A Book I Can't Live Without: Holly Golightly Wrote My Favorite Novel

Carol Grace wrote one novel, ‘The Secret in the Daisy,’ but when a fan went in search of the author, she discovered that Grace’s best story was her own storied life.

Photo Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast

My oldest and most cherished possession—the closest companion I’ve ever had—is a book. It's a 1956 German edition of a slender novel by Carol Grace called Von Herzen mit Schmerzen.  (Literal translation: “From the Heart with Pain,” a reference to the game where you pull a daisy’s petals to find out if someone loves you, or loves you not; the title of the American original is The Secret in the Daisy.) The book was a gift from a great-aunt who must have found it in some remainder bin because it looked beat up when it came to me.

Its pale green cover is now even more faded and frayed after moving with me 19 times, including three times across the Atlantic Ocean. The book is the one and only childhood item that has survived my peripatetic life.

I read it for the first time when I was eight years old and have read it dozens of times since.  From the moment I started reading, I knew the first-person girl narrator was me; we shared the same feelings, confusions, and sufferings. The book had come to me without a dust jacket, so there was nothing to spoil my mental image of the book's girl-narrator, no author photo or biography.

The nameless little girl narrator was fatherless, shuttled between various foster families in New York City until miraculously finding herself installed in a fancy apartment on Fifth Avenue, rich but still alone. My father died when I was four years old and as a result I suffered extreme fear of abandonment and was deeply confused. The Secret in the Daisy has a vague dreamlike voice that exactly mirrored my childhood thoughts. Never had I read anything like this, never did I have the feeling that there was a soul out there just as lost as mine. I had found another little girl who felt just like I felt, who suffered without being truly conscious of why and how. The world was suddenly a better place. I was less alone.

Until about 15 years ago I periodically searched for Carol Grace. I hoped for more books from her, but I never found any. Why did she write only this one book?  What became of her? Was she that little confused girl from the book, or was it all fiction? Eventually I gave up on her, thought she might have ended up an unassuming housewife in Indiana. Or maybe she'd died, obscure, alone, and broke.

A few years ago I read the novel Night Train to Lisbon by Pascal Mercier, in which an unassuming Swiss schoolteacher is so smitten by a book that he hops a train to Lisbon to find out about its author. I considered doing just that, tracking down Carol Grace somehow. But of course one never does such things. Real life intervenes. Besides, now there is the internet.

First, I went online and spent a small fortune on the rare original 1955 American edition The Secret in the Diasy. Now I had a dust jacket, a photo and a few sentences about the author, written by Carol Grace herself.  As it turns out, I'd looked for her in all the wrong places—in bookstores and libraries instead of glossy magazines. It should have tipped me off that in the novella she was rescued from a foster home and wound up living in fancy New York City apartments. Since I believed writer and narrator to be one and the same, that would have been a clue for my quest. If I had paid attention to gossip and celebrity news, I could have found Carol Grace even back then, before there was Google.

I'm still floored by what I learned. First of all, Carol Grace never wrote another book, and she died in 2003 at the age of 78. But in 1992 a memoir entitled Among the Porcupines was published by one Carol Matthau, containing stories about dozens of famous people, including Greta Garbo, Charlie Chaplin, Henry Miller, Cary Grant, Richard Avedon, and Isak Dinesen.

Carol Matthau? Yes, Carol Grace married Walter Matthau, the actor, in 1959.  Instead of living out her days as a housewife in Indiana, long forgotten and dead to the world, she lived the life of a society queen. And according to Walter Matthau, The Secret in the Daisy was the thing that made him fall in love with her. In Books That Made the Difference, Walter Matthau told Patricia and Gordon Sabine: “The difference that it [The Secret in the Daisy] made was enormous. It took me from a miserable, unhappy wretch to a joy-full, glad-to-be-alive human. I fell so in love with the book that I searched out and married the girl who wrote it.”

Did Walter Matthau pluck that girl out of obscurity, save her and elevate her to the world of the rich and famous? Far from it. Carol Grace had been a true party and society girl for years. She was a lifelong friend of Truman Capote, who said he modeled Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany’s on her personality. 

Before her marriage to Matthau, she was married twice to the author and playwright William Saroyan. "My" Carol Grace seemed to have known everybody who mattered back in the day, including the Vanderbilts, Charlie Chaplin, and Oona O'Neill, the daughter of Eugene O'Neill who later married Chaplin. Carol's son Adam Saroyan wrote a book about these friendships called Trio: Oona Chaplin, Carol Matthau, Gloria Vanderbilt: Portrait of an Intimate Friendship. I have not read that book or Carol’s memoir, Among the Procupines. I'm not even sure I want to. Now Carol Grace even has a fan page on Facebook and a short Wikipedia entry. A picture of her grave can be found on the internet, where hundreds of visitors have left virtual flowers for her. But curiously enough, none of her worshippers or fans ever mention anything about the The Secret in the Daisy. That book seems to be forgotten even by the people who still claim to like or even love her. How can this be? Can nobody else see that this book is brilliant and deserves to be a classic? 

But I do feel good that Carol and I both made our way in the world, even though my life might not have turned out to be quite as fabulous as hers. The New York Times review of Carol Matthau’s memoir, which was not very favorable, quoted just one sentence, and from that alone I know that she, like me, was damaged goods:  "Having a book published was a big thing in my life, and it might have been a turning point if I'd kept on writing. But I didn't. I saw a lot of friends and got all dressed up every night after the theater to go dancing … And within a year I would fall in love again. Being in love to me was not only more important than any book, it was more important than anything."

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Yes, always trying to fill the hole and ease the ache, hopping from one exciting adventure to the next, trying to find more happiness, which is too often someplace else.

Even with all this new information, I stubbornly hold on to the idea that Carol was just like me. Maybe I just don’t want to share her, especially not with all these celebrities and fans who seem to love her for reasons that have nothing to do with the The Secret in the Daisy.

From the information I've gathered so far, the narrator of the book was indeed the real Carol Grace. She grew up in foster families and got transported from the poverty of the Lower East Side to an 18-room apartment on Fifth Avenue when her mother married an extremely wealthy industrialist. That man is curiously absent from The Secret in the Daisy. 

The real-life Carol Grace also chose not to mention her stepfather in her memoir, which The New York Times reviewer cites as one example of many unfortunate omissions. But I know why my soulmate edited her stepfather out of both of her books. For us fatherless girls, our mothers were all we had. We cannot and will not share our mother’s scarce love with any man.

In the end I realize it's almost spooky how much I have in common with the fictional and even the real Carol Grace. We were both teenage mothers and ended up in New York. I wonder if she spared her children that feeling of loneliness and gave them the love we both missed so much as girls. I don’t think I was the mother I should have been. My guess is Carol Grace might have had the same regrets. The life we both lived seems to mirror the life of the mother of her little girl in The Secret in the Daisy:

  I thought of my mother, running from place to place thinking that each place might change her life, take her off the edge. She thought a new dress might do it, or a luncheon date, certainly a dinner date. She spent long afternoons shopping for little-thing hats to perch on top of her mind. She kept appointments, rendezvous, restaurant and theatre dates—but never got to the center of the world.

Carol and I became more like our mothers instead of the caring women we missed so much when we were children.

I suspect eventually my curiosity will win out and I’ll want to find out who and what Carol Grace really was. Reading Among the Porcupines and Trio would be a very adult thing to do. I’m just not there—yet.