The Swans of Fifth Avenue by Melanie Benjamin
Before the Kardashians, before The Real Housewives of New York, there were the Swans—ultra-rich, beautiful women who ruled the New York social scene from the 1950s through the 1960s.
There was Slim Keith, a model perennially on the best-dressed list, linked to a succession of wealthy and powerful men, including Clark Gable and Ernest Hemingway. Next, Pamela Churchill, a British socialite once-married to Winston Churchill’s son, referred to as the “20th century’s greatest courtesan.” Gloria Guinness, married five times, was a contributing writer for Harper’s Bazaar and rumored to be a spy. C.Z. Guest and Lee Radziwill (sister to Jackie Kennedy) also made the list.
Queen of them all was Babe Paley, the flawless wife of CBS President Bill Paley. Babe was a consummate hostess and style icon. Author Truman Capote loved them all, but none more than Babe.
As Melanie Benjamin tells it in The Swans of Fifth Avenue—her fictional yet historically accurate account of this elite group of women—Truman wormed his way into the Swans’ inner circle. The literary wunderkind flattered them and delighted them with his sharp wit. Funny and charming when he wanted to be, Truman thrilled them with bitchy gossip and made them feel intellectual by association.
In his Swans, Truman saw not just their money—loads and loads of money—but also taste and élan. He admired and coveted their style very much. Benjamin credits Truman with a deep love for his Swans, particularly for Slim and dear friend Babe, even if he eventually betrayed their trust by publishing a scathing tell-all that immediately ostracized him and ended his career.
Benjamin spends most of her novel examining the relationship between Truman and Babe, fast friends and deep confidants. Truman was the only one Babe let see her without makeup; Truman was the one who intuited her deep loneliness and well-hidden insecurities. He was the one who understood her loveless marriage, and despite his deep affection for Babe he also developed a rapport with her husband Bill, until Bill entreated Truman to help him conduct one of many affairs.
By the time Truman hatched his plan for the social event of the century, a “Black and White Dance” in 1966 to honor Katharine Graham, his fame and fortune were at its peak. But several years without another breakout book took its toll, including significant alcohol abuse.
Eventually, Truman turned on his beloved Swans, exploiting them and their stories without fully anticipating their reactions. This part of the novel is as fascinating as the beginning, as it explores how the Swans perceive how others see them, particularly now that time has ravaged their looks and decreased their relevance.
If you’re interested in New York society, the American fashion scene, celebrities, or Truman Capote, The Swans of Fifth Avenue is a well-researched and compulsively readable novel.
You can round out your appreciation of Truman Capote’s writing by reading one or more of his works, particularly In Cold Blood, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and Other Voices, Other Rooms. His holiday tale, A Christmas Memory, is a sweet seasonal favorite quite unlike the catty exposé that ruined his friendships and led to his ultimate downfall. That infamous story is “La Côte Basque, 1965.” It is the basis of his unfinished novel Answered Prayers.
These varied titles highlight Capote’s talent and range as well as the contradictions of his personality. All are available to borrow from your local libraries.
Christine Perkins is the Executive Director of the Whatcom County Library System.
(Originally published in Cascadia Weekly, Wednesday, December 28, 2016)