Tuesday, August 1, 2023

Recent reading: "The Swans of Fifth Avenue: A Novel"

The Swans of Fifth Avenue by Melanie Benjamin

The Swans in the title are the New York socialites who befriended author Truman Capote back in the day and unfortunately trusted him enough to confide in him, especially Babe Paley, wife of CBS founder William Paley. The unfortunate part occurred when Capote published a short story in Esquire magazine that featured thinly disguised characters based on the Swans and even worse, the real-life dirty secrets they'd revealed to him.

This novelization of how this all could have played out is expertly portrayed by Melanie Benjamin. The lives and machinations of the socialites, Capote's bitchy takes on so many things, the hows and whys of the caricature he would become post-Swans, and the pain and unhappiness that was the underpinning of the lives of the Swans, who made an art of marrying and living well at the cost of their own happiness, is great fodder that Benjamin mines the heck out of.

Up front is Barbara "Babe" Paley, the daughter of a brain surgeon and a mother who trained her three daughters to marry up and marry well, which all three did. The unrelentingly glamorous Babe was the skilled artist of what today would be called her brand. After an unsuccessful first marriage, she married Paley and spent the rest of her life playing out the role of one-half of an elegant world-class power couple. This novel takes the tact that the great love that she didn't get from the chronically unfaithful Bill Paley was filled by her loving friendship with Capote. It doesn't necessarily sell in the novel, but does sell the idea that Babe's marriage to Paley was more of a partnership than love match, and therefore she could be driven to find a true love from a most unlikely person, even if it was a love that couldn't be consummated.

What Benjamin does really well is bring the period and everything about it to life. How it actually played out is anyone's guess, since - with the exception of the celebrity and publicity loving Capote - all the other people involved were never interested in the celebrity and notoriety that the story La Cote Basque 1967 spawned. 

After being shut down by New York society Capote went from being the heralded author of In Cold Blood to the Baby Jane Hudson version of Truman Capote that both I and Benjamin grew up with. He vastly underestimated how furious the women would be that he'd betrayed their trust. They cut him off from their lives, friendship, and society. In fact, although La Cote Basque 1967 was supposed to be part of a novel Capote claimed to be working on, he never finished or published another book after In Cold Blood.

Benjamin also does a great job of showing the world that the Swans inhabited in their heyday and also how America began changing in the late 1960's, making them relics of a society that no longer existed. It's just a terrific book and Benjamin does a fantastic job of bringing Capote, his Swans, and their world to vivid life.

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