Breakfast at Tiffany's: The Cure for Synesthesia

Holly Golightly was an emotion to color synesthete

Posted Aug 24, 2012

Audrey Hepburn has breakfast at Tiffany's. Public domain image.
Source: Audrey Hepburn has breakfast at Tiffany's. Public domain image.

In 1958 when Truman Capote published the novella Breakfast at Tiffany's, Time magazine declared its heroine Holly Golightly, "the hottest kitten ever to hit the typewriter keys" of Mr. Capote. "She's a cross between a grown-up Lolita and a teen-age Auntie Mame ...alone and a little afraid in a lot of beds she never made."

Holly was afraid and she didn't know why. She called the state of discomfort "the mean reds" -- a very synesthetic emotion to color declaration.

The scene in which she explains the mean reds comes rather early in the written story as well as the 1961 movie by Blake Edwards starring Audrey Hepburn. She is explaining to her new friend, Paul, a writer and neighbor she nicknames "Fred," how she hasn't named her cat because they don't belong to each other.

From the book:

"I don't want to own anything until I know I've found the place where me and things belong together. I'm not quite sure where that is just yet. But I know what it's like...It's like Tiffany's," she said. "Not that I give a hoot about jewelry. Diamonds, yes. but it's tacky to wear diamonds before you're forty; and even that's risky. They only look right on the really old girls. Maria Ouspenskaya. Wrinkles and bones, white hair and diamonds: I can't wait. But that's not why I'm mad about Tiffany's. Listen. You know those days when you've got the mean reds?"

"Same as the blues?"

Even Holly Golightly's Wayfarers couldn't block out the "mean reds." Wiki Commons public domain image
Source: Even Holly Golightly's Wayfarers couldn't block out the "mean reds." Wiki Commons public domain image

"No," she said slowly. "No, the blues are because you're getting fat or maybe it's been raining too long. You're sad, that's all. But the mean reds are horrible. You're afraid and you sweat like hell, but you don't know what you're afraid of. Except something bad is going to happen, only you don't know what it is. You've had that feeling?"

Fred said he had and called it angst. Holly talked about everything she'd unsuccessfully tried to assuage it, from aspirin to marijuana. And then she let him in on the cure:

"What I've found does the most good is just to get into a taxi and go to Tiffany's. It just calms me down right away, the quietness and the proud look of it; nothing very bad could happen to you there, not with those kind men in their nice suits, and that lovely smell of silver and alligator wallets. If I could find a real-life place that made me feel like Tiffany's, then I'd buy some furniture and give the cat a name."

The scene from the film, which was very faithful to the novella in this case, can be viewed here:

Mr. Capote declared Holly his favorite character and said she was a composite of several women he knew. I'll always wonder which of these may have had the mean reds or if the late writer may have experienced synesthesia himself.

Norman Mailer wrote about the book, "Truman Capote is tart as a grand aunt, but in his way he is a ballsy little guy, and he is the most perfect writer of my generation. He writes the best sentences word for word, rhythm upon rhythm. I would not have changed two words in Breakfast at Tiffany's..."

Nor would I. Particularly "mean reds."

Here is Dr. Jamie Ward's paper on emotionally-mediated synesthesia: