Reader poll write-up, Spring 2022 | A reel librarian gets shushed in ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’ (1961)

“There you are, right in the public library!”

As per the winning entry in the most recent reader poll — thanks again to everyone who voted in the poll! — I am analyzing Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961) and its library scenes set in the New York Public Library. The Oscar-winning film, based on Truman Capote’s classic 1958 novella, was directed by Blake Edwards and written by screenwriter George Axelrod. The film stars Audrey Hepburn as Holly Golightly, a New York “society gal” and free spirit who started out as Lulamae, a “wild thing” from Tulip, Texas. George Peppard co-stars as Paul Varjak, a once promising writer who now idles away his time as a “kept man” of married socialite Mrs. Emily Eustace “2E” Failenson, played by Patricia Neal. Buddy Ebsen and Martin Balsam also shine in supporting roles.

The film’s original trailer focuses primarily on Hepburn’s charm and style, which have helped make this movie a cultural and sartorial touchstone (especially Hepburn’s iconic “little black dress”).

Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961) Trailer #1 | Movieclips Classic Trailers” uploaded by Movieclips Classic Trailers, Standard YouTube License.

But this movie is dark, y’all. It has its issues, which I will get into, and every character has flaws. Beneath the glitter and parties, there’s an undercurrent of sadness and self-doubt; this is also reflective of the source novella’s tone. When I was a teenager, I remember a friend of mine couldn’t stand this movie because of how the cat was treated at the end of the movie. (Orangey, who played the no-name cat, has his own Wikipedia page!) The film’s saddest and most truthful moments are the ones I personally relate to and remember the most (e.g., “the mean reds“).

And I cannot write about this movie without mentioning that it features one of the most racist portrayals of an Asian character ever onscreen, with Mickey Rooney, a White actor, portraying Mr. Yunioshi, a Japanese photographer. Rooney reportedly wore false teeth, used tape for his eyelids, and wore “yellow face” makeup for this role. SO NOT OK. TV networks now showing this movie have either cut out the Mr. Yunioshi scenes altogether or inserted trigger warnings or context cards before showing the movie.

And I don’t think pointing out this film’s flaws and racism is unfairly holding up this 1961 film to 2022 standards. “It was considered a crude caricature even at the time of the film’s 1961 release,” and critics expressed qualms about Rooney’s portrayal from the beginning. For example, in 1961, the movie reporter in Variety called the film “whitewashed” and that “Mickey Rooney’s participation as a much-harassed upstairs Japanese photographer adds an unnecessarily incongruous note to the proceedings.” Rooney’s personal assertion in a 2008 interview that “Never in all the more than 40 years after we made it – not one complaint” is revisionist history.

So… do the library scenes fare any better? Let’s investigate.

Library scene #1

Let’s set the stage for the events that lead to the first library scene, seen in the video clip below.

At 1 hour and 8 minutes into the 114-minute film, Holly and Paul decide to go out and “spend the whole day doing things we’ve never done before.” Holly muses that “Of course I can’t really think of anything I’ve never done” — but she’s wrong!

Breakfast at Tiffany’s – Paul and Holly Go to the Library (13) – Audrey Hepburn” video uploaded by EverythingAudrey.com, Standard YouTube License

Five minutes later into the film — after a trip to Tiffany’s, as you do — Paul takes Holly… to the New York Public Library!

The lobby to the New York Public Library's central branch in Breakfast at Tiffany's (1961). Note the Black male reel librarian at the right-hand counter.
The lobby to the New York Public Library’s central branch. Note the Black male reel librarian at the right-hand counter.

Holly: What is this place, anyway?

Paul: You said you wanted to sit down. It’s the public library. You’ve never been here?

Holly: No. That makes two for me. I don’t see any books.

Paul: They’re in there.

They take a peek into the Reading Room.

Peeking into the Reading Room at the NYPL Central Branch
Peeking into the Reading Room at the NYPL Central Branch

Then Paul takes her to the wall of card catalog drawers. (So dreamy! Happy sigh. 🙂 )

Paul then explain the basics about card catalogs and library organization.

