‘Crude exhibitionist, time waster, utter fake, crazy or phoney’ — Holly Golightly is an original

The cover of my worn copy of Breakfast at Tiffany’s quotes Time magazine’s assessment of Holly Golightly as “the hottest kitten ever to hit the typewriter keys of Truman Capote. She’s a cross between a grown-up Lolita and a teen-age Auntie Mame.”

Comparisons like this, I find, are sometimes a sign of the failure of the critic to assess a work on its own merits. Instead, the critic feels like he has to go back to another (often more popular or artistic) example to illustrate his point for the reader because he can’t just describe the work of art as it stands by itself.

Audrey Hepburn stands before the window at Tiffany’s in a scene from the movie Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

That may not always be the case but I can’t help but think that’s the truth in any critical assessment of the extraordinary main character of Capote’s classic 1958 novella whose fame and popularity was heightened by the 1961 movie starring Audrey Hepburn. (I confess I haven’t seen the movie but I did watch the clever Seinfeld spoof.) Holly truly is in a class all by herself, just as is Lolita.

From her first description by the narrator — nicknamed Fred by Holly, after her brother — the reader has a clear picture of the woman at the centre of Breakfast at Tiffany’s:

“For all of her chic thinness, she had an almost breakfast-cereal air of health, a soap and lemon cleanness, a rough pink darkening in the cheeks. Her mouth was large, her nose upturned. A pair of dark glasses blotted out her eyes. It was a face beyond childhood, yet this side of belonging to a woman. I thought her anywhere between sixteen and thirty; as it turned out, she was shy two months of her nineteenth birthday.”

That sharp-eyed description carries on throughout the novella, especially with Holly’s singular turns of phrases — “If it’s one thing I loathe, it’s men who bite” and “I like a man who sees the humor; most of them, they’re all pant and puff” — and her explanation of the title of the book:

“I want to still be me when I wake up one fine morning and have breakfast at Tiffany’s,” she says on page 35.

She lets her cat drop to the floor and elaborates: “It’s like Tiffany’s,” she said. “Not that I give a hoot about jewelry. Diamonds, yes. But it’s tacky to wear diamonds before you’re forty; and even that’s risky.”

Holly may be, as Fred says, “a crude exhibitionist,” “a time waster,” “an utter fake” or, perhaps, she may be what her Hollywood agent O.J. Berman says of her: “crazy. A phony. But a real phoney, you know?”

And I suspect there’s something revealing of her mental state of mind in her repetitions of having the “mean reds” to show that there’s something dark beneath that tough, outward appearance. Capote explains in one passage between Holly and Fred:

“You know those days when you’ve got the mean reds?”
“Same as the blues?”
“No,” she said slowly. “No, the blues are because you’re getting fat or maybe it’s been raining too long. You’re sad, that’s all. But the mean reds are horrible. You’re afraid and you sweat like hell, but you don’t know what you’re afraid of. Except something bad is going to happen, only you don’t know what it is. You’ve had that feeling?”

“Quite often. Some people call it angst.”

Capote’s writing is of the highest quality, to be sure. Even so, there are examples where you can find examples of the bad (“…jolted through me like a jigger of nitrogen”) and the good (“her hooves made the gravel stones spit sparks”) on the same page. The author also has an annoying habit of verbifying nouns — Holly “blued the lids” of her eyes and a newspaper’s photographs being “front-paged,” among others — but they are easily forgotten by his precise descriptions like that of Holly’s room: “crowded with attic furniture, a sofa and fat chairs upholstered in that itchy, particular red velvet that one associates with hot days on a train. The walls were stucco, and a colour rather like tobacco-spit.”

In another passage, he writes of Holly’s muscles hardening and “the touch of her was like stone warmed by the sun.” He describes one morning in which the pigeons outside Holly’s room “were gargling on the fire escape.”

I was especially taken by this description of bartender Joe Bell popping a Tums in his mouth and, Fred says, “glaring at me, chewed it as though he were crunching my bones.”

Whatever the reader makes of Holly he will like her on some level. And you can’t help but admire her integrity and honesty when she tells Fred that “any home is where you feel at home. I’m still looking.”

In the end, after she flees New York and the authorities about to arrest her, we feel that she has come home. Fred, who has been charged with caring for her cat and finally finds him “one cold sunshiny Sunday winter afternoon,” concludes the book:

“Flanked by potted plants and framed by clean lace curtains, he was seated in the window of a warm-looking room: I wondered what his name was, for I was certain he had one now, certain he’d arrived somewhere he belonged. African hut or whatever, I hope Holly has, too.”
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