Capote’s ‘Brooklyn’ memoir brings to life Brooklyn Heights in the mid-20th Century
“Brooklyn: A Personal Memoir with The Lost Photographs of David Attie” by Truman Capote, published in 2015 by The Little Bookroom, N.Y., with an introduction by George Plimpton and afterword by Eli Attie
It was only a little more than a half-century ago. Brooklyn Heights in the late 1950s — 1958, to be exact. Truman Capote had just published “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.” He had been living in the Heights for a while when he had a meeting with an editor of Holiday magazine. They were interested in publishing something of his. We don’t know for sure, but he might have asked, half-jokingly, “How about an illustrated piece about Brooklyn?”
The idea was a fresh one, especially for Holiday magazine. It was outré enough to tickle their interest and he was off and running. Capote knew just the photographer for the job, David Attie, with whom he had just collaborated on a Hearst magazine article.
“I live in Brooklyn. By choice,” it starts out. It is difficult to pin down when exactly Capote first made that then-startling choice. He seems to have been living in the cozy garden-level quarters of the spacious circa-1839 mansion at 70 Willow St. from about 1957 until he published “In Cold Blood” in 1965, which became his most prestigious achievement. After that, he moved to Manhattan. However, we know for sure that he lived in Brooklyn up until that book’s publication because his barber, Rocky, told me so. Rocky, whose store is still a major presence in the Clark Street subway arcade, cut Capote’s hair back then. But that’s another story.
In Capote’s memoir, it is 1958, and we are looking at a very different Brooklyn through the canny eyes of the author. He tells of his walks around the neighborhood, what he sees and smells and hears, and who he runs into.
What was it like then? It wasn’t pretty. It surely wasn’t like the genteel, white-picket-fenced neighborhood that Frank Capra arbitrarily pictured in his classic 1944 film “Arsenic and Old Lace.” Instead, Capote saw the neighborhood’s “shattered qualities of circumspect, comfortable charm.”
This is a polite reference to the fact that the Heights, once an elegant, town-house bastion of Brooklyn gentry, had suffered a long, painful decline. It had reached a peak shortly after 1900. Then, according to Capote, “Descendants of the Reverend Beecher’s stiff-collared flock had begun removing themselves to other pastures.”
It didn’t take long for it to close in on the bottom, and Capote quotes Edmund Wilson as writing in 1925 that, “…in general, the respectable have disappeared and only the vulgar survive.” Then came the Depression, and the Heights seemed to be reduced to a brownstone corpse.
But Capote had already noted that there was real life in this corpse.
He described a very early, initial wave of artists and writers — “gifted” persons, he calls them — who discovered a “certain appeal” of the place. In particular, he highlighted Hart Crane, who lived in the Hotel Margaret on Cranberry Street.
In the ’40s, there were Thomas Wolfe, W.H. Auden, Richard Wright, Carson McCullers, Benjamin Britten and Capote’s landlord, Oliver Smith. Many luminaries had lived in a famous Middagh Street boarding house that was later demolished in favor of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway (BQE). (According to Henrik Krogius, in his book on the history of the BQE and the Promenade, the “writers’ house” was torn down around 1953.) That dust was well settled by the time Capote got there, only three blocks away.
The appeal of the Heights had to be its unique ensemble of three- and four-story pre-Civil War houses hailed by Walt Whitman for their livability. The houses, while outmoded in their original layout, were at the same time financially affordable, remarkably adaptable and architecturally attractive to those with some vision and a determination to live in the city. These were people he described as “a bright new clientele, brave pioneers bringing brooms and buckets of paint: urban, ambitious young couples, by and large mid-rung in their Doctor-Lawyer-Wall Street-Whatever careers, eager to restore the Heights” to its earlier charms.
Today, they might be labeled as “gentrifiers.” But Capote knew history and would surely have understood that in fact they were “re-gentrifying” the neighborhood.
The year 1958 was a busy one for Capote and also for the Heights, where a great awakening occurred among the community. A major effort had been launched — spearheaded by Otis Pearsall — to assure the protection of the Heights by having it declared a historic district. At the time, the idea was trumpeted by Dick Margolis, then-publisher of the Brooklyn Heights Press, who wrote of the need to deter the “predatory monsters that traditionally devour a neighborhood.”
Margolis pointed to Robert Moses’ plan for Fulton Street (the portion now known as Cadman Plaza West) as a “super-block, high-income” development, which would not contribute to the quality of life for the community, nor would its transient renters offer support for public amenities, especially the school. He slammed the plan as nothing more than “institutional dormitories.”