Paul: Each one of these little drawers is stuffed with little cards, and each little card is a book or an author.

Holly: It’s fascinating.

Paul: V-A-R-J-A-K.

Holly: Really?! [flips through the cards] Look! Isn’t it marvelous? There you are, right in the public library. “Varjak, Paul. Nine Lives.” Then a lot of numbers. You think they really have the book itself, live?

Paul: Sure. Follow me. [He takes the drawer out]

They walk across the room to the desk, where a Black man, dressed in a brown suit and tie, stands beneath a sign that reads “File call slips here.” Holly and the man share polite smiles. This reel librarian is not included in the credits list.

Holly Golightly and the Black male reel librarian politely smile at each other at the "File Call Slips Here" desk
Holly Golightly and the Black male reel librarian politely smile at each other at the “File Call Slips Here” desk

A moment later, then a board lights up with the number 57 — it’s like waiting at the doctor’s office or at the DMW, hah! — and Holly and Paul walk up to another desk, where a middle-aged, auburn-haired White woman stands. She is also dressed in a suit, this one a dark blue plaid. This reel librarian is credited in the cast list, and was played by Elvia Allman.

The visual introduction to the female librarian in this scene is from the back and over her shoulder — a common visual introduction to minor reel librarian characters in movies

Holly [in a loud voice]: 57, please. Nine Lives by Varjak, Paul.

Librarian: Shhhhhh.

Holly: Did you ever read it? It’s simply marvelous.

Librarian: No, I’m afraid I haven’t. [Goes back to filing or typing cards.]

Holly: Well, you should. He wrote it. He’s Varjak, Paul in person. [To Paul] She doesn’t believe me. Show her your driver’s license or your diner’s club card or something. [To the librarian] Honest, he is the author. Cross my heart and kiss my elbow.

Librarian: Would you kindly lower your voice, miss?

Here is the reel librarian’s EPIC shushing face:

The librarian's shushing face
The librarian’s shushing face

Holly: [To Paul] Why don’t you autograph it for her, Paul? [To the librarian] Don’t you think that would be nice? Sort of make it more personal?

Librarian: Really, miss. [whispers something unintelligible]

Holly: [To Paul] Go on, then. Don’t be so stuck-up. Autograph it to her.

Paul: All right. What shall I say?

Holly: Something sentimental, I think.

Librarian: What are you doing? Stop that!

Paul: [To the librarian] Shhhhh!

Librarian [in a quieter tone]: You’re defacing public property!

Holly: Well, all right, if that’s the way you feel. Come on, Fred darling, let’s get out of here. I don’t think this place is half as nice as Tiffany’s.

And here’s the reel librarian getting shushed herself!

The librarian gets shushed!
The librarian gets shushed!

This first scene lasts 2 minutes total.

Here was my initial summation of this scene from my undergraduate thesis over 20 years ago:

“The films that provide glimpses of librarians for humorous purposes only also are the films that exhibit probably the crudest portrayals of librarian stereotypes. … George Peppard and Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961) harass a middle-aged librarian (played by Elvia Allman) in the New York Public Library by signing a book, thereby “defacing public property.” (p.13)

Jennifer Snoek-Brown, “A Glimpse Through the Glasses: Portrayals of Librarians in Film.” Thesis, West Texas A&M U, 2001.

I think my initial view was a bit harsh and more than a little biased. Maybe I’ve mellowed as I’ve gotten older. 😉 I certainly don’t condone the dismissive and flippant attitude that Holly displays, but I also think that the librarian could have been a LOT friendlier and shown some basic human kindness to them with a greeting and small talk. I mean, she greeted Holly with a shush! NOT COOL. I realize that this script is played for laughs, and stereotypical portrayals of minor characters help set the foundation for easy laughs, but it still kind of irks me that the librarian character is written so stereotypically. The point is definitely to laugh AT this uptight, prissy librarian.

