No film conveys the glamour of the early 1960s quite like Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Released in 1961, the film has been capturing the imagination of millions with its swooning soundtrack and opulent cinematography ever since.
For many, it is evocative of an era long since faded, a time when romances were brewed up between tables in smoke-filled coffee houses, when elegance reigned supreme, and when New York City buzzed with the vibrant pulse of John Coltrane, Bill Evans, and Duke Ellington. The Manhattan of Breakfast at Tiffany’s is a uniquely beautiful place. The film’s director, Blake Edwards, captured it in all its autumnal glory when the city’s many maple trees were bleeding into their richest shades of orange and red, catching the light in a way that was perfect for a re-telling of Truman Capote’s novella about Holly Golightly, the naive ‘American Geisha’, who falls for struggling writer, Paul.
While much of the film’s charm lies in its costume, music and, of course, the presence of Audrey Hepburn, it’s the city itself that seems to define the romantic atmosphere of Breakfast at Tiffany’s. It is a film about overcoming solitude, after all, and, despite being one of the busiest city’s on the planet, New York is also one of the loneliest. No wonder it has been used as the setting for so many stories of romance.
From F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby to Woody Allen’s Manhatten, the city has always had the power to bring strangers together as much as it has to keep them apart. Perhaps screenwriter George Axelrod understood this when he called for “a moment of limbo as the street lamps fade in the face of the purple onrush of dawn”. Privacy is hard to come by in the city that never sleeps, but when Blake Edwards set up his camera to shoot the opening scene of Breakfast At Tiffany’s, it was as though a brisk wind had blown away the city’s traffic like so many autumn leaves. As he recalled: “It was as if God said, ‘I’m going to give you a break now, but for the rest of your career you’re going to have to live off this one.'”
This opening shot is not, however, where we’ll be beginning our stroll around the Manhatten of Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Instead, we’ll be setting off from Holly Golightly’s apartment on the Upper East Side. There was, for many years, some debate regarding the true location of the building, with some naming 171 and others 169. To make it even more confusing, the building in the actual film reads 167 when, in reality, the correct number is 169. The whole street drips with a timeless quality, an ageless ambience that conjures up cinemascope images of everyone from Miles Davis to Marlon Brando. As you tread a line down the sun-dappled streets, you’ll likely feel the sheer luxury of you’re surroundings. Indeed, at times it feels as though the very air is rich with the perfume of New York’s historical aristocracy, for whom this area has been home since the 1800s.
As is clear from the way Capote describes the area in his original novella, it has always been the perfect place for an autumn walk. “I turned the corner and walked along the street where the brownstone stands,” he said. “It is a street with trees that in the summer make cool patterns on the pavement, but now the leaves were yellowed and mostly down, and the rain had made them slippery, they skidded underfoot.”
These days, amongst the impenetrable faces of the area’s iconic brownstones, you’ll find esoteric antique shops as well as a variety of mouth-watering delis. Here, you might decide to get hold of the same flakey pastry that Holly Golightly carries in a paper bag as she marvels at one of Tiffany & Co.’s famous window displays. The titular department store can be found on 401 Fifth Avenue, and, yes, you can indeed eat breakfast there. Back in 2018, the Blue Box Cafe opened on the fourth floor of the iconic Fifth Avenue jewellery store. As you would expect, the menu is a glamorous affair, focusing on ‘American classics’ such as buttermilk waffles, smoked salmon, and truffle eggs. But, for Holly Golightly, the store is more than somewhere to eat well; it represents a security that she lacks in the rest of her life: “It calms me down right away,” she tells Paul. “The quietness and the proud look of it. Nothing very bad could happen to you there.”
When principal photography for Breakfast At Tiffany’s began, Blake Edwards set out to capture “the jangle, the roar and the smell of New York. You watch what happens. A girl just naturally steps faster and brisker in New York.” It was this objective that took him to the city’s public library to shoot some exterior shots. Here, the hustle and bustle of the city is front and centre. Although it’s nothing by today’s standards, the throngs of people that mill around the magnificent limestone columns are enough that Holly and Paul are able to lose themselves in the cityscape, stripping away the layers of pretence that keep them apart as they fold into their surroundings. The library itself has appeared in countless films, largely due to the sheer beauty of the place. The ceiling of the Rose Main Reading room, for example, is one of the most sublime works of art that you’ll find in New York. Gilded with cornucopias and cherubs in the classical style, the painting depicts a window into some otherwordly celestial realm in which pink clouds float feather-weight on a pale blue sky.
New York City’s Central Park is where we’ll end our trip around Manhattan. The park’s bandshell and boating lake act as the backdrops for some of Paul’s more serious brooding. The two-and-a-half miles that make up the canopied park are the lungs of an otherwise fume-filled city, a green oasis where the city’s residents take in the last of the summer sun and, come winter, skate on the ice in great swirling crowds.
Central Park for Paul is what Tiffany’s is for Holly: a space of calm and order. I doubt Paul was aware that this area of quiet contemplation – originally a rocky bogland – was cleared using more gunpowder than was used in the Battle of Gettysburg during the American Civil War. Nor, I imagine, was he ware that migrant workers from Ireland and Italy created it after the city’s aristocracy called for a grand park to reflect the burgeoning affluence of their adolescent city.
This same affluence comes to define the New York of Breakfast at Tiffany’s. However, as you wander the city’s streets, you’ll become aware that the place is, in fact, far richer than Edwards was able to capture. His version of New York is one that has been edited, meticulously crafted into a neat encapsulation of opulence. But the real New York is far more exciting, a living, breathing space that still has the power to capture the imagination.
The Breakfast at Tiffany’s inspired playlist:
- ‘Breakfast At Tiffany’s’ – Henry Mancini
- ‘Autumn Leaves’ – Bill Evans
- ‘My Favourite Things’ – John Coltrane
- ‘Almost Like Being In Love’ – Frank Sinatra
- ‘It Never Entered My Mind’ – The Miles Davis Quintet
- ‘Sister Sadie’ – The Gil Evans Orchestra
- ‘The Star-Crossed Lovers (aka pretty girl)’ – Duke Ellington
- ‘Si tu vois ma mère’ – Sidney Bechet
- ‘Autumn In New York’ – Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong
- ‘Moon River (Vocal Audrey Hepburn) – Henry Mancini