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Inspiring a masterpiece

Normally I only glance furtively at obituaries; one never knows what, or rather, whom one may find in those columns. But the other day, glancing through The International Independent, I avidly read a half-pager on Dorian Leigh, the supermodel of the 1940s, captivating not only for her petite beauty, her Persian blue eyes and what Vanity Fair called her “wayward lifestyle and reckless bravado” but more so for the fact that she was, according to literary legend, the inspiration for Holly Golightly, the winsome and eccentric heroine of Truman Capote’s “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”.

Strong resemblances

The book and the film: Which one is the original?

Whether she was the inspiration or not is probably a secret to all but Capote himself. When the novella was published he said that half the women he knew, and several whom he did not, claimed to be the inspiration for his main character, a phenomenon that he named the Holly Golightly Sweepstakes. Critics have even noticed a strong resemblance between Holly and Sally Bowles, the heroine of Christopher Isherwoods’s story of the same name in his Goodbye to Berlin stories and the direct source for Liza Minelli in “Cabaret”

Be that as it may be, Dorian Leigh, who became famous at much the same time as Vivien Leigh, certainly seems to have had much that would make up an inspiration. To begin with, she was clearly no bimbo. A bright school student and an English major, she went on to study mathematics at New York University and thereafter was busy doing mechanical drafting for the Navy and designing aircraft wings when somebody directed her towards Harper’s Bazaar. Her modelling career took off in no time and soon she was on the cover of the Bazaar, to be followed by seven Vogue covers and another 50 on other major magazines. Her personal life seemed scripted to match: she married four times and among her many lovers were several men of artistic distinction: the jazz musicians Dizzie Gillespie and Buddy Rich, the singer Harry Belafonte, the writer Irwin Shaw, the poet Robert Graves… Inspiring enough?

Certainly I was inspired enough to go back to the book. In fact so emblematic has been Audrey Hepburn’s stamp on “Breakfast on Tiffany’s” that one can be forgiven for wondering momentarily as to what was the original: Capote’s 113-page novella or the 1961 movie. But the novella it is and the movie, however charming, must remain a derivative; in fact, in its making Capote felt double-crossed in every way since he had wanted Marilyn Monroe to play the lead. Mercifully, Paramount decided otherwise, else we would never have been left with that iconic picture of Hepburn with the cigarette holder.

Perfect prose

Reading the novella in one sitting is like going back to one of those incredible days when, trousers rolled up to the knees, you walk into some crystal clear and icy cold mountain stream and reaching down pick up a handful of clean, chiselled pebbles and hold them in your hand as the water slips over them. So perfect is Capote’s prose that each word feels like one of the pebbles and narrative rushes seamlessly by. And almost unnoticed, New York enters through the open window: the eternal New York of dappled sunlight in Central Park, right-angled streets of brownstone apartment blocks, jazz notes floating out of summer windows, bars tucked away like surprises just around the corner, fancy shops on Fifth Avenue, chance romances, struggling writers, strange disappearances….

None of this is surprising given that Capote was bothered not so much about what he wrote but the music that his words made, and he worked hard at it. Take for instance: “Never love a wild thing. He was always lugging home wild things. A hawk with a hurt wing. One time it was a full-grown bobcat with a broken leg. But you can’t give your heart to a wild thing: the more you do, the stronger they get. Until they are strong enough to run into the woods. Or fly into a tree. Then a taller tree. Then the sky. That’s how you’ll end up…If you let yourself love a wild thing. You’ll end up looking at the sky.” And then again: “It’s better to look at the sky than live there. Such and empty place; so vague. Just a country where the thunder goes and things disappear.” It is for writing such as this that Truman Capote believed that his second career as a writer began with Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Compared to his earlier, perhaps more evocative prose, he felt he had moved to “a pruning and thinning-out to a more subdued, clearer prose….more difficult to do.”

Capote would move on, constantly trying to reach a new perfection of writing, with his remarkable non-fiction book In Cold Blood. His unfinished Answered Prayers, written about earlier in this column, would lead him into controversy. But none of that would, or should be allowed to, touch the freshness, the verve and skill that is so evident in Breakfast at Tiffany’s that inspired Norman Mailer to call Capote “the most perfect writer of my generation, he writes the best sentences word for word, rhythm upon rhythm. I would not have changed two words in Breakfast at Tiffany’s….”

And rightly so.


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