“Following Truman Capote on the Island of Ischia, Italy,” by Susan Van Allen

Susan Van Allen

Essay by Susan Van Allen 

I’m standing on a balcony overlooking the port of Forio, on the island of Ischia, floating in the Mediterranean, off the coast of Naples. Sounds fancy, but it’s far from it. The port is fronted by a parking lot of taxis and Vespas, smooching teenagers, signoras strolling by with bags of eggplant from the market, and boisterous bambini at the gelateria across this narrow via.

 I’ve had more spectacular views from more luxurious places on Ischia in years’ past, when I’ve come, like most, to soak in the thermal springs on this volcanic island. But this time, I’ve chosen a humble one-star, the Pensione di Lustro. Why? This balcony connects to a room where Truman Capote, one of my favorite writers, stayed for three months, in 1949, after his first book, Other Voices, Other Rooms was published.

 “You will sleep where Truman slept,” Maria Teresa, a kind and weary looking signora, softly announced, rolling the “r” in Truman. She opened a big wooden door to a dream of a spacious bright white space—a globe-shaped light hangs in the center of the high curved ceiling, over a massive wooden table. Pale blue bedspread matches sheer curtains covering French doors that lead to this balcony, where, beyond the neighborhood clatter, is sea and sky. I already wish I was staying for more than three days.

“Codice per WiFi?” I ask. Maria cautions me it probably won’t work, on account of the scirocco=wind, but all connects and I scurry down a tablet search, pouring over Too Brief a Treat: The Letters of Truman Capote, focusing on notes from 1949…

A strange and strangely enchanted place this is; an encantada in the Mediterranean…populated mostly by winegrowers, goat herdersW.H. Auden and the Mussolini family…” Capote wrote to his editor, Bob Linscott. I soar over catty remarks about his visiting friends: it is beginning to look like a Mediterranean version of Fire Island…, W.H. Auden is such a tiresome old Aunty”, and as for Tennessee Williams and Frank Merlo, who joined Capote and his companion Jack Dunphy at the pensione for two weeks: We pray every minute they will go away.”

The jackpot is an Ischia essay in Local Color, his travel/photography book published in 1950. Capote writes about arriving in Ischia Porto by moonlight, coming over the hills in a horse drawn carriage, to what he calls “the pleasantest pensione in Forio”, where there’s no running water or electricity. It’s an interesting bargain—two large rooms, including five-course lunches and dinners, costs about one hundred dollars a month.

His impressions are mesmerizing: long walks along straight-dropping volcanic cliffs, where down below rocks are “like sleeping dinosaurs”, and a nighttime procession to celebrate the arrival of a statue of the Virgin, swaying on a flower-filled litter,” that he watched from this very balcony.

Most intriguing is his description of Giocanda, the 19-year old chambermaid and waitress of the pensione. They became confidantes and he describes her as a bella ragazza, though often depressed, and then her face looks like a scodella di pappa fredda=bowl of cold oatmeal. The depression is because she’s awaiting a letter from Argentina, that never comes. Truman wonders if it’s from a faithless lover, Giocanda refuses to discuss it. Every day he goes to get the mail at Maria’s Caffe, that remains to this day a local gathering spot, around the corner from the pensione. Every day he feels guilty returning empty-handed.

Morning. Only one place is set in the rose colored dining room, jammed with long tables, draped with white damask cloths. Which means I’m the only one staying at this 10-room pensione. A stooped signora shuffles out of the kitchen, wearing a faded purple apron, carrying a just-baked crostata. I figure her to be in her eighties, do math in my head, counting from Truman’s 1949 visit, and with my “Grazie, buon giorno,” ask, “…il suo nome?” In a low, graveled voice, she answers, “Giocanda.”

La Famosa Giocanda…” She knows by my gasp I’ve read the story.

“You sit where Truman sat,” she smiles, slicing me a piece of crostata with strong wrinkled hands. Little did this signora imagine, when hanging with Truman and his friends that spring, how awe-inspiring her appearance would be 66 years later. All she has to say about the past is that Truman was the nice man with the funny high voice.

Turns out this property has been in Giocanda’s family for 300 years. She’s lived through the ups and downs of Ischia’s tourism in modern times. After World War II, a boom began with travelers like Capote, and exploded in the 1950s when a Milanese lover of the island, Angelo Rizzoli, publishing magnate and producer of Fellini films (8-1/2, Dolce Vita), opened spa hotels here. The jet set flocked to Ischia for the following decades, and it became a popular destination for German tourists. Ischia is now the largest thermal water destination in Europe, with 300 spa hotels, along with quaint port towns, vineyards that produce award-winning bianco, bathing establishments, and enticing swimming coves on its 23-mile coastline.

Maria Teresa catches me in the hallway staring at a water color of a wistful-looking signorina. “Giocanda, mia mamma,” she says, adding a “many years ago” hand wave. A rich aroma of simmering peppers wafts in from the downstairs kitchen. Now that the matriarch is cooking and out of earshot, I whisper, “Did the letter from Argentina ever arrive?”. Maria Teresa sadly nods, “From her brother. Truman wanted it to be romantic, but after The War, many had to leave, there was no work.” She continues on a tangent about Ischia’s current troubles. After the euro came in, and then the 2012 crisis, German tourism, that Ischia depended on for 50 years, dropped drastically. Big spa hotels that once were packed during the April to October season, now offer alluring budget deals, leaving places like this pensione practically empty.

