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Truman Capote’s Greek summer in 1958

An image of Truman Capote from the book ‘Party of the Century’ by Deborah Davis, which celebrates Capote’s greatest social achievement, the Black and White Ball. [Reuters]

By Christos Asteriou*

On the eve of his departure for Greece onboard the MS Vulcania, an ocean liner connecting New York to Trieste and calling at the ports of Lisbon, Barcelona and Patra, American author Truman Capote made a last-minute change to his novella, “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.” He used a pencil to cross out the name of the protagonist before returning the new version to his typist. This is how “Connie Gustafson” became “Holly Golightyl” (the celebrated call-girl), a character that would later be immortalized by Audrey Hepburn in Blake Edwards’s movie adaptation of the book.

“Have finished my short novel, ‘Breakfast At Tiffany’s.’ The Bazaar is printing it in their July issue – though they are very skittish about some of the language, and I daresay will pull a fast one on me by altering it without my knowledge,” wrote Capote in a letter penned in May, 1958.

Negotiations regarding the novella’s publication continued well after Capote’s arrival on the Cycladic island of Paros a month later. Capote’s good friend and Harper’s Bazaar editor Carmel Snow had just been laid off, and the manuscript, deemed too racy by her replacement, was resold and eventually published by Esquire magazine.

Gazing at the Aegean Sea from his room at the Meltemi Hotel in the island’s capital, Parikia, Capote wrote to Bennett Cerf, his publisher and the one responsible for getting him to a sign a contract with Random House: “While in Athens, I received a long cable, followed by a phone call, from Clay Hill of Esquire – still pursuing ‘Breakfast At Tiffany’s.’” In the same correspondence, the author noted that the island was an isolated and lonely place with no foreigners and hopefully a good place to work given that there was not much else to do.

The 1950s and 1960s proved a period of intense travel and soul-searching for the American author. From Paris to Rome, Portofino and Taormina, accompanied by author Jack Dunphy his life partner and his senior by a decade, Capote traveled through Europe, constantly changing location, accommodation and experiences.

Greece was part of the itinerary and the island of Paros was most likely suggested to the two men as an appropriate Cycladic retreat during when they were in Athens. The island, with the exception of a few sporadic negative remarks, is described by Capote as heaven on earth, a place of sun, sea and serenity. Throughout his four-month stay on Paros, Capote worked on a series of short texts for Richard Avedon’s photo album, “Observations,” and read up on his Proust and Chandler. He also spent time reflecting on a major piece of work, which, as he wrote, he had already started working on. The book, “Answered Prayers,” was never completed, while an unfinished version was published after his death.

At the Meltemi, Capote and Dunphy stayed at rooms No 15 and 16 respectively. The newly-built, quality establishment had been developed by the Karadontis family, who also owned the Acropole Palace hotel in Athens. The building now houses the Paros Municipality.

Popi Spathia, a young hotel employee at the time, remembers the two men taking breakfast, with Capote poking fun at the wealthy Kolonaki society women staying in the rooms beside theirs. Reserved and well-mannered, the introverted gossip seemed very different from the man who was to shake New York’s high society with his legendary “Black and White Ball” in 1966 and the literary world with his non-fiction masterpiece, “In Cold Blood,” published in book form in that same year. During their stay on Paros, the two men kept away from the impromptu parties thrown next to the hotel, where the island’s youth flirted and danced around a humble record player.

A close friend arrived on the island in August. Sir Cecil Walter Hardy Beaton, a war photographer during World War II, a fashion photographer for British Vogue and the British royal family’s official photographer, arrived in Parikia a month after Capote had urged him to join him and Dunphy by describing the island’s attractions, calling it the ideal place for resting, working, swimming and strolling.

Capote’s and Beaton’s names would shortly be tied to Hepburn’s, with both men earning worldwide acclaim: the former through the silver-screen version of “Breakfast At Tiffany’s” and the latter for his costume and set design in “My Fair Lady,” for which he earned two Oscars. Both films starred the elegant brunette.

Near the end of September, as the time of departure from Paros approached, a policeman turned up and asked Capote to follow him to the local station. The following year the author recounted his little adventure in a letter addressed to Cerf: “It was all rather sinister, rather like something happening to Miss Golightly; I couldn’t think what I’d done. When we arrived at the head man’s office, I saw, sitting on his desk, an airmail package from Random House – the chief, and the local postman, were hovering over it as though it contained heroin. Which is why I’d been hauled there to open it in their presence.”

In the same letter Capote announced his return to New York. “I’m leaving here in four days – sad, it has been a wonderful working-place."

Capote’s memories of Paros were kept alive, however, and recalled by the author in his memoirs.

A year after his Greek travels, in November 1959, Capote was ready to embark on a new creative chapter when he came across a New York Times story reporting the brutal murder of the Clutter family in Kansas. The horrific crime would lead him to pen “In Cold Blood,” the magnum opus he had always wanted to write.

--------- 

* Christos Asteriou is a writer. His most recent novel, “Isla Boa” was published by Polis Editions.

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