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Pastures of the Sky

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It’s easy to imagine yourself treading in the footprints of a famous writer, we’re encouraged to do so all the time – those blue plaques, those National Trust signs – but it’s altogether a different experience when you find yourself, as I did one evening on the corner of Lexington Avenue in New York, having a shivery goosebump moment, not with a well-known author, but with his fictional character: Holly Golightly.

One of those brownstones, I thought, with a fire escape at the back, that modest bar where she would have gone to make telephone calls and pick up her messages, that yellow cab . . . then there she was, swishing elegantly past in a little black dress, matching elbow-length gloves, and a string of pearls round her neck. Only, of course, I realized a moment later that this wasn’t the ‘real’ Holly Golightly that Truman Capote had so magnificently created in his 1958 novella, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, but a twenty-first-century girl wearing a fashionably retro dress and off to a party or a date. A discombobulating moment, though a peculiarly appropriate one as the ‘real’ Holly is continually re-making her image and social identity.

She belongs, however, in the 1940s, when America was still at war and opportunities for women to pursue careers or gain financial independence were limited. ‘Be good, sweet maid, and let who will be clever,’ my father used to instruct me, even in the ‘liberated’ 1960s. Holly is neither good nor sweet, but she is clever, and charming, part rôle model, part anti-heroine, her character firmly underpinned by Capote’s deep understanding of the psychology of aspiration and desire.

He began life as Truman Streckfus Persons. His parents divorced when he was 4 and left him in the care of his mother’s hard-up relatives in Monroeville, Alabama. Four years later he was reunited with his mother, Lillie Mae Faulk, who had acquired a second husband, a New York textile broker, Joseph Capote.

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It’s easy to imagine yourself treading in the footprints of a famous writer, we’re encouraged to do so all the time – those blue plaques, those National Trust signs – but it’s altogether a different experience when you find yourself, as I did one evening on the corner of Lexington Avenue in New York, having a shivery goosebump moment, not with a well-known author, but with his fictional character: Holly Golightly.

