Truman Capote’s Love Letter to Brooklyn

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Truman Capote’s discovery that his mother was reading his private letters was the last straw. At 22, the writer packed his bags and left his home at 1060 Park Avenue in Manhattan for two rooms in 17 Clifton Place in the Borough of Kings. His 1946 rent: $10 a week. As he told the poet John Malcolm Brinnin, “I have changed addresses, have moved to a little lost mews in darkest Brooklyn.” After a subsequent decade of bouncing from address to address, Capote found the stability he craved in a beautiful basement apartment at 70 Willow Street, exclaiming to a reporter, “I love Brooklyn Heights. It’s the only place to live in New York.” 

Brooklyn4Capote soon wrote an ode to Brooklyn (later titled “A House on the Heights”) that ran in the February 1959 issue of Holiday magazine. Beginning with the words “I live in Brooklyn. By choice,” the essay is now the star attraction of the gorgeous new book Brooklyn: A Personal Memoir published by the Little Bookroom press. This Capote memento also spotlights some lost visual evidence: In spring 1958, photographer David Attie spent a day documenting the author in the Willow Street house and around his Brooklyn neighborhood; Attie also spent a few solo days in Brooklyn. Curiously, Holiday published only four of these neighborhood shots and no pictures of Capote to illustrate his essay.

In 2014, Attie’s son, Eli, discovered more than 800 negatives from his late father’s shoot in a manila envelope marked “Holiday, Capote.” When he saw the printed shots, Eli recalled, his jaw hit the floor. As he explains in the book’s afterword, “These were the coolest pictures of Capote I’d ever seen, framed like shots from a Hitchcock movie. The still young, steely-eyed scribe looks like he’s creating his own mythology right in front of the camera.”

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Capote loved to tell visitors the Willow Street house was his. But it actually belonged to his friend Oliver Smith, a Broadway stage designer who bought the 1839 mansion with his earnings from the musical On the Town. Smith didn’t mind the lie. In the essay for Holiday, Capote divulges how he convinced Smith to let him live in his house: “We sat on the porch consulting martinis—I urged him to have one more, another. It got to be quite late, he began to see my point; yes, 28 rooms were rather a lot; and yes it seemed only fair that I should have some of them.”

Smith even lent his own dining room to Capote for the formal hosting of Jackie Kennedy and such society “swans” as Babe Paley and Lee Radziwill. According to Gerald Clarke’s Capote: A Biography, the future literary star had long yearned for “a place he could call his own and decorate in the way Babe had taught him. He wanted to be able to entertain as well as to be entertained.” Jack Dunphy, Capote’s lover, once wrote to a friend, “Truman wants to make ‘a beautiful home,’” and Capote found this at 70 Willow, where he and Dunphy lived from 1955 to 1965. Clarke describes the apartment as having an “atmosphere of perpetual Christmas, of winter by the fire.” Capote wrote Breakfast at Tiffany’s and In Cold Blood while living there.

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70 Willow Street, Brooklyn Heights (Flickr)

Holiday editor John Knowles (author of the coming-of-age classic A Separate Peace) recruited Capote to write about Brooklyn. Knowles told writer George Plimpton the essay was in Capote’s “best vein, really very special. It had this unique ending, which is beautifully written.” But as he danced with Capote at a “male dancing palace up on the West Side,” Knowles later remembered, all he could think of was “the Curtis Publishing board of directors speculating on what their editor was doing to get this author for them.”

In 1966, Capote used $62,000 of his royalties from In Cold Blood to move from Brooklyn to a 22nd-floor, two-bedroom apartment on United Nations Plaza, known then as Manhattan’s “most important new address.” The sweeping view of the East River entranced him. “I love it at dusk and I love it at night,” he wrote for House Beautiful magazine, “when the green lights on the bridges look like strings of emeralds.” Ruined socially by the publication of his gossipy short story “La Côte Basque 1965” in Esquire and living in a haze of alcohol and drugs, he confessed to being bored with New York but didn’t know where else to go. Capote, who died in 1984, spent most of his final years in Los Angeles, a city he once called a “severe insult to the brain.”

BrooklynBookCapote’s former Brooklyn building was sold in 2012 for a record $12.5 million to Dan Houser, cofounder of Rockstar Games, the makers of Grand Theft Auto. The house is currently under renovation. Researching this article, I found the answer to a nagging question I had about Capote’s outer borough exile. According to Capote: A Biography, he “could not untangle the New York subway system; when he crossed the river to Manhattan, it was almost always by taxi.”

Photos courtesy of David Attie

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