The New York Times bestselling author of The Aviator’s Wife returns with a triumphant new novel about New York’s Swans of the 1950s and the scandalous, headline-making, and enthralling friendship between literary legend Truman Capote and peerless socialite Babe Paley.
Truman Capote and the socialites of 1950s New York have never much interested me, but after reading just the first few pages, out of pure curiosity, I was instantly grabbed by the drama, the intrigue, and most of all the excellent writing in The Swans of Fifth Avenue. These people, removed from me by generations and social status, were instantly made alive by Melanie Benjamin. Her skill as a writer cannot be overstated. Her vivid descriptions of the Le Pavillon, The St. Regis and The Plaza Hotel, among many many others, are rich and dreamy, but never drag on. And somehow I was enthralled by each and every character… these deeply damaged and flawed characters, who were simultaneously awful and sympathetic. Their fears and doubts and eccentricities and cattiness built one upon the other to create a person so real I felt I knew them. These women, their husbands, and of course, Truman.
The Swans of Fifth Avenue is a fictional account of the real people and events that lead up to Truman Capote’s banishment from New York high society, which in turn eventually led to his total self destruction. Truman Capote’s literary stature gained him access to elite social circles in the 50s, and he reveled in it, making friends with socialites Babe Paley, Slim Keith and Gloria Vanderbilt, among others. He and Babe Paley were the best of friends for years and years, but scandal erupted when he published his short story “Le Côte Basque 1965” in Esquire magazine in 1975. This story exposed a number of secrets, including the philandering of Babe Paley’s husband, Bill (head of CBS at the time). And from this moment on Truman was completely ostracized. For someone who’s entire life was about seeking love and approval, this rejection by those he loved and idolized was his greatest fear. Nine years and two rehab centers later, Truman was dead. This novel gets inside the minds of everyone involved, exposing their deepest hopes, dreams and insecurities, where they stemmed from and how they drive each character’s behavior. Never have I read a novel with characters as vivid as these.
As the novel progressed a sense of darkness began to overtake me. It’s a classic tale of the dramatic rise and ultimate fall of a man who has gotten in over his head. Of the darker underbelly of the rich and glamorous. Of the internal conflicts and mental gymnastics required to achieve and maintain the facade of beauty and privilege these people so desperately clung to. By the end of the novel the level of cognitive dissonance I was experiencing, mainly on behalf of these characters, made me dizzy.
An example – “And they devoted their lives to maintaining this difference, striving to shine, be the one jewel who stood out. Yet at night, they took off the diamonds and gowns and went to empty beds resigned to the fact that they were just women, after all. Women with a shelf life.”
The novel inspired to me to do a little online digging about these people and the actual gossip and drama that surrounded them (fascinating!). It led me to an excellent piece appropriately published in Vanity Fair in 2012. And I am now an ardent admirer of Slim Hayward Keith’s elegant style. Be assured, you will get lost in the era when you read this book.
“A delicious tale…Melanie Benjamin has turned Truman Capote’s greatest scandal into your next must-read book-club selection.”—Jamie Ford, New York Times bestselling author of Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet
The Swans of Fifth Avenue in hardcover is available on our shelves now!