I do kind of love that the librarian gets shushed by Paul, though! That made me laugh. But honestly, these kinds of shushing scenes perpetuate the myth that libraries are these tomb-like, quiet places. Libraries DO often have designated quiet zones, but libraries also serve as community spaces where small groups and friends and family gather, so I almost always encounter a low-to-medium hum of noise whenever I visit public libraries.

I also quite like that the beginning of this library scene depicts joy in discovering how a library works. I love that little micro-scene at the card catalog wall because of the look of delight on Holly’s face! Also, this scene conveys the joy of writers having their names and resources in libraries. (I’m married to a writer, so this scene rings true for me on both counts. 😉 )

Card catalog joy!
Card catalog joy!

And Paul does a very efficient job in explaining the purpose of the card catalog system. (And thank you for being accurate in the call numbers, as they are indeed under the correct “U-V” section of the card catalog. Those kinds of details matter!)

This is also an example of a “closed stacks” library, where the public users do not have access to most of the library’s collection. Most public libraries have what are known as “open stacks,” or bookshelves and collections that are open for the public to wander around and browse. By the way, the NYPL Library website has a “Library Lingo” page that defines this common library term and concept:

“STACKS: The area where the library’s books and other materials are stored. In common with other major research libraries, The New York Public Library has “closed stacks”: you must request material instead of going to the shelf to retrieve it yourself. The New York Public Library’s Branch Libraries have “open stacks” where you may browse and retrieve material yourself.”

General Research Division, “Library Lingo,” New York Public Library, Nov. 1995

The White female librarian in this first library scene fulfills the Comic Relief character type, while the uncredited Black male librarian is your basic Information Provider character type. I think it’s interesting to note that the reel librarian of color is visibly friendlier than the White reel librarian, although the reel librarian of color has much less screen time and makes less of an impression onscreen.

Library scene #2

The second, and final, library scene in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961) needs a little context, as well. At 1 hour and 24 minutes into the film, Paul dumps his lady friend and goes in search of Holly. He calls and looks everywhere and finally finds himself back in the New York Public Library, where he is surprised to see Holly!

This second library scene is in the video clip below:

Breakfast at Tiffany’s – Paul Tells Holly in the Library He Loves Her (16) – Audrey Hepburn” video uploaded by EverythingAudrey.com, Standard YouTube License

By the way, in earlier viewings, I had missed that a different reel librarian was on duty at the “File Call Slips Here” desk in the library lobby. This time, a younger White man, also dressed in a suit and tie, is standing at the desk and helping a library patron.

A different male librarian, this time a younger White man, helps a patron at the "File Call Slips Here" desk in the library lobby
A different male librarian, this time a younger White man, helps a patron at the “File Call Slips Here” desk in the library lobby

From the look of surprise on Paul’s face, it’s clear that he wasn’t expecting to see Holly there; rather, the NYPL must one of his own comfort spots.

Holly is reading at the NYPL
Holly is reading at the NYPL

Paul comes over to her and kisses her neck, which startles her. Dude is NOT READING THE (READING) ROOM.

Paul: Hi.

Holly [turns back to her book and adjusts her sunglasses]: What do you want?

Paul: I want to talk to you.

Holly: I’m busy. [turns a page of her book]

Paul: What are you doing?

Holly: Reading.

Leave the lady be, Paul. She’s reading!

Paul [picks up a book from the table]: South America: Land of Wealth and Promise?

Holly: It’s very interesting.

SIDE NOTE: Y’all *know* I looked up that title in WorldCat, the online catalog of the world’s libraries, right?! Right. From what I can tell, that book title was very likely made up, as there is no record in WorldCat for a book with that title.

Paul: Let’s get out of here. I said, let’s get out of here. I want to talk to you.

[Another patron shushes him, but the camera never pans to the other person.]

Paul [to Holly]: What’s the matter with you, anyway? What’s happened?

Holly: Fred, would you please just leave me alone.

