The Swans of Fifth Avenue by Melanie Benjamin; published 2015 by Delacorte Press
The best books hook you from the start, and leave you thinking about them long after “the end.” I was entranced with Melanie Benjamin’s storytelling savvy in The Aviator’s Wife, and as soon as I started the first page of this book, she had me again.
It’s 1975, and Truman Capote is in trouble. Somehow, he’s betrayed his swans, the most well-bred, sought after queens of New York society. The skeletons in their closet have been exposed, and their reputations damaged. They even accuse him of murder. We jump back to 1955, when Truman was young and svelte and peppy—society’s darling. His lisp and exuberance were endearing, if affected. Everyone loved Truman. The women loved Truman because he pampered them, shared gossip, loved clothes as much as they did, and said the things they often couldn’t. Their husbands also enjoyed Truman’s company because he knew when to drop his affectations just enough to put the men at ease. In Benjamin’s portrayal, Truman is brilliantly adaptable—and expert at hiding his true self.
The one person with whom he appears to be vulnerable is Barbara (Babe) Cushing Paley, the queen of all of the swans, the wife of CBS CEO Bill Paley. Babe and Truman are soul mates, and for Babe, Truman is her rescuer. She is unsatisfied in her marriage, often ignored by Bill. Her only purpose—what she was literally raised for—is serving Bill, making sure that all of his needs and wants are met. She is the wizard behind the curtain, so that Bill never even notices how much work she’s doing to make sure their life appears effortlessly glamorous.
Truman is brash and bold but also heartbreakingly tender with Babe, and she melts for him. They vacation together, buy each other extravagant gifts, and spend nearly every moment together. They obviously never have a physical affair, but the emotional intimacy is certainly comparable.
Throughout the next two decades, Babe and Truman stay close as his star continues to rise: first, Breakfast at Tiffany’s is published. Then the film with Audrey Hepburn comes out. And then, Truman’s greatest glory: In Cold Blood. I actually haven’t read it yet, but it’s high on my list now! Truman claimed that he created a new genre: the “nonfiction novel.” Now we see narrative nonfiction all the time in books like Seabiscuit, Devil in the White City, and The Zookeeper’s Wife.
In Cold Blood makes Truman a household name, and he enjoys the fame to the max, drawing it out for years afterward, reminding everyone of how brilliant he is. He holds “the party of the century” to celebrate his own success—making few friends but hundreds of enemies in the process. This is the start of his descent: he starts putting on weight, parties with celebrities, has numerous affairs with men who use him and leave, and fishes around the question everyone is asking him: What’s your next book about? Truman always has an answer—but for years he doesn’t publish again. The pressure builds.
Through it all, Babe Paley remains his loyal friend and confidante. And she is the biggest victim of “Le Cote Basque, 1965,” the story Truman finally publishes in Esquire. The story portrays his swans, barely masked with other names. Everyone knows who they are—and everyone now knows the secrets they’ve been hiding.
Truman’s punishment is immediate: total exile. He is never able to recover from his fatal mistake.
One of the many things I loved about this book is Benjamin’s vibrant descriptions, particularly of Truman Capote. As we draw closer to the end and Truman becomes more desperate, you feel his anxiety, despite his best attempts to put on the most nonchalant face.
I found this video of Johnny Carson interviewing Capote about “Le Cote Basque, 1965” just days before it publishes—days before Capote’s life would change forever. You can see the way Capote gets nervous when Carson asks him about his next book, and he blathers for several minutes about his grand plot, supposedly another true crime case. “Don’t you think it’s an interesting case?” he asks Carson. It’s almost as if he’s creating the story in the moment—as if saying it out loud on television gives him his next idea.
Benjamin captured it perfectly:
“Talking about something made it real in his mind, even if he didn’t have a word on the page, and so he chattered away happily, dropping hints and tidbits.
He’d been doing this, concerning Answered Prayers, for years now. And he’d almost convinced himself he’d written the damn thing.”
If you loved The Aviator’s Wife. If you loved Breakfast at Tiffany’s (the book or the movie). If you loved The Paris Wife. If you loved Mrs. Hemingway. If you love the ritz and glamour of New York’s high society in the 50s-60s… then yes, you will love The Swans of Fifth Avenue, too!