One of those brownstones, I thought, with a fire escape at the back, that modest bar where she would have gone to make telephone calls and pick up her messages, that yellow cab . . . then there she was, swishing elegantly past in a little black dress, matching elbow-length gloves, and a string of pearls round her neck. Only, of course, I realized a moment later that this wasn’t the ‘real’ Holly Golightly that Truman Capote had so magnificently created in his 1958 novella, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, but a twenty-first-century girl wearing a fashionably retro dress and off to a party or a date. A discombobulating moment, though a peculiarly appropriate one as the ‘real’ Holly is continually re-making her image and social identity. She belongs, however, in the 1940s, when America was still at war and opportunities for women to pursue careers or gain financial independence were limited. ‘Be good, sweet maid, and let who will be clever,’ my father used to instruct me, even in the ‘liberated’ 1960s. Holly is neither good nor sweet, but she is clever, and charming, part rôle model, part anti-heroine, her character firmly underpinned by Capote’s deep understanding of the psychology of aspiration and desire. He began life as Truman Streckfus Persons. His parents divorced when he was 4 and left him in the care of his mother’s hard-up relatives in Monroeville, Alabama. Four years later he was reunited with his mother, Lillie Mae Faulk, who had acquired a second husband, a New York textile broker, Joseph Capote. Truman acquired a new name, Truman Garcia Capote. Unfortunately, his stepfather was convicted of embezzlement and the family home on Park Avenue was lost. While still a schoolboy, Truman began to write short stories – a few were published – and would blag his way into Manhattan nightclubs such as the Stork Club, frequented by movie stars, celebrities and aristocrats. After leaving school, he worked for The New Yorker for two years, cultivated a distinctive high-pitched voice and an off-beat manner, and was open about his sexuality at a time when being actively gay was illegal in the States. I was 16 when I first read Breakfast at Tiffany’s, but because this is a novella that begins with an ending, full of uncertainties and possibilities, I soon realized that this was a complex grown-up story in which there might be sadness as well as joy. The unnamed narrator – whom Holly calls Fred because he reminds her of a much-loved younger brother – sees that she is schooled in the dark arts of glamour and seduction yet is intrigued by the reckless bravado of her disclosures. Whatever you do, seems to be her message, do it with style, and ignore convention. ‘Leave it to me,’ she says. ‘I’m always top banana in the shock department.’ Sharing Holly’s apartment in that East Seventies brownstone in Manhattan is a striped red cat who also has no name, a stray given strictly temporary accommodation. The narrator moves into a single attic room above them with everything he needs to become a writer: books and jars of pencils to sharpen. But he is quickly distracted; first by the printed card in her mailbox name-slot – Miss Holiday Golightly, Travelling – then by her habit of coming home in the small hours without a door key and expecting one of the other tenants to let her in. It’s late one night that he finally gets to know her better. Lying in bed, unable to sleep and reading a book, he is disturbed by a feeling of being watched. It’s Holly standing outside the window, looking in.
‘I’ve got the most terrifying man downstairs,’ she said, stepping off the fire escape into the room. ‘I mean he’s sweet when he isn’t drunk, but let him start lapping up the vino, and oh God quel beast!’
Holly, who began life as Lulamae Barnes (her first name a close match to Capote’s mother’s name), grew up sleeping four to a bed, somewhere unspecified, possibly in rural Oklahoma. She has been fending for herself ever since she ran away from home at 14 and now, at 19, is a shameless gold-digger who lives a superficially glitzy life, hanging out in fashionable nightclubs and restaurants, or throwing impromptu parties at her apartment, still furnished mainly with suitcases and unpacked crates. ‘I liked its fly-by-night look,’ says the narrator. He is a little dazzled by Holly, which is hardly surprising as she so often appears draped only in a bath towel or dressed up to the nines. She’s ruthlessly ambitious, but at times also touchingly self-aware. This is how she describes Tiffany’s, the upmarket jewellery store on Fifth Avenue.
It calms me down right away, the quietness and the proud look of it; nothing very bad could happen to you there, not with those kind men in their nice suits, and that lovely smell of silver and alligator wallets. If I could find a real life place like Tiffany’s, then I’d buy some furniture and give the cat a name.
As their friendship grows, the narrator gives Holly a silver St Christopher medal (the patron saint of travellers) because it’s all he can afford at Tiffany’s and she gives him an empty birdcage, an elaborate bamboo palace, that he has spotted in an antique store on 51st Street. ‘If you let yourself love a wild thing,’ she says later on, and a little drunk, ‘you’ll end up looking at the sky.’ The narrator is not the only one who ends up looking at the sky. There are many others, including Salvatore ‘Sally’ Tomato, the dope racketeer in Sing Sing prison whom Holly visits every Thursday in order to pass on a mysterious ‘weather report’, which turns out to be code for something very different; O. J. Berman, a Hollywood actor’s agent who arranged French and English lessons for Hollywhen she was just 15, hoping the right voice would launch a film career; José Ybarra-Jaegar, a Brazilian millionaire who does something ‘vaguely important’ in Washington; and Doc Golightly, the Texas farmer Holly first married then abandoned. ‘Divorce him? Of course I never divorced him. I was only fourteen, for God’s sake. It couldn’t have been legal.’ Most people don’t have her measure, but the reader does, being clued in early on by the obliging O. J. Berman.
‘You’re wrong. She is a phony. But on the other hand you’re right. She isn’t a phony because she’s a real phony. She believes all this crap she believes.’
‘Writing has laws of perspective,’ Capote told Paris Review, ‘light and shade, just as painting does, or music.’ No one understood this better. His novella is like a house in summer, filled with air  and every object, every character, has a purpose. The red cat, for instance, who is tossed about and disregarded by Holly throughout the story, provides the reader with a dash of comforting sweetness at the very end, necessary because Holly, it turns out, while clever, is not quite clever enough. Of all his fictional characters, Capote acknowledged that Holly was his favourite and the one most like himself. He, too, liked to travel and lived for a time in Greece, Italy, Africa and the West Indies. He wrote hugely successful books, both fiction and non-fiction, short stories, plays, film scripts and a musical, but he never seemed fully to shake off the unhappiness of his early life. He drank heavily, took many different drugs and, in the decade leading up to his death in 1984, was in and out of rehab clinics and hospitals. There is a description of Holly sitting on the fire escape, drying her newly washed hair in the sun, singing and playing her guitar. She knew all the latest show hits but sometimes sang songs with words that suggested the woods and prairies of her childhood home. ‘Don’t wanna sleep, don’t wanna die, just wanna go a-travellin’ through the pastures of the sky.’ A tune she would play over and over, long after her hair was dry and the lights came on in the city.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 44 © Linda Leatherbarrow 2014


About the contributor

Linda Leatherbarrow is still writing short stories and lives in Scotland, close to the Galloway Forest Park, the UK’s first Dark Sky Park.

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