by Jim Van Buskirk
When Breakfast at Tiffany’s was released in 1961, I was only nine years old; too young to know that the film, its protagonist Holly Golightly, and its star Audrey Hepburn were to dramatically change my life. Not too young, though, to dream of escaping my constricting southern California suburban family and of leading a sophisticated existence in madcap Manhattan, or some similar city.
I remember one afternoon when my junior-high friend Andy and I were listening to the original motion-picture sound track in the beige bedroom ofmy Orange County tract house. We began dancing to the sixties syncopation of Henry Mancini’s “Moon River Cha-Cha,” “Hubcaps and Taillights,” and “Mr. Yunioshi.” As we got more and more carried away, we began improvising makeshift skirts and headdresses, which became increasingly imaginative. Nothing, however, that would threaten Givenchy’s career as Audrey’s favorite couturier. At one inspired moment I ran out of the bedroom to the crisper of the refrigerator. Having successfully avoided my omnipresent mother, I raced back to my room with two small grapefruit to use as breasts. Never mind that neither Holly Golightly nor Audrey Hepburn had such breasts. I’m sure it came as no surprise to either of us when Andy and I later came out as gay men, though it does surprise me that I never again experimented with crossdressing.
Years later, at one point in my ongoing therapy, my therapist asked me to bring in a photograph of a movie star that I felt represented myself I had forgotten the assignment until just before the next session, and I took a still from My Fair Ladywhich I had purchased from Larry Edmund’s Book Shop on Hollywood Boulevard (not far from The Egyptian Theater, where My Fair Lady premiered in 1964). It was a picture of Audrey as Eliza Doolittle in her Cecil Beaton gown climbing the stairs at the Embassy Ball, surrounded by Henry Higgins, Colonel Pickering, and several other men. I don’t remember now what psychological insight my therapist suggested was revealed by my choice of photograph; I only remember that it brought to consciousness my association with Audrey Hepburn.
Since then I have allowed myself to admit my obsession with her, repeatedly viewing my favorite of her films, being teased by friends, and receiving postcards, posters, and calendars. I found picture books in Hong Kong, Japan, and Berlin, sent away for a recording of Audrey recounting children’s stories, and scoured record stores for sound tracks of her movies. When I ended my latest round of therapy, I treated myself to a print by lesbian photographer Deborah Bright from her “Dream Girls” series in which Deborah in butch drag has inserted herself alongside George Peppard to light Audrey Hepburn’s cigarette.
In 1987 I learned that Audrey was in town making a movie when friends working at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in the Veterans’ Building called to say she would be filming there that evening. I went down to try to meet her, bringing an 8 x 10 black-and-white glossy and a pen for her autograph. When I realized that my photograph was of Audrey in her early twenties and that she was now nearer sixty, I balked and just asked the guard to have her sign a blank piece of paper. “To Jim, Best Wishes, Audrey Hepburn” it reads, now framed and hanging in my living room amid posters and lobby cards. Then, thinking I had nothing to lose, I asked if I might meet the star. No, I was told, she was going to take a nap, and wouldn’t be out for an hour. As I started to leave, I saw the trailer door open and two women descend; it was Audrey following another woman. I charged after them, rehearsing my line: “Miss Hepburn, I’ve very much admired your work in movies,” or some such pseudo-sophisticated statement. As they reached the door of the Veterans’ Building, all thoughts escaped me when she smiled at me, her face absolutely illuminated, and I gushed sincerely, “You’re . . . beautiful!” She graciously acknowledged the compliment and padded down the hallway on her large, flat feet. When the made-for-television Love among Thieves eventually aired, I dutifully recorded it, and then because it was so terrible, I immediately erased it out of deference to her memory.
It was always as Holly that I most identified Audrey, although I once saw Truman Capote being interviewed at a San Francisco International Film Festival and say that he actually envisioned another actress playing Holly Golightly. The expectant hush was punctured by the revelation: Tammy Grimes.
Nor have I forgotten the story of the genesis of the title Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Capote apparently heard this anecdote and filed it away for later use: a middle-aged man picked up a young trick and the following morning offered him breakfast wherever he wanted. “Pick the fanciest, most expensive place in town.” The unsophisticated youth, the story goes, had heard of only one fancy and expensive place in Manhattan: “Let’s have breakfast at Tiffany’s.”
Despite the many young women who reputedly modeled for Holly’s portrait, the person Holly most reveals is Truman Capote himself. Enamored of New York’s social whirl, Capote sought to leave behind his painful Southern childhood. His inspired evocation of Holly Golightly’s awkward combination of childish vulnerability and calculated strength becomes even more poignant as we learn that Holly has simply reinvented herself from her former existence as Lulamae Barnes, a child wife in Tulip, Texas. Nevertheless, I saw Holly/Audrey as the most sophisticated person I’d ever “met.” I don’t think I even understood that she was nearly a call girl.
The film version of Breakfast at Tiffany’s, directed by Blake Edwards, departs from the novella in many ways, just as the real-life Audrey differs from her characterization of Holly. The character of Holly subsists on melba toast and cottage cheese to maintain her svelte figure, whereas Audrey Hepburn is said to have forced herself to eat pasta to keep her weight up. Holly was taught French to smooth out that “hillbilly or Okie” accent, whereas the natural lilt of Audrey’s mellifluous voice was the result of the French and the British English of her youth. In the novella, Holly knows to use the New York Public Library for researching prospective husbands. In the film, she has never been to NYPL until the writer takes her. I wonder if the fact that I became a librarian is attributable to Holly’s determined research skills. But perhaps the most significant change is that of the novella’s gay narrator to a straight, if kept, man, who eventually claim the right to own Holly because he loves her.
When Audrey Hepburn died, my friends called and sent cards of condolence. I began reading all the biographies as they appeared, then weeping though the documentaries. From her first Hollywood appearance as Princess Anne in Roman Holiday to her last cameo as an angel in Always, Audrey Hepburn represented what I wanted to be: attractive, sophisticated, loved. Though occasionally miscast, she always remained ethereal.
“Miss Holiday Golightly, Traveling” reads Holly’s “business” card and the song she sings in the novella (“Don’t wanna sleep, don’t wanna die, just wanna go a-travelin’ through the pastures of the sky”) was reworked by Johnny Mercer to become the famous “Moon River, wider than a mile, I’m traveling you in style, some day. . .“ When I travel, Audrey always accompanies me. While living in Paris, every time we walked through the colonnade at the Palais-Royal, my lover and I would shout “Carson Dyle has no brother!” (Charade), and we sang “There’s something missing, there’s something missing, I know, there’s just one place I’ve got to go,” when we passed the Eiffel Tower (Funny Face). In New York, I found Holly’s brownstone building on East 71st Street, the Wait until Dark apartment in the Village, and the midtown locations Audrey drifted through in They All Laughed. Wherever I am I sing the theme from Two for the Road: “If you’re feeling fancy free, come wander through the world with me, and anywhere we chance to be will be our rendezvous . .
Walking home alone one evening a few months ago in a peculiarly introspective mood, I surprised myself by suddenly shouting, “I’m Lulamae, Lulamae Barnes.” I realized that despite my aspiration to sophistication, I have not really traveled far from that suburban bedroom after all.
[Previously published in The James White Review, Spring 1996, Vol. 13, no. 2]