Despite the community’s high volume and focused energies, it wasn’t until 1965 that the Heights made municipal history by becoming New York City’s first historic district. At the same time, the Cadman Plaza Urban Renewal Project was revamped and resulted in the spreading out of the housing from one super-long, wall-like, shadow-casting building into three large separate towers set up as cooperatives rather than rentals. This was to the advantage of the neighborhood, which continued to enjoy sky, light and air, along with middle-income families who shared their stake in the community’s future.
Meanwhile, Capote was quietly absorbing and enjoying the neighborhood while getting his “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” article published and beginning to think about what was next in his lively social life and burgeoning career. He is not known to have actively participated in the political/preservation storm. This was despite the fact that he could not avoid seeing, through the wisteria in his backyard, that the Jehovah’s Witnesses were tearing down brownstones to put up a real dormitory of characterless architecture on his very block.
Capote’s tales of Heights doings were captivatingly told. He invented an old-sounding Dutch name as a cover so that he could describe a well-known dowager living in what probably was a mansion on Columbia Heights. She represented the remnants of the rich, prestigious and powerful who lived nearby.
He hankered to get a glimpse of the old-time lifestyle. Chance came his way in the form of a mis-delivered meat order. Ever the opportunist, Capote satisfied his curiosity and set off to meet the lady in person.
The author, who has been criticized for fabrications in his lively and irresistible tale-telling, went on about a “Mrs. Cornelius Oosthuizen,” who was probably, in fact, Mrs. Darwin James, heiress to the Underwood typewriter fortune.
Mrs. James was living the life of a good neighbor who promoted the preservation of the architecture of the Heights. She mistakenly thought Capote was there to sign a petition protesting the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ demolition of the brownstones on his block. He signed up, but had nothing to say in his article about the loss of those buildings, which served as an added impetus for the growing preservation movement.
Oddly, ignoring the major aesthetic changes on his block didn’t seem to parallel his passionate interest in collecting oddities and strange or precious antiquities to decorate his living quarters. As luck would have it, within a few blocks from his digs was 224 Fulton St. (now Cadman Plaza West), home to the legendary antiques dealer George Knapp. His details about Knapp Antiques, which was soon “urban-renewed” by the Moses plan, stir up old memories for anyone who recalls the place.
Knapp’s presence somehow added to the depth of the character of the Heights and its uniqueness. The store had earlier held the curious name of “Knapp to Siegel,” signifying that Knapp was overseas buying and shipping to Mr. Siegel.
By Capote’s time, Siegel was out of the picture, but the idiosyncratic dealership was very much intact. Capote provided a partial listing of the collectible possibilities. Even a brief segment demonstrates why Capote, like all of us neighbors, was captivated: “…apothecary jars from an old London pharmacy [we have a couple of those]; English brass; Barcelona lamps; French paperweights; Venetian blackamoors; paper money of defunct governments; skulls; a mounted swordfish,” and so on. It’s a fabulous list.
The store, a regional supplier of antiques at wholesale prices, was “a series of storerooms resembling caverns” and was open for retail only one day a week. Nothing was labeled, nothing was priced. Truman was a regular there, and his observations send us whirling back in time with the possibility that we might have spotted him among the treasures.
As David Attie’s pictures dramatically demonstrate — taken as Capote showed him around the Heights and down into DUMBO — he had an eye for all sorts of daily life: its ironies; its cheeriness; its old buildings; its dependable suppliers; its unique and parochial aspects; its children playing, coming and going from school; a horse-drawn cart from the plant nursery, the works.
The writer-photographer collaboration is described in a lively and tantalizing afterword by David Attie’s son, Eli Attie, a television and political speech writer and producer. Eli was searching for a few examples of his father’s work when he came across boxes of negatives.
The sensitive photos of Capote in the book had been set aside in 1958 when a projected article got kicked around and were stored away in the family’s house. It was then that he discovered hundreds of other negatives from the same assignment showing Brooklyn in 1958 as perhaps no one else ever has.
If the evocative street scenes in the book are any indication, those pictures deserve to be archived and selectively assembled for a public exhibition. Perhaps the Brooklyn Historical Society or the Brooklyn Public Library’s Brooklyn Collection might step up to the plate so that one day — not too distant, we hope —we all may revel in a touching look back at one of Brooklyn’s more pivotal years, as the borough began to emerge from the dark days of grimness into a much brighter, vital community.
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