Centered on two dynamic, complicated, and compelling protagonists—Truman Capote and Babe Paley—this book is steeped in the glamour and perfumed and smoky atmosphere of New York’s high society. Babe Paley—known for her high-profile marriage to CBS founder William Paley and her ranking in the International Best-Dressed Hall of Fame—was one of the reigning monarchs of New York’s high society in the 1950s. Replete with gossip, scandal, betrayal, and a vibrant cast of real-life supporting characters, readers will be seduced by this startling new look at the infamous society swans.
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The Swans of Fifth Avenue by Melanie Benjamin
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
The Swans of Fifth Avenue by Melanie Benjamin is a 2016 Delecorte Press publication. I was provided a copy of this book by the publisher and Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.
I’m in the same boat as the author when it comes to my memories of Truman Capote. I remember him in “Murder by Death”, and have very vague memories of his making the rounds on the late night talk shows, pretty much making a fool of himself. But, later in life, I grew curious about Truman’s early life, his creation of the ‘true crime novel’ with “In Cold Blood”, and what led to his massive celebrity, and ultimately his downfall.
I watched the movie “Capote” as well as the lesser known “Infamous” and read Gerald Clarke’s biography. However, none of these works truly delved into Truman’s intimate relationships with the ‘Swans” since the focus was either on years he spent working on “In Cold Blood’ or on his unorthodox southern upbringing and his friendship with Harper Lee. This book only skirts around these elements of Truman’s life, only reminding us of his bitterness and hurt over his mother’s abandonment of him, the one person he longed for and longed to impress more than any other.
This story is a work of fiction, and is dedicated to “Breakfast at Tiffany’s, to the perfect and best dressed icon of fashion, Babe Paley, and the relationship Truman shared with Babe, and her “Swans”.
“The best time to leave a party is when the party’s just beginning” – Diana Vreeland
I was immediately caught up in the magic and glamour of the fifth avenue crowd, the behind the scenes look at the lives of Slim Keith, Babe Paley, Marella Agnelli, Gloria Guinness, and Pamela Churchill Hayward Harriman.
All these ladies lived within the confines of high society rules and demands, never daring to stray too far off course. Marriage wasn’t about love, it was about money, power, and position, and business. There were divorces, affairs, and betrayals, but their lives were as dull as a butter knife until Truman Capote waltzed in and turned everything on its ear. He brought with him a certain charm and grace, and drew the stuffy high society crowd into his web quite seamlessly, making them wonder how they had ever gotten along without him. He cajoled, and romanced these ladies, offering them a shoulder to lean or to cry on. But, while he was attentive to them all, I have no doubt Truman really did love Babe and of course she loved him.
‘Languid, Lovely, Lonely; the swans arched their beautiful necks and turned to gaze at him as he stood rooted to the shore, his feet encased in mud. They fluttered their eyelashes, rustled their feathers, and glided over to their leader, the most beautiful of all. There was no sound save the sigh of their graceful bodies drifting across the water. Watching from the shore, wringing his hands, willing himself still for once, even as he had a childish urge to hop first on one foot, then the other, he was filled with the old fear; that he wasn’t good enough, brave enough, handsome enough, tall enough--------
Still, he hoped, he dreamed, he waited; holding his breath, he fixed his gaze on the most dazzling of them all, the lead swan. Like he was making a birthday wish, he blew his breath toward her and her alone, praying the wind would catch it and carry it to her, a prayer. As she bent her lovely head toward the other swans, she was seen to listen gravely, as if this was a most solemn rite; as if there was no other topic in the world that needed her attention, no wars and deaths and treaties and dilemmas. Only this, his happiness. The other swans whispered, whispered; one hissed, but he could not tell which it was. Then they broke ranks; into a preordained formation, and perfect arc surrounding their leader, who remained utterly still, her head bowed in reflection. Then she raised her head, turned, and looked at him, still standing on the shore. They all turned to look; the swans, with one choreographed movement, beckoned to him with their blinding-white wings that were arms, he saw for the first time. Arms as white as snow leopards; whiter than pearls around the swans’ fragile necks. The lead swan did not beckon. But her eyes, those dark glittering pools of unfathomable loneliness, never left his as his feet took wing; as he skimmed the surface of the water, not a swan, no never would he be one of them, and even then he knew it. He was a nymph, a hovering dragonfly- a sprite, landing among the swans with a burst of delighted laughter. They laughed as well, all of them- except for their leader. She only continued to watch him as he was passed about from one to the other like a new baby. When the swans were finished, they sat him down on the water and took up their positions once more, he found himself between them and the lead swan. Uncertain, but dizzy with joy and belonging, he took a step toward her, still marveling at how the water was not water but the most polished marble beneath his feet, the feathers on the swans were not feathers but fur and cashmere and silk and satin, threaded together, hand-sewn to their disciplined bodies that were designed only for adornment. And HIS swan now- that was how he thought of her, and would forever, naming her, claiming her, forgetting already that it hadn’t been his privilege to do the choosing- held out her hand, and he took it, as trustingly as a child.
