A Bathtub Sofa, Suitcases, and a Cat: What the “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” Apartment Says About Home for Women in the ’60s

published Oct 14, 2021
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Credit: Photo by: Mary Evans/Ronald Grant/Everett Collection

It’s hard to believe it’s already been 60 years since the world was first introduced to the whimsical eccentric nature of Holly Golightly, the main character that captured hearts — and broke them too — in 1961’s iconic film “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.” Audrey Hepburn captured Holly’s flighty yet lovable nature, both in personality and home decor (or, lack thereof at times).

Holly might fit right in today as a millennial, probably reincarnated as a fashion blogger or a stylish travel and leisure influencer. But back in the 1960s, Holly’s apartment wouldn’t have been considered trendy at all, but more circumstantial to her wayward lifestyle as a single woman dead-set on securing a more glamorous life in New York City.

Throughout the film, there is a sense that Holly is a rolling stone, never one to collect moss or grow too attached to anything that has the potential to really matter to her. Her apartment is hardly lived in, let alone decorated, except for essential items like clothes and shoes strewn about — and then there’s a cat. The only real love of Holly’s seen early on is that of high-end jeweler and luxury retailer, Tiffany’s, the place where Holly truly feels she belongs.

Speaking of belonging, there are cringeworthy standout features of the film that do not belong. It goes without saying that the racist depiction of a person of Asian descent, Mickey Rooney’s Mr. Yunioshi, is intolerable — now and then in the 1960s — and the choice leaves a permanent stain on a classic film of such cultural significance. While it’s difficult to not further condemn and reexamine the choices made throughout the film surrounding Mr. Yunioshi’s character, this article strictly focuses on the aspects of Holly’s life and apartment and what it all might mean today.

To commemorate “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” 60th anniversary this month (it premiered on Oct. 5. 1961), Apartment Therapy spoke to Professor Pamela Robertson Wojcik, film scholar, Chair of the Film, Television and Theatre Department at Notre Dame University, and author of “The Apartment Plot: Urban Living in American Film and Popular Culture, 1945 to 1975,” as well as Turner Classic Movies host Alicia Malone. In the conversation, both offer insight into why certain design choices may have been made for Holly’s apartment and what people today can draw from her home all these years on.

Credit: Courtesy of Paramount Pictures Archive

Apartment Therapy: What is your personal relationship with “Breakfast at Tiffany’s?”

Pamela Robertson Wojcik: Like most people, I saw it multiple times across my life and was always enthralled with Audrey Hepburn. Over the years, I found it harder to watch because of Mickey Rooney’s racist caricature as Mr. Yunioshi. I returned to the film when I was writing about the apartment plot, films whose narratives are not just incidentally set in an apartment but revolve around the apartment.

Alicia Malone: “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” is one of the classic films I saw at a young age that disproved the idea that older movies were “boring.” I first watched it when I was about nine years old, and though I missed all of its deeper nuances, I fell in love with the glamorous elegance of Audrey Hepburn. Since then, I’ve watched it many times, and have come to appreciate how director Blake Edwards and writer George Axelrod (from Truman Capote’s book) blend the broadly comedic moments (such as the scene where Holly and Paul attempt to shoplift) with touching dramatic ones. Though, I do wince during the egregiously racist scenes featuring Mickey Rooney as Mr. Yunioshi.

AT: How would you describe the style/look of Holly’s apartment?

PRW: In Truman Capote’s original novella, the narrator describes Holly’s apartment as having a “fly-by-night look,” a “camping-out atmosphere; crates and suitcases, everything packed and ready to go, like the belongings of a criminal who feels the law not far behind.” Her apartment looks like that of someone who has not yet moved in.

AT: What may have been the design inspiration behind Holly’s apartment?

PRW: In the film, the apartment represents Holly’s unsettled nature. She does not feel at home so has not made a home. It signals her inability to fashion a self, her lack of identity. At the same time, Holly’s apartment fits in with contemporary representations that almost always show the single girl’s apartment as bohemian rather than polished.

AT: Was Holly’s apartment meant to look neglected or under-cared for?

PRW: These apartments are usually inexpensive, inadequate, underfurnished, cramped, messy, and eccentric. Helen Gurley Brown’s book “Sex and the Single Girl” describes a kind of Greenwich Village chic that single girls can aspire to [be] — she recommends shopping in thrift shops and DIY aesthetics. There is a deep cultural sense in which the single girl is not supposed to fully inhabit her single apartment — it is meant to be a way station on the way to marriage.

Credit: Courtesy of Paramount Pictures Archive

AT: What are some design elements that indicate Holly’s love for her home?

PRW: Cat is interesting. A pet suggests a sense of permanence and a desire to care for another. But, of course Holly doesn’t name the cat and says she won’t until she can beat the “mean reds” and find a place that makes her feel like she feels at Tiffany’s — a sense of belonging.

AM: The copy of Paul’s book is one, seeing that she cares enough about him to want to keep and display his work. The little pops of decor are another — the pink pillows on her bathtub sofa, the zebra print rug, and bedroom with its cast iron bed frame and gold vanity.

AT: At one point, Holly redecorates in a South American style, courtesy of her newest boyfriend. What do Holly’s design choices say about her at this point in the film?

AM: When Holly starts a serious relationship with José, you can see that she’s trying to commit to him (or commit to making something work in her life) by the amount of proper furniture, the art on the walls, and how that contrasts to her previous apartment. But, it seems to be his taste, and none of her own. She tells Paul that she’s really happy, but as she sits in a rocking chair, attempting to knit and learn Portuguese, she seems overwhelmed by all the furniture around her — tiny in comparison, out of her depths. A woman who is trying to convince herself that she is happy, when really, she’s lost.

AT: What would Holly’s apartment look like in 2021?

PRW: Maybe she would be van dwelling and living off Instagram and social media.

AT: What’s your favorite design moment/room in the apartment?

AM: Has to be the claw foot bathtub sofa! Doesn’t look comfortable at all, but it would definitely add a touch of glamor and kookiness to any living room.