“I live in Brooklyn. By choice.”
So wrote Truman Capote in his essay A House On The Heights, paying tribute to his home in Brooklyn Heights. When the property was listed for sale earlier this year for a Brooklyn-record $18million, it was only its third time on the market in 70 years. Breathless real estate prose actually seemed justified in the case of this 18-room townhouse, complete with sweeping spiral staircase and even “two chef’s eat-in kitchens”.
Capote didn’t have the run of the house, much less own it. That honour belonged to stage designer Oliver Smith, though Capote still entertained and gave grand tours of the home when his landlord was out, claiming credit for all the decoration as well. Rumour has it Capote plied Smith with martinis to let him rent the granny flat in the garden.
It was a long held dream of mine to see the building where Holly Golightly and her luminous ilk first sparkled into life, one deliberate lead-pencil-on-lined-legal-pad word at a time. The address was easy to find, given all the coverage of the property’s listing; and after all it sits in prime location a street back from the Esplanade. In the words of the man himself, the Heights boast “a sea-gull’s view of the Manhattan and Brooklyn Bridges, of lower Manhattan’s tall dazzle and the ship-lane waters, breeding river to bay to ocean, that encircle and seethe past posturing Miss Liberty.”
After the usual tangles with the subway, there I stood on the corner of Willow and Pineapple. And there it was, a suitably gaudy butter yellow amid the earthy brownstones; surely that had to be it. Could it really be five storeys? Could you really fit eleven fireplaces in a building that size? It looked so… normal, albeit a very expensive normal. Some side-street stalking purloined a peek at a back verandah propped up by grandiose white columns, amid a lush garden one imagines would be perfectly amenable to cocktail hour and crustless sandwiches.
But though the afternoon sun dappled gently through the leaves that hush these hoity toity streets, there was no shaft of golden light like a spotlight from the big director upstairs. No angel song burst forth from the clouds; not even the ghostly echo of ice rattling in a gossip-drained highball. And certainly the skeleton of a miraculous, prodigious first novel, primed for critical acclaim and modest commercial success, did not suddenly arrive fully formed in my mind. Couldn’t you throw me a frickin bone, Truman?
So, you know what they say about meeting your idols. Turns out stalking their digs is equally fruitless. As idols go, Capote’s feet were always muddy – he was an incorrigible gossip, ruthlessly ambitious and terribly bitchy. But judged purely on the words he left behind, the intricately turned prose and clear-eyed reportage, he was a saint; albeit one with a taste for gimlets and pretty young pieces of ass. And at that altar I shall continue to worship.
Click here for a taste of A House On The Heights. Top portrait by Irving Penn, as seen in the aforementioned NYPL exhibition.