Paul [grabs her arms]: Holly, I love you.

Holly gets up from the table and walks away with her purse, leaving the books on the table. Paul follows her and grabs her arm. He raises her voice, shouting at her, and Holly tells him, very clearly, “Let me go” three times. She tries to get away, but Paul roughly grabs her arms again several times.

Holly reveals that she’s going to marry a South American, Jose de Silva Pereira. (What Paul doesn’t know is that Holly is doing this so she can help take care of her brother when he gets out of the Army.) This further enrages Paul, who continues to shout at her and grab and shake her in front of several library patrons.

Physical assault alert in the library!
Physical assault alert in the library!

Paul [grabbing her again]: You’re crazy.

Holly: What, do you think you own me?

Paul: That’s exactly what I think.

Holly: I know, I know. That’s what everybody always thinks. But everybody happens to be wrong.

Paul: Look, I am NOT everybody. Or am I? Is that what you really think? That I’m no different from all your other rats and super-rats? [Holly walks away.] Wait a minute. [He takes his $50 writing check out of his breast pocket.] That’s it. If that’s what you really think, there’s something I want to give you.

Holly: What’s that?

Paul: Fifty dollars for the powder room.

He turns and walks away, and we see that everyone in the Reading Room is staring at him. No wonder! He just grabbed a woman and yelled at her in the library! Physical assault alert in the library!

Paul walks away at the end of this second library scene
Paul walks away at the end of this second library scene

THIS SCENE IS NOT OK. This is NOT romantic. Red flags EVERYWHERE. Paul is abusive, both verbally and physically, and he confirms that he thinks he “owns” her. NOPE. And then he gives her his $50 check and stalks away. This parting shot by Paul echoes what we had learned earlier, that one of the ways that Holly earns money is to get guys to pay her $50 every time she goes to the powder room. It’s a “gotcha” moment — a moment that, script-wise, works quite well on the page — but it’s a cheap moment focusing on shaming a woman trying to earn a living, for herself and for her brother. NOT OK. Even as a young woman, this scene made me feel uneasy when I first watched this movie; now, I am better able to articulate why this scene is problematic.

One thing about this scene that I realized is positive? That Holly went back to the library for research! Although she ended the first library scene with a flippant remark, “I don’t think this place is half as nice as Tiffany’s,” she DOES return when she needs some information, and when she needs a place to read and think. 🙂

This second scene in the library lasts 3 minutes. The second male reel librarian is also uncredited and serves as an Information Provider.

Altogether, we spend 5 minutes total at the New York Public Library in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Although they don’t last that long, the two library scenes are memorable, landing in the Class III category, in which reel librarians play supporting characters.

Continuing the conversation

It was an interesting exercise to revisit this movie — one I have seen several times, and a movie I do enjoy overall, despite some quite troubling scenes and portrayals, as I’ve detailed in this post. I can recognize the negatives — like the racist portrayal of Mr. Yunioshi and the physical assault in the library — while also enjoying the positives, like Holly’s style, the haunting “Moon River” song on the fire escape, and of course, Holly’s utter delight in learning about the card catalog system. ❤

I agree with this reviewer, who sums up Breakfast at Tiffany’s like this:

Holly’s ambiguities, flaws, and layers make her a much more interesting protagonist […] Breakfast at Tiffany’s is a weird, gorgeous, difficult, fascinating, dark film—and it’s all the better for it, but if you’re looking for something aspirational that you can watch purely for aesthetics, well, there are thousands of other films to choose from. So next time you claim this is your all-time favorite movie, I hope you’re able to back it up with some of the film’s flaws, and not just cite the fashion as the reason.

Elizabeth Logan. “Breakfast at Tiffany’s Problems No One Ever Talks About.” Glamour, 30 Dec. 2016.

What are your thoughts upon revisiting Breakfast at Tiffany’s and reflecting on its library scenes? Did anything new come to the surface for you? Please leave a comment and share!

Sources used

Author: Jennifer

Librarian, blogger, movie lover

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