The famous mansion here at number 70 Willow St., where TRUMAN CAPOTE was a tenant of theatre set designer Oliver Smith, brought together a sold-out crowd for a memorable evening to hear Capote’s words in the house he occupied for 10 years. The evening was one of many being put together to celebrate the CENTENNIAL OF THE BROOKLYN HEIGHTS ASSOCATION and, concurrently, the rare qualities of a unique neighborhood.
Tightly-packed but seated comfortably, patrons of the Monday evening event filled the parlor floor of the mansion and were welcomed by NEIL CALET, a vice president of the BHA, who had compiled a brilliant summary of Capote’s life and connections to Brooklyn for the official program of the evening. Not only Capote’s unforgettable descriptions of Brooklyn Heights, but even a Broadway song he wrote and highlights of Breakfast at Tiffany’s were read, sung or enacted by an award-winning trio: novelist and film-maker PETER HEDGES, actress LAUREN AMBROSE and cabaret star MAUREEN KELLY STEWART.
It was an evening that seemed to channel Truman Capote’s spirit and, serendipitously, that of OLIVER SMITH. As an early supporter and designer for American Ballet Theatre, Smith had been a leading figure among famous artists who chose to live in Brooklyn Heights beginning in the 1940s. Smith bought 70 Willow St. in 1953.
Peter Hedges opened the program Monday evening by reading from Capote’s descriptions of Brooklyn Heights, including the “brats” who roller-skated on the Esplanade. Maureen Kelly Stewart, accompanied by guitarist Sean Harkness, sang a song that Capote wrote for a Broadway musical called House of Flowers (music by Harold Arlen). The show only ran for 165 performances, but the song, “A Sleepin’ Bee” was made more notable when Barbra Streisand sang it on the Jack Paar show in 1961.
After the musical interlude, Hedges then teamed up with actress Lauren Ambrose to enact dialogue and descriptive prose from Breakfast at Tiffany’s, which Capote had completed at 70 Willow St., presumably just downstairs from where Hedges and Ambrose performed.
When the official program ended, Peter Hedges announced a surprise guest: Rosaria Sinisi, who had been Oliver Smith’s assistant during the last years of his life. She had brought along many mementos that fascinated the patrons, including early photographs of the house, sketches and artwork by Oliver Smith and Truman Capote’s hand-written notes in a spiral notebook.
The next celebratory event in the BHA’s Centennial is “Film & Fiction: A Literary and Film Walking Tour of Brooklyn Heights, to be held on Sunday, May 2.
For information on this and other upcoming events sponsored by the BHA and coordinated by the Auster Agency, residents of Brooklyn Heights are urged to go to the web site, www.thebha.org. Also, the pages and web sites of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle and the Brooklyn Heights Press will feature articles and reminders as well.
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By Neil Calet
His earliest years could have been torn from a Southern gothic novel. His mother, Lillie Mae, was barely 17 when Truman was born. When he was four years old his parents divorced but not before his father was jailed for forgery. Twice.
Four years later, Lillie abandoned her son to relatives in Monroeville, Alabama, changed her name from Lillie Mae to Nina and headed for New York and the life she dreamed of … a flight that would eventually end with her suicide.
Back in Monroeville, 11-year-old Truman began writing seriously. “Other kids go home and practice the violin or the piano … I used to go home from school every day and I would write for about three hours. I was obsessed by it.”
By the time Capote moved to Brooklyn Heights in 1956, he had earned a reputation as a young writer to keep an eye on, and a character you couldn’t take your eyes off. Often dressed in a black velvet suit, a red velvet vest and a Bronzini scarf several meters long, he was pointed at, snickered at and sometimes threatened. But there was a place in New York where he could live without being harassed, if not quite without being noticed: Brooklyn Heights. At 70 Willow St. Here, Capote put the final, gilded touches on Breakfast at Tiffany’s, here he conceived the idea for the first “nonfiction novel,” his masterpiece In Cold Blood, and here, after endless revisions and refinements, he finished the final chapters.
For ten years, 70 Willow St. was home base. Not that the peace and quiet of his three-room apartment in an elegant mansion could keep Truman, from jetting and yachting around the world — to Switzerland, Tunisia, Paris, Rome, Sicily, California. But during those healthy and fertile years, he kept returning, again and again, to those white-painted basement rooms on Willow Street with the wisteria blooming out the back window, as it still blooms today.