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Fifth Avenue, 5 A.M.: Audrey Hepburn, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and the Dawn of the Modern Woman

Sam Wasson

By Jesse Kornbluth
Published: Jul 26, 2010
Category: Non Fiction

I’m tired of hearing about “the death of publishing” — and reading how the fault lies in some toxic combination of APPs and bloggers and social networking. Sorry. It’s the books. Too many books, too many boring books, too many unedited books, too many — my pet peeve — overlong books that announce, more bluntly than anything else, publishing’s nearly universal refusal to recognize how the Internet has changed reading habits. (Note to publishers: Goodwill thanks you for every book you send me that’s more than 300 pages).

“Fifth Ave, 5 AM” [To buy the book from Amazon, click here. To buy the Kindle edition, click here.] is Exhibit A of the kind of book that could keep me home and happy every night. And that’s so odd, because its nominal topic — how the film of “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” [To buy the book from Amazon, click here. To buy the DVD of the film, click here.] came to be made, and why Audrey Hepburn was so crucial to that effort — concerns a book I don’t much like and a film I’ve never watched all the way through.

The cool thing: you don’t have to care about any of that to love the book.

You just have to like dish (and who doesn’t). Paramount’s head of production hated the theme song — “Moon River.” Babe Paley smoked two packs of cigarettes a day, using an ivory holder. Marilyn Monroe lamented that she never had a home, “not with my own furniture.” Colette “discovered” Hepburn. Akira Kurosawa hated Mickey Rooney.

You have to be interested in how things really work — in this case, how, in a time of prudery and censorship, two smart producers, one savvy director and a sharp screenwriter figured out how to take “a novel with no second act, a nameless gay protagonist, a motiveless drama and an unhappy ending and turn it into a Hollywood movie.”

You also have to be interested in a book that has an idea at the center of the narrative — how Audrey Hepburn, a “good girl princess” as pure as Doris Day, helped to change the American distaste for “bad girls” with a single movie. And, just as much, with “a little black dress” that even the least mouseburger of a secretary could afford.

And, finally, you have to respond to a writer who can tell a complicated story in 200 crisp pages — and who can, at will, fire off zingers like “Truman needed her [Babe Paley] too. She looked good on him.” Or this, also about Capote: “If you could measure a man’s ego by the length of his ego, then this one had no end.”

What’s especially satisfying: where the story begins. Which is to say: much earlier than you think. In 1951, when Audrey Hepburn was not yet magic. With George Axelrod’s 1950s efforts to get sex — as an adult topic, and treated as such — into Hollywood movies. With Truman Capote becoming Himself. In short, as in real life, the back story is key.

A feast of a book.