Carol Matthau

Actress and writer who was an inspiration for 'Breakfast at Tiffany's'

Wednesday 25 September 2013 04:01

Carol Grace, actress and writer: born New York 11 September 1925; married 1943 William Saroyan (one son, one daughter; marriage dissolved 1949), 1951 William Saroyan (marriage dissolved 1952), 1959 Walter Matthau (died 2000; one son); died New York 20 July 2003.

The actress and writer Carol Matthau was married three times: twice to the writer William Saroyan and once to the actor Walter Matthau. Her marriage to Matthau lasted 41 years, until his death in 2000. In 1992, she said of her marriages, "I married Saroyan the second time because I couldn't believe how terrible it was the first time. I married Walter because I love to sleep with him."

A lifelong friend of the socialite Gloria Vanderbilt and Oona O'Neill, who married Charles Chaplin, she was wooed by the critic Kenneth Tynan and the writer James Agee, and was an inspiration for Truman Capote's novella Breakfast at Tiffany's. She achieved notoriety with the publication of her autobiography Among the Porcupines (1992), which told frankly and wittily of her life among the rich and famous. Reviewing the book, the Vanity Fair critic Ben Brantley called her "a self-styled Alice in Wonderland . . . a dithery child-woman with a mind as sharp and prismatic as cut crystal."

Born Carol Grace in Manhattan, New York in 1925, she was the illegitimate child of a 16-year-old Russian immigrant Rosheen Doree, who had been thrown out by her mother on becoming pregnant. Carol never knew her father, and was raised in foster homes ("bleak and ugly places") while her mother worked in a hat factory. Her life changed completely when she was eight years old and her mother married Charles Marcus, the aviation pioneer who with Vincent Bendix had formed the Bendix Aircraft Corporation.

Adopted by Marcus, she was transported to an 18-room residence on Fifth Avenue, and attended the select Dalton School. The bandleader Artie Shaw, a friend of her mother's, introduced Carol Grace to Saroyan at a restaurant when she was a beautiful blonde 16-year-old. She later said he "looked like a gangster" but she found him thrilling and married him in 1943. She was already two months pregnant at the wedding because Saroyan had told her he would not wed her until he knew she could bear children.

William Saroyan, who had won the Pulitzer Prize for his play The Time of Your Life (1940) and once said, "I'm great and I'm proud to be great", was known for his wild rages, and he was also a compulsive gambler, who squandered most of their savings. The marriage was not a happy one, although there were two children, Aram, a writer, and Lucy, an actress who died earlier this year. In later years Carol was estranged from both, though she would never disclose the reason. She and Saroyan were divorced in 1949 but married again in 1951. They divorced for the final time the following year after he allegedly threw her down a flight of stairs and tried to choke her in front of the children. William Saroyan never married again, and friends said he remained in love with Carol until his death in 1981.

She supported herself and her children by acting and writing under the name Carol Grace. In 1955 her novella The Secret in the Daisy was published. Based on her childhood, it was described by the author as "a sardonic little book" and received good reviews, but she did not write again until her memoir. She did, though, play a part in the development of one of the most famous books of its era. She and Truman Capote had been close friends since they met as teenagers, and she tells in her book that when in New York she would meet him at 3am at a private club where they would sit in front of the fireplace and talk for hours drinking gin with beer chasers.

Every morning, at about seven, we left the club and walked to Fifth Avenue, where there was a man with a cart of doughnuts and coffee. We'd buy some and then continue on toward Tiffany's. On the way, we'd look at clothing in the windows of the stores on Fifth Avenue, places like Bergdorf's and La Vieille Russie - all very chic. Each morning we'd end up eating the doughnuts and drinking the coffee in front of Tiffany's. The same guard was always there. He was rather friendly and got to know us, so every so often we'd bring a doughnut and some coffee for him, too.

According to Grace, Capote not only used this for a key incident in his book (and the memorable title sequence in the subsequent film starring Audrey Hepburn) but he put a lot of her into the character of Holly Golightly. "You are Holly," Capote allegedly told her. "It's just that you don't do those rotten things Holly did."

Carol Grace had dabbled in acting since taking a small part in a Princeton College production of a Saroyan play Jim Dandy in 1941. In 1955 she took the role of Mary L in a revival of The Time of Your Life, directed by Sanford Meisner, whose acting classes she and Gloria Vanderbilt (who also had a part in the play) began to attend.

George Axelrod then offered her the small part of a secretary in his comedy Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?, which opened on Broadway in 1955, starring Walter Matthau and Jayne Mansfield. Though he was married, Matthau began an affair with her. "He is the most passionate man I have ever known," she was to write in her memoir nearly 40 years later. "He is the most tender, the most romantic, the most sensual." After a four-year affair the couple married in 1959 and their son Charles, now a film director, was born in 1962. In her book, Carol Matthau stated bluntly,

We slept together everywhere. This has never waned, even as I write this. When we fight, all I have to do is think of a bed, any bed we've ever been in, or any floor we've ever been on, trains, boats, cars. . .

The marriage endured despite the actor constantly getting into debt through gambling. Carol Matthau's actress friend Maureen Stapleton told People magazine in 1992, "She has the gifts of a born courtesan. Most wives would yell if their husband had the monumental gambling problem Walter had, but not Carol."

Carol Matthau's sporadic acting career included roles in S.N. Behrman's play The Cold Wind and the Warm (1958) starring Eli Wallach and Maureen Stapleton, and an acclaimed performance as a gangster's moll in Elaine May's film Mikey and Nicky (1976). She declared that there were only two roles she would dearly have loved to have played, Mary Tyrone in Long Day's Journey into Night and "the lady who sells magazine subscriptions on the telephone", Amanda Wingfield in The Glass Menagerie.

Her book Among the Porcupines takes its title from Schopenhauer's comparison of man's need for company with that of porcupines, who huddle together for warmth but draw apart because of their quills. It is dedicated to her husband ("I love you today with the same passion as when I fell in love with you") and has stories about dozens of famous people, including Greta Garbo, Charlie Chaplin, Henry Miller, Cary Grant, Richard Avedon and Isak Dineson. "It seems strange," she notes, "that everyone I'm writing about was very famous. I wonder about it, too. Didn't I ever find anyone interesting who was not famous? Actually, no, I didn't."

Tom Vallance

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