In autumn 1943, the unnamed narrator becomes friends with Holly Golightly. The two are tenants in a brownstone apartment in Manhattan's Upper East Side. Holly (age 18–19) is a country girl turned New York café society girl. As such, she has no job and lives by socializing with wealthy men, who take her to clubs and restaurants, and give her money and expensive presents; she hopes to marry one of them. According to Capote, Golightly is not a prostitute but an "American geisha."
Holly likes to shock people with carefully selected tidbits from her personal life or her outspoken viewpoints on various topics. Over the course of a year, she slowly reveals herself to the narrator, who finds himself fascinated by her curious lifestyle."Fred": the narrator.Holly Golightly: The protagonist.Joe Bell: A bartender acquainted with both "Fred" and Holly.Mag Wildwood: Holly's friend and sometime roommate, a fellow socialite and model.Rusty Trawler: A presumably wealthy man, thrice divorced, well known in society circles.José Ybarra-Jaegar: A Brazilian diplomat, who is the companion of Mag Wildwood and, later, of Holly.Doc Golightly: A veterinarian from Texas, whom Holly married as a teenager.O. J. Berman: A Hollywood agent, who has discovered Holly and groomed her to become a professional actress.Salvatore "Sally" Tomato: A convicted racketeer, whom Holly visits weekly in Sing Sing prison.Madame Sapphia Spanella: Another tenant in the brownstone.Mr. I. Y. Yunioshi: A photographer, who lives in an apartment on the top floor of the brownstone where Holly lives.
In early drafts of the story Holly was named Connie Gustafson; Capote later changed her name to Holiday Golightly. He apparently based the character of Holly on several different women, all friends or close acquaintances of his. Claims have been made as to the source of the character, the "real Holly Golightly", in what Capote called the "Holly Golightly Sweepstakes", including socialite Gloria Vanderbilt, Oona O'Neill, writer/actress Carol Grace, writer Maeve Brennan, writer Doris Lilly, model Dorian Leigh (whom Capote dubbed "Happy Go Lucky"), and her sister, model Suzy Parker.
Capote’s biographer Gerald Clarke wrote "half the women he knew...claimed to be the model for his wacky heroine." Clarke also wrote of the similarities between the author himself and the character. There are also similarities between the lives of Holly and Capote's mother, Nina Capote; among other shared attributes both women were born in the rural south with similar "hick" birth names that they changed (Holly Golightly was born Lulamae Barnes in Texas, Nina Capote was born Lillie Mae Faulk in Alabama), both left the husbands they married as teenagers and abandoned relatives they loved and were responsible for, instead going to New York, and both achieved "café society" status through relationships with wealthier men, though Capote's mother was born two decades earlier than the fictional Holly Golightly. Capote was also unsuccessfully sued for libel and invasion of privacy by a Manhattan resident named Bonnie Golightly who claimed that he had based Holly on her.
According to the biographer of Joan McCracken, McCracken had a violent dressing room outburst after learning of the wartime death of her brother, while she was appearing in the Bloomer Girl (1944). McCracken's biographer suggests that Capote used this event as a model for a scene in which Holly reacts to her brother's death overseas. McCracken and her husband Jack Dunphy were close friends of Capote, and Dunphy became Capote's companion after his divorce from the actress. In the novella, Holly Golightly is also depicted singing songs from Oklahoma! (in which McCracken appeared) accompanying herself on a guitar, and owning The Baseball Guide, which was edited by McCracken's uncle.
