On the morning the film began shooting—a chilly dawn, October 2, 1960—Audrey Hepburn was seated in a cab. She had big doubts about this role, right down to the Danish in a paper bag sitting beside her. She hated Danishes and had asked her director, Blake Edwards, if she could switch to an ice-cream cone; he said no, pointing out that it was breakfast, after all. When “Action!” was called, the taxi drove up Fifth Avenue and stopped on the corner of 57th Street. Hepburn—wearing sunglasses and a black Givenchy gown—stepped out of the car and paused on the curb to gaze up at Tiffany’s. In that moment, the actress, in the guise of Holly Golightly, created an indelible cinematic moment—and a new future for women. “No Holly, no Carrie Bradshaw, no Sex and the City,” says Sam Wasson, whose new book, Fifth Avenue, 5 a.m. (June 22), is about the making of Breakfast at Tiffany’s.
A fascination with fascination is one way of describing Wasson’s interest in a film that not only captures the sedate elegance of a New York long gone, but that continues to entrance as a love story, a style manifesto, and a way to live. “It’s crossed generations in ways Casablanca, Gone With the Wind, and other cliché classics haven’t,” says Wasson, who unearths such juicy tidbits as the near-cutting of the indelible theme song “Moon River,” the utter dickishness of co-star George Peppard, who played the love interest, and the protest over Mickey Rooney portraying a Japanese man. Wasson wanted to know the reason for its cultural longevity, and once he started asking, the inevitable answer was Audrey Hepburn. But something about the idolatry bugged him. “Hepburn has become a near-saintly figure, untouchable. That didn’t sit well with me. I thought there was a human being there who needed to be looked at.”
There was one person who didn’t like Hepburn, at least when it came to playing Holly Golightly. “Truman Capote always dismissed the film,” says Wasson. “He wanted Marilyn Monroe.” The Holly of Capote’s 1958 book was a raunchy call girl. It’s hard to conceive of Breakfast at Tiffany’s as being controversial now, but even Capote at the height of his fame couldn’t get Harper’s Bazaar to serialize his racy little book. When Hepburn was offered the part, she was initially reluctant and remained nervous throughout the filming. The mother of a new baby and famous for playing a princess and a nun, Hepburn was desperately concerned with protecting her sterling reputation. So much so that Paramount Pictures released a bushel of press releases assuring America that her Holly wasn’t a hooker—she was “a kook.”
It worked, sort of. With the release of Breakfast at Tiffany’s in 1961, being a single woman with an active sex life was suddenly a condition to aspire to. (Helen Gurley Brown’s Sex and the Single Girl wasn’t released until 1962.) “Before Hepburn, there was the prude and the slut, and the reality of in-between had no cinematic correlation,” says Wasson. “If Monroe had played her, she would have just been a hooker. That was when I got the power of the movie, and the genius of casting Audrey Hepburn.”