Before Truman Capote’s society girl Holly Golightly appeared in the November 1958 issue of Esquire, the author was in a heated argument with his editor over visuals. In a July 22, 1958, letter to fiction editor Rust Hills, he wrote:
When in New York I talked to you (or someone at Esquire) about the possibility of buying Breakfast at Tiffany’s I said I would not be interested if you did not use Attie’s photographs. Now, today I learn that this promise is not being kept. That, instead, only 1 picture of his is being used. A picture, moreover, that I had never seen before and which I hate.
Ultimately, a photograph by David Attie filled a page alongside Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Attie’s photomontage juxtaposed a woman’s laughing face over a table strewn with glasses, suggesting the frenzy of a Manhattan evening already disappearing into dawn. In the following decades, Capote’s star would only shoot higher, while Attie’s work was obscured by time.
In 2014, Attie’s son, Eli, discovered, among his late father’s archives, a manila envelope labeled: “Holiday, Capote, A3/58.” It contained photographs from 1958 of the steely-eyed young writer, taken for Holiday magazine, in which Capote first published “Brooklyn Heights: A Personal Memoir.” The essay famously begins: “I live in Brooklyn. By choice.”
The Brooklyn Historical Society is debuting selections from around 800 negatives found by Eli, along with other ephemera connected to these two creators, in Truman Capote’s Brooklyn: The Lost Photographs of David Attie. It’s a small, one-room exhibition, but like one of Attie’s photomontages it has several overlaid narratives.
“Personally, I just love the story of a son getting to know his father through his father’s work that he’s discovered all of these decades later, I think that really resonates on a completely different level from Truman Capote and David Attie,” Marcia Ely, curator of Truman Capote’s Brooklyn, told Hyperallergic. “He has really championed bringing his father’s work back to light.”
Eli Attie wrote in an essay for the Independent that the “connection to Capote and the Brooklyn he describes would probably be enough to justify [the photographs’] resurrection. But there’s also a tenderness to their point of view. This is mid-century street life captured by a guy who himself grew up on the streets of Brooklyn.”
Nostalgia is thick in the photographs, showing a still-industrial Dumbo waterfront, and a more affordable Brooklyn Heights where authors like Capote were drawn to its Manhattan proximity. Capote lived from 1955 to 1965 at 70 Willow Street in the Heights, in a stately home which has sadly lost its signature yellow paint in an ongoing renovation by a new owner. On an Attie envelope labeled “Capote’s House” is the scratched-out name “W. E. B. Du Bois,” and you can see the author and civil rights activist in a few of the black and white photographs at the Brooklyn Historical Society. Others have kids swimming in the East River, precarious construction workers, and people on a stoop with the “For Rent” sign ripped above worn paint.
“I think he really captured the neighborhood at a grittier time,” Ely said. “They’re wonderfully evocative photographs, where people lived and worked at a kind of in-between time.” Selections of the photographs were published last year in Brooklyn: A Personal Memoir With the Lost Photographs of David Attie, with Capote’s essay echoing the character of Brooklyn in the 1950s:
[…] taken as a whole, it is an uninviting community. A veritable veldt of tawdriness where even the noms des quartiers aggravate: Flatbush and Flushing Avenue, Bushwick, Brownsville, Red Hook. Yet in the greenless grime-gray, oases do occur, splendid contradictions, hearty echoes of healthier days. Of these seeming mirages, the purest example is the neighborhood in which I am situated, an area known as Brooklyn Heights.
Capote, as is his wont, somewhat steals the show from Attie with his words on the gallery walls, and name in the title. Yet three photomontages by Attie stand out and evoke more than just nostalgia for a less developed Brooklyn. They were originally made to illustrate Breakfast at Tiffany’s. In one, pigeons flutter before the Tiffany & Co. store, their unfocused motion arresting the timeless feel of an early Manhattan morning.
Truman Capote’s Brooklyn: The Lost Photographs of David Attie continues through July 2017 at the Brooklyn Historical Society (128 Pierrepont Street, Brooklyn Heights, Brooklyn).