The Swans of Fifth Avenue
Miriam R. Kramer
The author Truman Capote cut a dashing figure in the world of American letters from the time he was discovered in 1948 for the novel Other Voices, Other Rooms, which pictured him posing seductively on the back cover. His high voice, short stature, and unveiled homosexuality set him apart from the start. Unusually for the time, he took pride in his predilections. He also had a knack for publicity and making friends among all levels of society. Among these friends he strung together precious pearls on a necklace of his making: beautiful, elegant New York socialites he called his “Swans.” Author Melanie Benjamin’s utterly compelling new page-turner called The Swans of Fifth Avenue imagines his relationships with these Upper East Side society women, and the way they progressed over time.
Among Capote’s short stories and essays, he wrote Breakfast at Tiffany’s, a highly acclaimed novel about the glittering, tinsel-gold party girl named Holly Golightly, which became a classic film starring Audrey Hepburn and George Peppard. He also researched and wrote a true crime novel called In Cold Blood that captivated the country: many considered it one of the first nonfiction books written in a fictional style. It too has become a classic film.
Yet despite researching and writing brilliantly about this Kansas family and their murderers, he never forgot the rarefied friends who entranced him. He spent time on their yachts in the Mediterranean, on Long Island in their summer houses, and grew to know their lives intimately. Capote had the gift of making each feel like she was his most special confidante. As a good listener, he learned most of their secrets, desires, and heartaches. Their husbands considered him a safe friend for their wives and eventually succumbed to his charm themselves, inviting him to vacation retreats and socializing with him.
As someone who has read all of Capote’s writing and several biographies about him, I was looking forward to reading this book with anticipation. Luckily my wait was rewarded. Benjamin creates a poignant picture of Truman, the author on the outside looking in, no matter how close he became with his “Swans.” His closest relationship was with the beautiful, elegant Babe Paley, who had married Bill Paley, the head of CBS. Each of them recognized themselves in the other: outsiders who had to keep up appearances and play roles to please the world they inhabited. Benjamin portrays Babe Paley as a woman groomed from birth to make a society marriage with the assets of her beauty and sophistication. In the process, she was forced to ignore her own needs for independence and individuality, gracefully catering to her husband in all ways and making sure she was always perfectly made-up and dressed to see him at all times. In the novel, Capote divines her sadness and recognizes it in himself as she opens up to him. Such mutual recognition created a very close friendship between the two of them, one of the most meaningful in his life. He loved gossiping with his other socialite friends like Slim Keith, Gloria Guinness, C.Z. Guest, and Marella Agnelli, but Babe held a special place in his life.
Melanie Benjamin’s portrait of these women and Capote is utterly convincing. She writes sympathetically about Capote’s fatal, self-destructive flaws and how they affected his relationships after he had known his “Swans” for years. As a fatherless and mostly motherless boy left with relatives in a tiny town in Alabama, effeminate and unaccepted, Capote’s insouciance and social connections masked his deep sense of loneliness, the loneliness that he also saw in the programmed Babe Paley. One could see that loneliness also in the character of Holly Golightly, the complicated rootless call girl who enchants “Fred,” the writer and protagonist of Breakfast at Tiffany’s. A charming drifter, both she and “Fred,” an author like Capote, may actually have been incarnations of himself, along with his other female role models for Holly.
This engrossing novel is spot on in diagnosing Capote, and creates a convincing and deeply poignant premise for his relationship with the reticent Babe Paley. Benjamin sees Capote’s downfall written in the stars, and writes about him with grace, sympathy, and a deep understanding of his need for and underlying resentment of the “Swans.” If you love books about authors, real friendships and the complications that accompany them, please take a look at this beautifully constructed novel.