Breakfast at Tiffany's was originally sold to Harper's Bazaar for $2,000 and intended for publication in its July 1958 issue. It was to be illustrated with a big series of photo montages by David Attie, who had been hired for the job by famed Harper's art director Alexey Brodovitch. However, after the publication was scheduled, longtime Harper's editor Carmel Snow was ousted by the magazine's publisher, the Hearst Corporation, and Hearst executives began asking for changes to the novella's tart language. By this time, Attie's montages had been completed, and Alice Morris, the fiction editor of Harper's, recounted that while Capote initially refused to make any changes, he relented "partly because I showed him the layouts...six pages with beautiful, atmospheric photographs." Yet Hearst ordered Harper's not to run the novella anyway. Its language and subject matter were still deemed "not suitable", and there was concern that Tiffany's, a major advertiser, would react negatively. An outraged Capote soon resold the work to Esquire for $3,000; by his own account, he specified that he "would not be interested if [Esquire] did not use Attie's [original series of] photographs." He wrote to Esquire fiction editor Rust Hills, "I'm very happy that you are using [Attie's] pictures, as I think they are excellent." But to his disappointment, Esquire ran just one full-page image of Attie's (another was later used as the cover of at least one paperback edition of the novella). The novella appeared in the November, 1958 issue. Shortly afterward, a collection of the novella and three short stories by Capote was published by Random House — and the glowing reviews caused sales of the Esquire issue to skyrocket. Both Attie and Brodovitch went on to work with Capote on other projects — Attie on Brooklyn Heights: A Personal Memoir, and Brodovitch on Observations, both published in 1959.
The collection has been reprinted several times; the novella has been included in other Capote collections.
Capote's original typed manuscript was offered for sale by a New Hampshire auction house in April 2013. It was sold to Igor Sosin, a Russian billionaire entrepreneur, for US$306,000. Mr. Sosin said he planned to display it publicly in Moscow and Monte Carlo.
In "Breakfast at Sally Bowles,'" Ingrid Norton of Open Letters Monthly pointed out Capote's debt to Christopher Isherwood, one of his mentors, in creating the character of Holly Golightly: "Breakfast at Tiffany’s is in many ways Capote’s personal crystallization of Isherwood's Sally Bowles."
Truman Capote's aunt, Marie Rudisill notes that Holly is a kindred spirit of Miss Lily Jane Bobbit, the central character of his short story "Children on Their Birthdays." She observes that both characters are "unattached, unconventional wanderers, dreamers in pursuit of some ideal of happiness."
Capote himself acknowledged that Golightly was the favorite of his characters.
The novella's prose style prompted Norman Mailer to call Capote "the most perfect writer of my generation," adding that he "would not have changed two words in Breakfast at Tiffany's".
The novella was loosely adapted into the 1961 movie Breakfast at Tiffany's starring Audrey Hepburn and directed by Blake Edwards. The movie was transposed to circa 1960 rather than the 1940s, the period of the novella. In addition to this, at the end of the film the protagonist and Holly fall in love and stay together, whereas in the novella there is no love affair whatsoever — Holly just leaves the United States and the narrator has no idea what happened to her since then, except for a photograph of a wood carving found years later in Africa which bears a striking resemblance to Holly. Capote originally envisioned Marilyn Monroe as Holly, and lobbied the studio for her, but the film was done at Paramount, and though Monroe did independent films, including for her own production company, she was still under contract with Twentieth Century Fox, and had just completed Let's Make Love with Yves Montand.
A musical version of Breakfast at Tiffany's (also known as Holly Golightly) premiered in 1966 in Boston. The initial performances were panned by the critics and despite a rewrite by Edward Albee, it closed after only four performances.
Three years after the musical adaptation, Stefanie Powers and Jack Kruschen starred in another adaptation, Holly Golightly (1969), an unsold ABC sitcom pilot. Kruschen's role was based on Joe Bell, a major character in Capote's novella who was omitted from the film version.
There have been two adaptations of the novella into stage plays, both directed by Sean Mathias. The first production was written by Samuel Adamson and was presented in 2009 at the Theatre Royal Haymarket in London, starring Anna Friel as Holly Golightly and Joseph Cross as William 'Fred' Parsons. The second version was written by Richard Greenberg for a 2013 Broadway production at the Cort Theatre, starring Emilia Clarke as Holly Golightly, Cory Michael Smith as Fred, and George Wendt as Joe Bell. The Greenberg play was produced in the UK in 2016, called "a play with music". It ran at the Theatre Royal Haymarket in the West End in June to September 2016.