12. Tiffany and Co.
Welcome to Reading the City.
12. Truman Capote described Holly Golightly, protagonist of Breakfast at Tiffany’s, as an “American geisha.” This charming monster appears to have been a composite of many models, perhaps Oona Chaplin, Suzy Parker and some say Maeve Brennan. They don’t serve food, but Tiffany & Co. at 727 Fifth Avenue at the corner of 57th Street opens at 10 am for other necessities.
What’s more romantic than shopping for diamonds under scaffolding, with cement NYPD barriers flanking the street and Secret Service agents lined up in front of the tower next door? Tiffany and Co. isn’t as alluring as it once was when Holly Golightly pined for glittering treasures within.
I’ve often ended up in places where Truman Capote and Tennessee Williams went to write. It wasn’t intentional, at first, but over time it became a quest of sorts to find the haunts they occupied and write something in them. In 1948, they both stayed at the Pensione Lustro in the town of Forio on Ischia, Williams for nine days and Capote for 97, from March 23 to June 13, 1949. My great-grandfather is from Ischia, the island of my dreams and for the past seven years, one of the places I’ve been doing research while writing my book.
A few years ago I went to Forio, the biggest city on the island of Ischia, to see if the building that once held the Pensione Lustro, a ten-room hotel opened in 1931 by Gaetano Di Lustro, was still standing in the 17th century property where it once operated.
When Capote and Williams visited the Pensione Lustro, Gaetano’s 19-year-old wife, Giocanda, was the maid at the hotel. When I visited, I was delighted to learn that Giocanda was still there, at the table, in a cotton housedress, reading the newspaper.
Her daughter Giuseppina, who doesn’t speak English, called out for her sister, Maria Teresa, as she let me into the courtyard in the middle of the hotel, filled with giant plants on the floor and hanging from the balconies.
“I’ve come on the trail of Capote,” I told her. She repeated this to her mother in Italian. Giocanda looked up from the newspaper and nodded with a proud smile.
Truman Capote’s invention of novel-truth had led him to develop an obsession with a murderer while writing a masterpiece, In Cold Blood.
Capote, who was 25 during his stay at the Pensione Lustro, wrote an essay about it in a book, Local Color, published in 1950:
It was immediately clear that Ischia is not a place where it is necessary to have an exact concept of time.
For two rooms, one for himself and another for his partner, daily breakfast and two five-course meals a day, Capote paid $200 per month. Truman Capote and Jack Dunphy would go on to spend a total of 38 years together. As young as he was in Ischia, by the time he stayed in Room 3, with Jack next door, Capote was already famous.
Maria Teresa took me up to Truman Capote’s room, with its view of the sea, explaining that when he stayed there, the bathroom didn’t yet exist and there was no running water. At that time, Giocanda had to carry water up to every room from the rainwater cistern. Other guests were occupying the room, and their possessions were scattered around. Had it been empty, I would have asked to stay and write.
When we went back downstairs, Maria Teresa got a copy of the Capote’s book in Italian from the kitchen, pointing to the essay about Ischia in the table of contents and then turning immediately to the page where her mother is referenced.
“She is un bella regazza. A nice girl. She is nervous. She works hard to make good service. Giocanda non parlare inglese, and Truman Capote’s Italian wasn’t good. We spoke with our hands. Con le nostre mani.”
When she said this, she waved the hand that wasn’t holding the book in the air. Giocanda smiled.
“What does Giocanda think of Truman Capote?” I asked.
She repeated the question to her mother, who responded in Italian.
“He was very nice,” Maria Teresa said. “And he laughed a certain way. They were so young, Truman Capote and Jack Dunphy. Talking, playing, staying in the kitchen when the weather was bad. They were in the kitchen, cooking.”
Originally, Truman and Jack had planned to go to Sicily, but instead went to Ischia. He documented his feelings about Ischia in letters to his friends. To Bob Linscott, Capote wrote that the island is strangely enchanted, populated by winemakers, shepherds, the poet WH Auden and the Mussolini family. To Cecil Beaton he wrote: “It’s really beautiful and strange, we occupy almost an entire floor right on the seafront, the sun is as hard as diamond and everywhere there is the pleasant smell of wisteria and of the leaves of lemon.”
“At the end, he said, we have followed the spring. In four months when we arrived, the nights have become warm. The sea has become calmer. The water of the sea is green in the winter and azure in June. The grapes are nude. They are nude. How do you say, in the winter the grapes, they don’t have leaves. They are nude. Yes. In the spring they became covered with leaves. There are a good many things for the insects that make honey. Many good things in the giardini. Giocanda said, it has been the longest spring that I can remember. The longest, and the most beautiful.”
“Islands are like ships at permanent anchor,” Truman Capote wrote. “One is seized by the same feeling of charmed suspension.”
Putting your foot on the ship is like to begin climbing the gangway connecting the ship to the mainland: you are immediately taken by a wonderful sense of isolation and it seems that nothing can happen, neither bad nor unpleasant. …It was beautiful and exciting, like listening to the beating of your own heart.