Breakfast at Tiffanys
Truman Capote
Contributed by Pearl Vahle
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Author’s Biography

Truman Capote was a native of New Orleans, where he was born on September 30, 1924. His first novel, Other Voices, Other Rooms, was an international literary success when first published in 1948, and accorded the author a prominent place among the writers of America’s postwar generation. He sustained this position subsequently with short-story collections (A Tree of Night, among others), novels and novellas (The Grass Harp and Breakfast at Tiffany’s), some of the best travel writing of our time (Local Color), profiles and reportage that appeared originally in The New Yorker (The Duke in His Domain and The Muses Are Heard), a true-crime masterpiece (In Cold Blood), several short memoirs about his childhood in the South (A Christmas Memory, The Thanksgiving Visitor, and One Christmas), two plays (The Grass Harp and House of Flowers) and two films (Beat the Devil and The Innocents).  

Mr. Capote twice won the O. Henry Memorial Short Story Prize and was a member of the National Institute of Arts and Letters.  He died in August 1984, shortly before his sixtieth birthday.


Breakfast at Tiffany’s is Truman Capote’s best-loved work of fiction and arguably one of the finest American novellas. Set in Manhattan’s Upper East Side, during the final years of World War II, it documents the story of a young writer’s fascination with, and affection for, his charming and troubled neighbor, the unorthodox Holly Golightly. The simple, linear narrative of Breakfast at Tiffany’s provided Capote with the perfect vehicle to refine his characteristically minimal, naturalistic prose style, marking the novella as a transition phase between the author’s more elaborate earlier writings and the documentary-style realism of his next major work, the non-fiction masterpiece In Cold Blood.

Capote composed Breakfast at Tiffany’s in the spring of 1958, shortly after the publication of the critically well-received Other Voices, Other Rooms, his first full-length novel and a commercial success. Capote culled inspiration for his new work from gossip, personal experience, and the lives of his eccentric New York friends. The title Breakfast at Tiffany’s is drawn from an anecdote popular among Capote’s social circle about an ignorant out-of-towner who, upon being asked which glamorous New York restaurant he would like to visit, answered, "Well, let’s have breakfast at Tiffany’s". The author’s idea for Holly Golightly, who, in the first drafts of the manuscript, was named "Connie Gustafson", likely came from several sources. In his personal correspondence, Capote acknowledged that he intended his charismatic and unscrupulous heroine as a composite portrait of a number of Manhattan socialites with whom he enjoyed intimate friendships, including Babe Paley, Gloria Vanderbilt, Carol Marcus, and Oona O’Neill. Holly’s story arc, in which she escapes an impoverished childhood in the rural South to reinvent herself as a New York sophisticate, resembles Capote’s mother’s life. In particular, Holly’s real name - Lulamae - seems to directly reference Nina Capote’s own discarded birth name, Lillie Mae. However, as his biographers and critics have suggested, Holly was perhaps also a projection of the author himself, a vehicle through which Capote explored his own struggles with social convention, depression, and his need for permanence and stability.

Capote, already famous on the American literary and social scenes, found the market receptive to his new work. Shortly after completing the manuscript of Breakfast at Tiffany’s, he sold it for $2000 to Harper’s Bazaar, which intended to serialize it. However, executives at Hearst publications objected to the obscene language and explicit sexual references in the novella, and after demanding numerous revisions, decided against publication. While Hearst claimed that the colorful content of Breakfast at Tiffany’s made it unsuitable for the pages of Harper’s Bazaar, many of Capote’s peers in the publishing world suggested that Hearst had feared the novella would offend or alienate Tiffany’s, an important sponsor of the magazine. Alienated by Harper’s Bazaar, Capote re-sold the manuscript to the rival magazine Esquire for $3000. Esquire’s serialization of the novella in 1958 appeared on newsstands at the same time as newspaper reviews of the complete novella, published by Random House. The publicity surrounding Capote was overwhelming. Esquire’s sales skyrocketed, and the novella soon attracted the attention of film producers at 20th Century Fox.

Capote’s novella was adapted for the screen by scriptwriter George Axelrod, who sanitized the work for a mainstream audience by altering plot and character details. Most notably, the screenplay reshaped Capote’s complex narrative about sexual ambiguity into a conventional heterosexual love story. Released in 1961, the film version of Breakfast at Tiffany’s was a star vehicle for Audrey Hepburn, who at the age of 31, was anxious about her flagging career. Wildly successful with both the public and film critics, Breakfast at Tiffany’s revived Hepburn’s star power and, thanks to the innovative costuming by legendary designers Edith Head and Givenchy, made Holly Golightly an instant fashion icon. As Capote’s biographer’s notes, the film inspired a legion of New York women to claim that they were the true inspiration for Holly Golightly. One woman, named Bonnie Golightly, even brought an unsuccessful libel lawsuit against Capote. However, despite Hepburn’s vast popularity as Holly, Capote maintained that she was poorly cast in the role, which he felt should have gone to Marilyn Monroe.

Since the 1960s, both the novella and the film version of Breakfast at Tiffany’s have remained popular with American audiences. While Capote’s contemporaries gave the work mixed reviews, late 20th-century academic interest in the text has influenced its current public reputation as a piece remarkable for its technical innovation and progressive social politics. Influenced by the emerging critical field of gay, or "queer", literary studies, contemporary critics have been impressed by Capote’s complex, sensitive treatment of human sexuality and gender roles. While earlier scholarship focused - often negatively - on the character of Holly as a personification of Capote’s unorthodox views on sex and gender, modern critics have excavated the novella’s subtle references to the alternative sexual identities and practices of the text’s male characters, suggesting that Capote intended Breakfast at Tiffany’s as an exploration of the powerful and loving relationships that often exist between straight women and gay men. As interest in the underground gay communities of the early 20th century continues to rise, it is likely that Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and Capote himself, will continue to enjoy critical attention.

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