Adding to that, as for American tourists, Ischia has always been overshadowed by its glamorous neighbor, Capri. Even Capote, who surely had an idyllic time here, never returned. As his fame and wealth increased, he preferred cruising the Mediterranean on the Guinness’s yacht, and playing with Babe Paley on the chic island. But with Capri becoming increasingly crowded and expensive, I’m drawn to Ischia, particularly this western village of Forio, where the atmosphere remains as Capote wrote: Islands are like ships at permanent anchor. To set foot on one is like starting up a gangplank: one is seized by the same feeling of charmed suspension: it seems nothing unkind or vulgar can happen to you.

Through Gerald Clarke’s biography, I discover that besides the bargain, it was amore that inspired Capote’s Ischia adventure. He had met Jack Dunphy in New York, six months before they arrived in Ischia. Dunphy was a Broadway dancer turned writer, whose novel John Fury had been praised in the New York Times. Their spring in Ischia was the start of a complicated relationship, often living apart, that would last 35-years, till Capote’s death, when he named Jack his heir.

Dunphy’s book, Dear Genius: A Memoir of My Life with Truman Capote, (from 1987), features a photo of the two of them at the Pensione di Lustro in 1949, laughing in the stairway, surrounded by potted philodendrons and palms. It looks the same then as now, but what the photo didn’t capture was the scales of aromas that filled the pensione, according to time of day. In the morning was thick espresso, afternoons carried alluring scents of Ischia’s specialties: eggplant roasting, simmering tomato sauce, calamari frying. One evening, as I got my key off the board near the kitchen, there was the nose-tingling smell of lemons. I peeked through the door to find Giocanda and Maria Teresa amidst a heap of peels, making limoncello, the classic liqueur of this Campania region.

According to Capote’s letters, he did a lot of writing that spring, finishing a third of Summer Crossing, a novel about a New York debutante, published posthumously. But in Dunphy’s words, The truth was, we were too new to each other, and perhaps too happy, to do anything about writing but keep our hand in.” Their days depended on the weather. When it was gloomy, Truman writes they baked in the kitchen with Giocanda. I imagine it brought him back to his southern childhood, making fruitcakes with his elderly cousin, that he beautifully recalled in the short story, A Christmas Memory.

On sunny days there were long walks through “silvery green grape arbors,” and finding hidden beaches along the coast, they’d swim and soak:Into one rock the sea had carved a chair, and it was the greatest pleasure to sit there and let the waves rush up and over you.”

The beach where I find the greatest pleasure is Sorgeto, down a crooked footpath of 220 steps from the main road. It’s actually a rocky cove where thermal springs pour into the sea, creating hot steaming shallow pools. Afternoon hours slip lazily by as I soak with the locals and a smattering of Australian and German tourists. Standing by, with a pail of mud from the springs’ bottom, is a local hippie-dude, who brushes me with the curative goo for a tip. I bake, soak it off, and with silky skin, feel deliriously refreshed.

For a more upscale experience, I take a half hour seaside stroll from Forio’s center to Poseidon, Ischia’s largest and most popular thermal park. It sits on the Bay of Citara, praised by the Greeks and Romans who luxuriated here thousands of years ago. The park features 22 pools of varying temperatures set into the hillside, a sauna carved into the rocks, restaurants, and a beach adorned with straw umbrellas. The establishment was founded by a German doctor in 1959, and remains German-owned to this day—gorgeously landscaped with vibrant flowerbeds, and a Wellness Center where Nino gives me an excellent reflexology massage, perfect for relief from all the walking.

I was jet lagged and drowsy after taking the waters. Stretched out on the bed, with the balcony door open, Forio’s rhythms lulled me. As Capote wrote: the afternoons are like white midnights; shutters are drawn, sleep stalks the streets.” By five I’d hear shops opening and high-volume conversations from the spirited locals, that would sound like arguments anywhere else. As the traditional passeggiata began, voices floated by like arias: Gennaro, Mimma, Mamma…

One evening, the balcony curtains began to flutter and I felt the soft, warm scirocco coming in from the sea. True to Maria Teresa’s warning, my WiFi connection blew out, so I headed down to the interior patio and settled into a floral slip-covered couch to finish up some emails. Soon Maria Teresa was standing by, tsk-ing over the sight of me, tanned from the beach and wearing a sleeveless dress: “You need to be covered after the day in the sun, you’ll get chilled, you get sick.” She was back in seconds, draping a heavy red sweater over my shoulders. I wondered if it was Giocanda’s, as I wrapped it closer around me. Sinking deeper into the couch, it felt like yet another cozy island cove, just as Capote described the feeling that overcame him when he arrived on Ischia, “as intimate and satisfying as one’s own heartbeat.”

Comments

  1. Lisa Rogers says:

    Beautifully written and evocative. I loved your connection with Capote–I gasped, too, when I read about your meeting Giocanda. Thank you for transporting me to Ischia!

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