People want to know.
When Vladimir Nabokov published “Lolita,” readers assumed, wrongly, that he himself was Humbert Humbert, and that somewhere out there, a real Lolita -– or Lolitas -– was wandering around New England enchanting older nymphetophiles all the way to their graves or beds, whatever came first. Years earlier, when Thomas Mann published “Death in Venice,” people wondered at who the real Tadzio was (there’s even a small book on the subject: “The Real Tadzio” by Gilbert Adair), just as they wondered, and still wonder, which of Philip Roth’s hot-blooded intellectuals are the closest to Roth himself. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the same was true of “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” Truman Capote’s story of Manhattan’s most freewheeling, fun-loving, semi-depressive call girl.
As long as there has been fiction, there has been the presumption that certain types of writers -– those working with incendiary, vaguely autobiographical material -– are only capable of romans à clef. Authors may deny it, some even adamantly, and yet their readers insist. But why? Are the priggish out for a scapegoat? Someone to pay for the titillation they refuse to call “imagination”? Or maybe it’s more innocent, and these readers are simply fans looking for another way to engage with the material they love.
When “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” was published in the late-’50s, people wanted Capote to cough up names. His whole life long, Truman was forced, privately and in the press, to account for Holly Golightly. Who was she really? “The main reason I wrote about Holly,” the author said in a Playboy interview, “outside of the fact that I liked her so much, was that she was such a symbol of all these girls who come to New York and spin in the sun for a moment like May flies and then disappear.” That’s one answer.
Somewhat problematically, Capote’s cast of real-life characters changed from year to year. Was Holly really the dancer Joan McCracken, who was at one time married to Jack Dunphy, Capote’s longtime lover? It’s true that she, like Holly, met the news of her brother’s death with a fabulous, violent tantrum. Was there meaning in that? And of course there was also the young and lovely Carol Grace, who Capote met soon after her divorce from William Saroyan. And what about Gloria Vanderbilt? She was young and lovely too, and lived in a brownstone like Holly’s, and often entertained houseguest Russell Hurd, a charming gay man with, as she wrote, “the looks of Charlton Heston and the wit of Noel Coward.” That’s Holly and our narrator, is it not?
To read more, please visit the Wall Street Journal’s blog, Speakeasy.