Mischievously as an imp.
Then the swans closed ranks about him.
And has home.”
I think the author’s insights into Truman’s psyche, the type of person he was deep down, before and after his meteoric thrust into fame and fortune was probably spot on. I think she may have nailed it perfectly. She also did a great job of making the privileged life of a socialite seem shallow, hollow, and empty, tearing down the illusion of glamour and excitement to expose the dark and more depressing aspects of the lifestyle.
La Cote Basque
These women were dying for excitement when Truman stormed into their lives and penetrated the darkest corners of their existence. He even forged a close friendship with Babe’s philandering husband, William, who was initially put off by Truman, not quite knowing what to make of him at first.
This set up, based on true events, made for some very interesting characterizations, and frankly, none of the people examined here are all that likeable. They seemed morally bankrupt, living without any real directions, admired solely for their beauty, trapped by the rules and laws of society. This atmosphere fit Truman to a tee, I must say.
But, in the end, fast fame, coupled with a nasty and cutting side to Truman’s personality, that existed all along, brewing just beneath the surface, caused the house of cards to collapse spectacularly, and when it did, it took Truman by surprise, having grossly underestimated his swans, and gave me a look at Babe Paley, more than any other character, that left me feeling bereft on her behalf, as her immense sorrow and loneliness was palpable, making me furious at Truman and heartbroken for them both, at the same time. In the end, I came away feeling sorry for Babe on many levels, because her life never seemed to be her own. She was always under pressure to be perfect, was never more than an extension of her powerful husband, and her friends had no depth, thinking nothing about indulging in affairs, and resorting to catty gossip. But, when she met Truman, Babe came to life for the first time, and then faced the ultimate of betrayals.
One of the most interesting events that truly highlighted Truman’s acerbic nature was in regards to the former socialite, Ann Woodward, who was suspected of murdering her husband. Truman often referred to her as “Miss Bang, Bang”, even to her face. But, of course, as you shall see, his cruelty extended much further than mere name calling, which shocking results.
I also came away with a wistful sense of nostalgia for the glamour of New York in the fifties and sixties. Long gone are the days of ‘dressing for lunch’ and fabulous and newsworthy parties. Casual dress, pantsuits, jeans and T-shirts were allowed in the most exclusive clubs and restaurants, effectively ending this age once and for all.
Overall, I thought the author pinpointed the era, the atmosphere, the personalities, and events perfectly. No, the people are not easy to feel strong emotions for most of the time, except perhaps intense anger at the way Truman gave himself over to his insecurities, his perceived power, and his belief he was better somehow, that the hearts of his friends were something he could play with and use for his own gain. ‘The Swans’ did show some mettle in the end, closing ranks around each other, effectively.
This book is like a portrait, frozen in time, a rare glimpse into high society behind closed doors, a true life cautionary tale, filled with bitter poignancy. I was fascinated, outraged, mystified, and saddened, but came away with a firm respect for some of the players, and for a world that no longer exist, for better or worse. It’s seductive, alluring, and absorbing, well written, and reads like a Shakespearean tragedy, an epic love story, that ends badly, but which left an indelible imprint on many, for a long time to come.
Most of these events are long forgotten now, so, many modern readers may not fully grasp the reality of this life, but it was all true, and remarkable in its own way. As I finished this novel, I was left with a grudgingly admitted respect for Babe Paley, who held her head high through scandal, heartbreak, and most impressively as she faced her own mortality, whilst the person she loved most in the world, stuck a knife in her back, cruelly twisting it for the entire world to see.
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