If I ever wore a "little black dress (LBD)," ordered a martini, smoked a cigarette or hosted a cocktail party, my nearest and dearest would call 911. Everyone knows jeans are my fav garb, smoke makes me cough, I rarely imbibe anything other than wine (maybe, in a wild moment, a bellini), and my dinner parties take place at Elevation Burger. My conversational bon mots run the gamut from "it was a hot summer!" to "would you pass the salt?"
Yet increasingly, I daydream about how divine it would be to drink a martini, while wearing an LBD, a silver cigarette holder in hand. On a rooftop terrace in Manhattan with glasses clicking and people leaning in to catch my witty asides.
Why am I having little black dress and martini laughter dreams? (Truman Capote coined the phrase "martini laughter.")
Because I'm suffering from a dreary deficiency: the lack of sophisticated romantic comedy and wit in our cultural landscape. What am I doing to cure this malady? I haven't resorted to martinis, shaken or stirred or rooftop soirees. I've found more intriguing medicine: The elegantly written, hot, sleek new book "Fifth Avenue, 5 A.M.: Audrey Hepburn, Breakfast at Tiffany's, and the Dawn of the Modern Woman" by Sam Wasson.
Before turning to my "drugs" of choice, a word about the disease: no rom-com syndrome. This affliction, which began perhaps, in the 1980's, has become full-blown in the oughts. Its symptoms include an overdose of vulgarity, a lack of imagination, bad writing and a dearth of wit. In short, the "marriage" of 14-year-old boyness to mean girlness. "Knocked Up," "The Back Up Plan," "Sex and the City 2" and "Kick-Ass" are some of the "love" children of this condition. (I don't want to confuse SATC2, the movie, with SATC, the HBO TV series. The "Sex and the City" TV show was an oasis of rom-com in our cultural desert.)
I grew up in a small town, where before video and DVD players, I watched old movies on the "Million Dollar Movie" on television with my parents. My Mom would wake me up to see Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn on "The Late Show" and my Dad would say "married people can have fun. Come watch, 'The Thin Man.'" When my folks when out to dinner or to a show, they dressed (my Dad in his suit and tie, my mom in her elegant outfit) like the stars in the films. "They were movie star people," my uncle told me years after they died.
Like many other boomers, I rebelled against my parents and everything I'd grown up with when I went to college. Frank Sinatra, jewelry, grace, pillbox hats, Gershwin, lyricism, men holding doors for ladies, wearing white gloves, Chanel suits, "The New Yorker," Noel Coward, Woody Allen, show tunes and fancy dresses were not for me. Everything except faded jeans, Janis Joplin, Holden Caulfield and the Beatles was phony.
Until, living in Cambridge, Mass., right after I was out of school, I began frequenting cinemas that showed old movies. Seeing classics from "Casablanca" to "Bringing Up Baby" to "Rear Window" on the silver screen, I realized that my folks had been on to something. Who wouldn't adore the frock Grace Kelly wears in "Rear Window," give anything to be like Hepburn and Grant in "Baby" or enjoy the black and white lit cinematography of "Manhattan?"
Looking back, my youthful disdain for the cultural milieu of the 1930's through the early 1960's seems as ridiculous as the "academy of the over-rated" that Diane Keaton's character talks about in "Manhattan."
Unfortunately, sometimes you get what you seek. That's how I feel about my turning away from romance, manners and elegance in my youth.
I don't mean that I'd want to return to the political incorrectness–to the prejudice of the past. Though we still have a long, long way to go, I wouldn't want to take away the gains that we've made since the 1950's in addressing bigotry from racism to homophobia.
But I do wish that we could recapture some of the romance, elegance and style of the past. As Grace Cavalieri says in her poem "Say What You Will" in her evocative new poetry collection Sounds Like Something I Would Say, "I miss them./The women of the 50's, plain sheath dresses, large plastic earrings, coifed hair./ How they moved in the room."
"Breakfast at Tiffany's" is one of the most elegant and romantic movies ever made. Sam Wasson's book "Fifth Avenue, 5 A. M.," a spellbinding account of the making of the movie, is one of the most elegantly written books I've ever read. Too often reading about film is as flavorful as dry melba toast. It might be good for you, but it's so boring! Wasson, 28, has written a work that is as compelling as one of Hitchcock's best flicks. Whether you're a film critic, a fan of Tiffany's or an Audrey Hepburn afficionado (and who isn't?) you should read "Fifth Avenue, 5 A.M." Some of my fav parts of "Fifth Avenue," are the descriptions of Hepburn's hatred of Danish pastries (who knew?) and of the "cat call" at the Commodore Hotel (to audition cats to play the feline in the film).
Wasson masterfully delineates the difference between Capote's 1958 novella "Breakfast at Tiffany's" and the 1961 film of the same name. The book's male narrator is gay, and Holly Golightly, the gamine and main character of Capote's novella is a high class hooker. Blake Edwards, the director of Tiffany's, and the film's producers and screenwriter, knew that they wouldn't be able to make the movie unless they made some changes. In the movie, the novella's nameless narrator is called Paul and changed from being gay to being a hetero gigolo. Holly is still a call girl. But the language of the film is so coded, and Audrey Hepburn is so classy, that many viewers of the film had no inkling that Holly is a hooker. Capote's bitter-sweet novel was transformed into a sophisticated romantic comedy.
The most interesting insight in Wasson's book is the way in which the movie "Breakfast at Tiffany's" changed how women in America perceived themselves. As Wasson points out, Holly is the first single woman in the movies to be on her own and to have sex (without being punished).
"In 'Breakfast at Tiffany's,' all of a sudden-because it was Audrey who was doing it-living alone, going out, looking fabulous and getting a little drunk didn't look so bad anymore," Wasson writes in "Fifth Avenue, 5 A. M.," "Being single actually seemed shame-free."
When I told an 80-something friend about "Fifth Avenue, 5 A.M.," she said, "I loved Breakfast at Tiffany's! I never thought about Holly that way. That's how I felt about Jo in Little Women. Maybe she's a more glamorous Joe March."
I don't quite see Jo or myself in a little black dress. Though I may slip into a martini.