, and how will you get there? This list will be updated following official announcements. UPDATED October 10, 2020.  Many favorite local destinations have now reopened.  Hand sanitizer dispenser at the Marble Hill station of Metro-North's Hudson line Openings  - General Information and Popular Destinations    • Restaurants: Consult this NYC Department of Transportation map  (updated link) for restaurants currently open in NYC. Starting September 30, NYC allowed indoor dining at 25% capacity. • As of September 25, outdoor dining in NYC has been extended FOREVER. • The  9/11 Memorial  reopened on Saturday, July 4. Visitors must wear masks and keep social distancing practices. • (update) Libraries: NYPL. T he library will allow a grab-and-go service at 50 locations.   • Governors Island reopened July 15 with advance reserved tickets.  • The High Line  reopened on July 16, with several rules and limitations in place, including timed entry passes - available July 9. Entra

The Most Beautiful Bridge in the World

Swiss-born architect Le Corbusier (1887 - 1965), the leading proponent of the International Style of modern architecture, visited NYC on several occasions in the 1930s and 1940s, and he made much to say about the skyscraper city. He didn’t think much of the faux tops of the tall buildings nor did he care about the haphazard city planning, but he did fall madly in love with one particular bridge:  "The George Washington Bridge over the Hudson is the most beautiful bridge in the world. Made of cables and steel beams, it gleams in the sky like a reversed arch. It is blessed. It is the only seat of grace in the disordered city. It is painted an aluminum color and, between water and sky, you see nothing but the bent cord supported by two steel towers. When your car moves up the ramp the two towers rise so high that it brings you happiness; their structure is so pure, so resolute, so regular that here, finally, steel architecture seems to laugh. The car reaches an unexpectedly wide apr