Brain Pickings

Breakfast at Tiffany’s Turns 50: Celebrating Audrey Hepburn

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One of Old Hollywood’s most charismatic personalities, captured through the affection lens of a dear friend.

Fifty years ago today, Breakfast at Tiffany’s made its debut. The iconic film, based on the Truman Capote novella of the same name, went on to become one of the most beloved romantic comdies of all time, and the Holly Golightly character remained the most memorable role of Edda van Heemstra Hepburn-Ruston, better-known as Audrey Hepburn. Throughout her long career, no one has managed to capture Hepburn’s character, charisma, and enigma with more visual eloquence than iconic photographer Bob Willoughby, who met a young Hepburn shortly after she arrived in Hollywood in 1953 and, mesmerized by her extraordinary persona, continued to shoot her for over a decade. Over the years, Willoughby became a trusted friend who helped frame Hepburn’s life and image, both personally and professionally.

From the fine folks at Taschen () comes a formidable volume not for the faint of heart (or wallet) — Bob Willoughby: Audrey Hepburn: Photographs 1953-1966 is a lavish collector’s edition of 1,000 hand-numbered copies that comes at a hefty 14 pounds and even heftier $750 price tag. Though long sold out, you can scour Amazon and Craigslist for some used copies — but don’t expect a bargain. Still, Willoughby’s work is so poetic and enchanted it’s hard to put a price on.

I really didn’t know what to make of Audrey when I first saw her. She certainly was not the typical image of a young starlet, for that was what I had been sent to photograph. I watched her across the room as she was being photographed by Ben Fraker, and she did have something… but I couldn’t quite put my finger on it until I was finally introduced to her.

Then that radiant smile hit me right between the eyes, warming me inside like a shot of whisky. That amazing instant contact she made, a remarkable gift that everyone who met her felt. She exuded some magic warmth that was hers alone.”

For a more affordable homage, there’s also the excellent Breakfast at Tiffany’s: The Official 50th Anniversary Companion — a first-of-its-kind exploration of what makes the iconic movie so enduring and why it still has the same seductive magic today. The only official release published in association with Paramount Pictures and the Audrey Hepburn estate, the volume is full of rare images, candid behind-the-scenes photos, full-color reproductions of poster art, copies of the original shooting script, and other ephemera to make a movie buff’s heart bustle with joy. A foreword by the great French aristocrat and fashion designer Hubert de Givenchy, who designed much of Hepburn’s wardrobe and famously had her as his muse, adds another layer of affection to what’s already a touching tribute.

Images via Taschen

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Everything is a Remix: Creative Influences in The Matrix

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Tracing the line from Doctor Who to Morpheus, or what Neo has to do with Alice in Wonderland.

If you’ve been paying close attention, you know I’m a big believer in combinatorial creativity and proponent remix culture, and I find Kirby Ferguson’s fantastic four-part documentary, Everything is a Remix, to be the most thoughtful and important treatise on the subject to come by in recent years. While Kirby is putting the finishing touches on the fourth and final part of the series, Rob G. Wilson — who previously dissected Kill Bill for the second part of the documentary — did this fascinating analysis of influences in The Matrix. It was written by Cynthia Closkey and most of the parallels in it were crowdsourced from Everything is a Remix fans.

Join me in supporting Kirby’s fantastic project with a donation, and catch up on the first three parts before the final one arrives next month.

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Remembering One of the Greatest Science Writers of All Time

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From Darwin to baseball, or what Nabokov’s butterflies have to do with living the American dream.

For 27 years, iconic evolutionary biologist and science historian Stephen Jay Gould contributed illuminating and absorbing essays on everything from Aristotle to zoology for the magazine Natural History, many collected in a series of anthologies, offering some of the most articulate science writing of our time and influencing public opinion on science in magnitude few other writers have achieved. This month marks the bittersweet reprint of I Have Landed: The End of a Beginning in Natural History — the tenth and final of these fantastic anthologies, featuring 31 of Gould’s essays and commemorating the centennial of his family’s arrival at Ellis Island. (The title comes from his grandfather’s diary entry on that day.) It was originally published in 2002, mere weeks after Gould passed away from cancer.

From a fascinating essay on Vladimir Nabokov’s lepidoptery poetically titled “No Science Without Fancy, No Art Without Facts” to a meditation on Freud’s evolutionary fantasy to a poignant scientific reflection on 9/11, the essays blend a head-spinning spectrum of serious scientific inquiry with the storytelling of fine fiction.

In fact, a big part of what makes Gould’s thinking so compelling and his writing so alluring is the eloquence with which he blends popular interest with deep scientific insight. (The very notion of a scientific essay faces a great deal of resistance among many scientists, who find the essay format to be inappropriate for science.) Of the balance, Gould writes:

I have come to believe, as the primary definition of these ‘popular’ essays, that the conceptual depth of technical and general writing should not differ, lest we disrespect the interest and intelligence of millions of potential readers who lack advanced technical training in science, but who remain just as fascinated as any professional, as just as well aware of the importance of science to our human and earthly existence.”

Gould closes his final essay for Natural History with this moving tribute to his grandfather, all the more profound in light of the author’s own passing shortly thereafter:

Dear Papa Joe, I have been faithful to your dream of persistence and attentive to a hope that the increments of each worthy generation may buttress the continuity of evolution. You could write those wondrous words right at the beginning of your journey, amidst all the joy and terror of inception. I dared not repeat them until I could fulfill my own childhood dream — something that once seemed so mysteriously beyond any hope of realization to an insecure little boy in a garden apartment in Queens — to
become a scientist and to make, by my own effort, even the tiniest addition to human knowledge of evolution and the history of life. But now, with my 300, so fortuitously coincident with the world’s new 1,000 and your own 100, perhaps I have finally won the right to restate your noble words and to tell you that their inspiration still lights my journey: I have landed. But I also can’t help wondering what comes next!”

Bonus: The ingenious book cover mosaic was designed by Sam Potts, whose visualization of the best of Brain Pickings 2010 you might recall.

Deeply fascinating and beautifully written, I Have Landed: The End of a Beginning in Natural History isn’t merely a precious time-capsule of one of the most important science writing voices of all time, but also a tender eulogy for the one mind that shaped so many.

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Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.