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Breakfast at Tiffany's | Context


Holly Golightly's New York

Breakfast at Tiffany's takes place in New York City in the 1940s and '50s, with the bulk of the story occurring between 1943 and 1945—during the final years of World War II. War-era New York City was a bustling metropolis of 7.4 million inhabitants, about 1 million fewer people than today's population.

It is likely that Holly Golightly resides on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. Then, as now, the Upper East Side was known for its wealthy residents and well-appointed homes. In most neighborhoods rent exceeded $150 per month, though those who were less choosy about their accommodations could snag an apartment for $30–75 a month. Holly makes her living dating wealthy men who give her $50 "tips" for the powder room. Two trips to the restroom in one evening could easily cover her rent, though further dates would be needed to cover essentials like food and clothing.

Café Society

Author Truman Capote describes Holly Golightly as being a member of Café Society, the who's who of the New York City social scene during the 1930s and early 1940s. Café Society members were mainly artists, entertainers, politicians, businessmen, and the wealthy of the era. The group was largely an outgrowth of the financial and artistic successes of the 1920s, the repeal of Prohibition, the power of the media, and the Great Depression.

Times were tough for most Americans during the early 1930s. More than 20 percent of American adults were unemployed in 1932–34, and millions more were underemployed. Money was tight for the working class. In New York City, many sought refuge from their lives' daily drudgery in movie theaters and in the gossip columns of the local newspapers. Columnist Maury Paul originally coined the phrase "Café Society." He and journalists Walter Winchell and Lucius Beebe wrote about New York's upper class who spent their evenings dining and drinking in the city's most exclusive clubs. Real-life soap operas played out on the page as writers divulged the details of high-society marriages, divorces, affairs, addictions, and scandals.

Central to this publicity were the restaurants and clubs frequented by the rich and famous. During Prohibition, when production, distribution, and sales of liquor were outlawed, people socialized in speakeasies, which were secret clubs that served alcohol illegally. After Prohibition was repealed in 1933, some of the former speakeasies made it big as high-end restaurants and clubs. Many of these restaurants, including The Rainbow Room, El Morocco, and the Stork Club, hired professional photographers whose photos of the elite clientele ended up in the city's newspapers. This brought the restaurants publicity and drew in more high-society customers, all eager to have their smiling faces in the next day's morning editions. The object of Café Society was to be publically seen and envied, rather like the role of social media today.

Café Society continued into the early 1940s unscathed by the Great Depression or the murmurings of war in Europe. That changed in December 1941 with the Japanese bombing of United States Naval ships at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. The United States entered World War II, and many entertainers and reporters joined the war cause. Café Society still existed, but on a much more subdued level. The war's end, coupled with burgeoning economic prosperity, signaled a change of popular mood in New York City. The lower and middle classes no longer needed to look to Café Society for entertainment and escape, and by the end of the 1940s the term was no longer in use.

Reception of Breakfast at Tiffany's

Today, Breakfast at Tiffany's is the most celebrated of Capote's fiction, but initial reviews were mixed at best. The New Yorker, for whom Capote had written in the past, called it "empty nostalgia." The New York Times Book Review said the story was lightweight and that Capote was living in a "doily story-world." Popular in that era, doilies were commonplace (decorative pieces of frilly lacework), suggesting Capote's work was superficial and lacked substance. On the other hand, many adored the novella and Capote's writing. Influential novelist, playwright, and journalist Norman Mailer even defended Breakfast at Tiffany's by calling Capote "the most perfect writer of [his] generation" and declaring he "would not have changed two words" of the narrative.

Indeed, even the most critical of reviewers agreed with the public at large when it came to the novella's protagonist, Holly Golightly. Beloved by everyone who read about her, the charming, troubled ingenue soon became Capote's best-known character and his personal favorite. Though Capote disliked it, Audrey Hepburn's 1961 portrayal of the farm-girl-turned-socialite won over readers and movie-goers alike, earning both Holly and Capote places in pop culture history.

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