…..One Christmas Truman Capote decked my halls with boughs of holly. It was sometime before he wrote Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1958) but after he wrote the Grass Harp (1951). In those days Capote was just one of the famous people I very nearly knew.
I was living in Brooklyn Heights, a small neighbourhood across the East River from Manhattan. It’s an area where 18th and 19th-century houses line quiet streets with old-fashioned names such as Cranberry and Pineapple. Not surprisingly, considering how close the Heights is to New York City, a number of celebrities lived there. More surprisingly, I lived there too, and that’s how I happened to nearly know a few of them.
To be precise about the hall decking, they were not boughs of holly but boughs of pine made into a long, thick garland lashed with red ribbon and ornamented with silver balls. Even more precisely, I did the decking, not Truman. But it was definitely his garland. I had found it the day before Christmas, abandoned outside his basement flat around the corner from mine. He lived downstairs in an elegant Federal style building belonging to Oliver Messel, who designed the sets for the original Broadway production of My Fair Lady. You could see straight down into Truman’s bedroom. His coverlet was printed with violets.
I salvaged the garland, toting it like an awkwardly bristling hosepipe up to my apartment. Sadly, I had to leave Capote’s Christmas tree behind. It lay on its side, the baubles hanging sideways as if drawn to the earth by magnetic force. The star on the top pointed towards the East River like a crossed eye. I suppose there had been a pre-Christmas party and Truman was by now heading for the Mediterranean and someone’s yacht.
I stretched the garland over the cornices of the window of my sitting room from which you could see the Statue of Liberty to the left and the Brooklyn Bridge to the right. The garland seemed to embrace lower Manhattan with the compliments of the season. It didn’t even begin to drop its needles until well into the New Year.
Famous as he was, Truman wasn’t the most newsworthy of the famous people I nearly knew at that time. Norman Mailer ranked higher. He had become a big name in 1948 with The Naked and the Dead. By the time we were next-door neighbours he had written Barbary Coast and The Deer Park. They say it was because these got such hostile criticism and bad reviews that he became increasingly belligerent.
The more aggressive he became the more coverage the tabloids gave him and the more famous he became. Every fight in every restaurant or bar was good copy. So were his parties. I could hear them so well, even through the thick, brick walls of our adjoining houses, that it was like being there, only safer.
Eventually he stabbed his third wife, Adele, after a night of drinking. More than 30 years later she wrote about it in a book called The Last Party.
I very nearly knew Arthur Miller and his pale wife, Mary, too. I passed their house every morning on my way to work. Sometimes I saw him walking their little white dog. Arthur Miller looked like Abraham Lincoln would have looked if Abraham Lincoln had smoked a pipe and worn horn-rimmed glasses. Miller was already famous as the author of Death of a Salesman. Soon he became much more famous as the lover and for while the husband of Marilyn Monroe.
While their affair was going on, before Arthur divorced Mary Miller and Marilyn divorced Joe Di Maggio, they were sometimes spotted together in our neighbourhood. One evening I saw them myself, rounding a corner in the glimmer of a streetlight. She was wearing sunglasses and a scarf tied under her chin, so at first they didn’t look like a famous playwright and a famous film star but like Abraham Lincoln and Heidi, if Heidi had worn sunglasses.
One Christmas it was rumoured that she was going to attend a publisher’s party with Arthur Miller. A friend of mine worked for the company and put my name on the invitation list. I spend ages figuring out what to wear… as if, in the same room with Marilyn Monroe it was going to matter. On the night, however, it turned out that Arthur Miller didn’t show and neither did Marilyn.
That was the bad news. The good news is that I looked really great, the Christmas party was perfect and Marilyn Monroe will always remain, like an angel on a Christmas tree, at the very top of my list of famous people I very nearly knew.