Book Review: Melanie Benjamin's The Swans of Fifth Avenue
The Swans of Fifth Avenue – Melanie Benjamin
How Acquired: Net Galley
What's it about: Of all the glamorous stars of New York high society, none blazes brighter than Babe Paley. Her flawless face regularly graces the pages of Vogue, and she is celebrated and adored for her ineffable style and exquisite taste, especially among her friends—the alluring socialite Swans Slim Keith, C. Z. Guest, Gloria Guinness, and Pamela Churchill. By all appearances, Babe has it all: money, beauty, glamour, jewels, influential friends, a high-profile husband, and gorgeous homes. But beneath this elegantly composed exterior dwells a passionate woman—a woman desperately longing for true love and connection.
Enter Truman Capote. This diminutive golden-haired genius with a larger-than-life personality explodes onto the scene, setting Babe and her circle of Swans aflutter. Through Babe, Truman gains an unlikely entrée into the enviable lives of Manhattan's elite, along with unparalleled access to the scandal and gossip of Babe's powerful circle. Sure of the loyalty of the man she calls "True Heart," Babe never imagines the destruction Truman will leave in his wake. But once a storyteller, always a storyteller—even when the stories aren't his to tell.
Truman's fame is at its peak when such notable celebrities as Frank and Mia Sinatra, Lauren Bacall, and Rose Kennedy converge on his glittering Black and White Ball. But all too soon, he'll ignite a literary scandal whose repercussions echo through the years. The Swans of Fifth Avenue will seduce and startle readers as it opens the door onto one of America's most sumptuous eras.
My thoughts: Sometimes a book comes along that seems as if it were written just for you. As if the author had gotten inside your head, read your thoughts, and tailored a book that so neatly dovetailed with the things that you love, that you can’t even believe that it exists. The Swans of Fifth Avenue is that book for me. The minute that I heard about the book, I instinctively knew that I was going to love it. A book about Truman Capote and the women in his life, his swans, Babe Paley, Gloria Guinness, Slim Keith, CZ Guest, and Pamela Digby Churchill Hayward Harriman? Done! I eagerly downloaded a copy from Net Galley, happily spending two nights devouring the book as if it were a particularly delicious box of macarons.
Like the author, I was first introduced to Truman Capote via the 1970’s Neil Simon film Murder by Death, a spoof about mysteries and their authors. Later in 8th grade, I read his short story A Christmas Memory for English class. It was hard for me to connect the dots between the caricature he had become on late night television with the beautiful and sensitive writer of Breakfast at Tiffany and In Cold Blood. I’m also a little obsessed with not only with murder amongst the rich and famous but also the post-war New York era when women and dressed up to go to dinner, the theater or even grocery shopping. I devoured The Two Mrs. Grenvilles when it came out, Dominick Dunne was my spirit animal. For my 16th birthday, I convinced my parents to take me to dinner to at the Rainbow Room in Rockefeller Center. Reading about the glamourous lives of movie stars and socialites took me far away from the gritty streets of 1970’s and early 80’s New York where porn theaters outnumbered legitimate ones in Times Square.
But enough about me, how about the book? Did it live up to my expectations? It exceeded my expectations. This book is an intimate portrait of a world that has disappeared like Avalon in the mist. Benjamin’s prose lures you in from the very first paragraph. It’s almost as if she had hidden in the bushes and recorded the personal and intimate conversations of these women and Capote. The dialogue and the emotions are just so real that it’s hard to believe that they came out of one woman’s imagination, that’s how closely she’s captured this particular man and women, and the era in which they lived. I’ve read a great deal over the years about Capote, Babe Paley, and the others, and there isn’t a false note anywhere. And believe me I looked, waiting for that ‘Aha’ moment where I could point and say ‘this couldn’t be possibly have happened,’ or ‘he couldn’t possibly have said that.’
Truman Capote and Babe Paley were unlikely soul-mates. Barbara Cushing Mortimer Paley, along with her two sisters, was raised to marry a rich man, to be a sort of upper class geisha. She was expected to be perfect, to hide her emotions behind a calm, smiling façade. Capote’s parents were too concerned about their own wants to pay too much attention to their son. He was dropped off with relatives as a child, after an early childhood spent locked in hotel rooms while his parents were off partying. Truman learned early on to entertain, to tell stories to combat the loneliness. These two people came together because they recognized that they could only ever be their true selves when they were either alone or with each other. There is a beautiful moment in the book when Truman gets Babe to take off her make-up in front of him, revealing the faint scars left over from a horrific car accident.
Even you are a subscriber to Vanity Fair or New York Magazine, then you know that Truman caused a scandal when Esquire magazine published an excerpt from what was supposed to be his follow-up to In Cold Blood. Entitled ‘La Cote Basque 1965’ this excerpt and the one following revealed, in fictional form, not only the intimate secrets that Truman’s swans had revealed over the years but also those of Ann Woodward who famously shot her husband when she allegedly mistook him for a burglar. While Woodward committed suicide, the consensus was that Capote had committed professional suicide. His swans, apart from Lee Radziwill and CZ Guest, abandoned him. This is the saddest part of the book, Capote’s decline after the triumph of In Cold Blood and his Black and White Ball.
I’ve always found it interesting that Capote referred to his special female friends as swans. While they are beautiful and elegant birds, they are also some of the meanest birds on the planet, capable of breaking a man’s arm with a whap of their wings. Did he sense that they would eventually turn on him? While in the final stages of cancer, Babe Paley points out to Slim Keith, that while Truman betrayed them, they also betrayed him by not loving him unconditionally.
My verdict: Fans of vintage New York glamour who loved books such as Dominick Dunne’s The Two Mrs. Grenvilles will delight in the chance to experience vicariously the highs and lows of 1950’s and 60’s society. Benjamin’s novel highlights that old adage ‘Be Careful what you wish for, you just might get it’. You will sigh with regret when you turn the last page, wishing that you could linger just a minute longer in the scandalous, delicious but ultimately artificial world of Truman and his wans. Highly recommended.