The famous Breakfast at Tiffany’s character wasn’t entirely invented
THE SUNDAY TIMES, 2009
During the 1950s, the American author Truman Capote would regularly socialise with a friend and fellow New Yorker called Carol Grace, whom he had known since their teenage years in the late 1930s. They would meet early in the morning at the Gold Key Club on West 55th Street, and after a long chat would leave around 7am and head for the famous Tiffany’s jewellery shop, outside which they would enjoy doughnuts and coffee from a cart on Fifth Avenue.
One day, Truman told Carol that he was creating a fictional character who would be partly based on her. It would also be inspired by another girl he had known, a young woman he described as “almost a hooker”, from one of the Southern states. The character he eventually created was Holly Golightly, in his 1958 novella, Breakfast at Tiffany’s.
As a girl, Carol became obsessed with movie magazines, and those movie magazines are blamed in the book for leading Holly Golightly astray
In addition to the Tiffany’s connection, there are some other striking similarities between Holly and Carol Grace. In his book, the writer describes the young Holly as “living with some mean, no-count” foster parents; this would have rung a bell with Carol, who once remembered that she was sent to “bleak and ugly” foster homes during the Great Depression. Another similarity concerns their choice of reading matter: as a young girl, Carol became obsessed with movie magazines – and those movie mags are blamed in the book for leading Holly astray.
Yet another important link is the 1939 film Wuthering Heights, starring Laurence Olivier. This is the movie that, according to Carol, introduced her to the idea of passionate love – and in Capote’s book, Holly says she has seen the same film 10 times and “cried buckets” over it. Holly also says in the novella that she once met the writer William Saroyan at a party – and Carol had married the same man in real life. (She had wed Saroyan in 1943, divorced him six years later, and then married him again briefly in 1951.)
And there’s more. Carol and Holly both dined at “21”, a restaurant on West 52nd Street, and both loved horse-riding.
Of course, the most famous scene in the 1961 movie sees Holly, played by Audrey Hepburn, singing ‘Moon River’ by a window. There’s something of a coincidence between that song title and Truman Capote’s first encounter with Carol. In a memoir three decades later, Carol (by now Carol Matthau, having married the actor Walter Matthau) revealed that she met the writer when he saw her through a window and declared: “your skin is made of moonbeams… You are directly from the moon.”
Truman Capote died in 1984, aged 59. Carol Saroyan Matthau, as his original Tiffany’s breakfast companion became known, lived to the age of 78, dying of a brain aneurysm in 2003. ♦
© 2014 Tony Barrell