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The Swans of Fifth Avenue: A Novel Paperback – October 25, 2016
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“Exceptional storytelling . . . teeming with scandal, gossip and excitement.”—Harper’s Bazaar
“This moving fictionalization brings the whole cast of characters back to vivid life. Gossipy and fun, it’s also a nuanced look at the beauty and cruelty of a rarefied, bygone world.”—People
“The era and the sordid details come back to life in this jewel of a novel.”—O: The Oprah Magazine
“Shamelessly gossipy . . . a catty, juicy read that’s like a three-martini lunch.”—USA Today
“[Captures] the mesmerizing sparkle and scandal of New York high society in the 1950s.”—Chicago Tribune
“Tantalizing . . . Readers will fall into a world of glitz, glamour and the exciting life of the rich and famous. The details and conversations are so rich, you may forget you're reading a novel.”—Associated Press
“Highly entertaining.”—The Washington Post
“Take Gossip Girl and move it to the 50s.”—theSkimm
“[Melanie] Benjamin has given us a compelling look at an American icon, a talented yet vulnerable man, and the complex woman he loved in his own distinctive way.”—The Philadelphia Inquirer
“The strange and fascinating relationship between Truman Capote and his ‘swans’ is wonderfully reimagined in this engrossing novel. It’s a credit to Benjamin that we end up caring so much for these women of power, grace, and beauty—and for Capote, too.”—Sara Gruen, New York Times bestselling author of Water for Elephants
“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
“Reading The Swans of Fifth Avenue is like being ushered into a party where you’re offered champagne and fed the sumptuous secrets of New York’s elite—without having to pay the price afterward. The swans are outmatched only by the elegance of Melanie Benjamin’s prose—captivatingly earnest and sophisticated.”—Vanessa Diffenbaugh, New York Times bestselling author of The Language of Flowers
“Benjamin convincingly portrays a large cast of colorful historical figures while crafting a compelling, gossipy narrative with rich emotional depth.”—Library Journal
“The beautiful people of the fifties and sixties glitter in this riveting tale of betrayal and greed. . . . Irresistible, astonishing, and told with verve . . . not to be missed.”—Lynn Cullen, bestselling author of Mrs. Poe
About the Author
Melanie Benjamin is the New York Times bestselling author of The Aviator’s Wife, The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb, and Alice I Have Been. Benjamin lives in Chicago, where she is at work on her next historical novel.
From the Hardcover edition.
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For many years, Truman Capote ingratiated himself into the lives of these women, who loved and adored him and who trusted him with all of their many secrets and private circumstances. His later downward spiral following years of obsessive focus on In Cold Blood, a time that included enough alcohol and drugs to choke a horse, resulted in his somewhat unethical betrayal of the Swans right there on the pages of Esquire, for all the world to see.
Truman was especially close to Barbara "Babe" Paley, the glamorous wife of CBS executive, Bill Paley, and much of this novel has to do with this central relationship. In a way, Truman and Babe were soulmate friends who sincerely adored and understood each other's frailties. Truman was welcomed into Babe's life as well as the other ladies' lives, complete with a constant flow of invitations to their magnificent houses and yachts and gifts of extravagant luxuries. Even as a relatively young and unknown writer, he was accepted into influential circles, meeting people and celebrities he wouldn't have otherwise.
As his fame grew and his talent recognized, he changed. And not for the better. With an overindulgence of drugs and drink, he became unable to focus on another book the magnitude of In Cold Blood. Instead, he penned La Cote Basque 1965 (in 1975) and betrayed his beloved Babe and the rest of the Swans. The results were quite shattering for most of the group. As the Vanity Fair article states, he committed Social Suicide. Big time.
This novel is based on facts but does fill in some of the blanks with literary fiction, which includes a sufficient amount of juicy, catty, backstabbing dialogue. We learn a lot about Truman's personal life, his mother issues, his longing for fame and notoriety and his downward spiral into that Social Suicide. The funny thing is that when you think about this type of thing in today's media environment, the fallout would be minimal. Back then it was devastating.
I read this back to back with a small book of Truman Capote's early stories that is just being released. It was a nice companion, thinking about Truman's relationships and lifestyle.
Well written and researched.
Benjamin is not a stylist at Capote's level, but she writes well. (I should mention that i listened to an audible version instead of reading print.) She brings to life the emotional activity behind all that luxurious beauty and social perfection - she is esp good with Capote, Babe Paley, Slim Keith, and Bill Paley, our principle players.
I was already familiar with many of these stories, esp Capote's triumph and fall, and the aftermath of the story La Cote Basque, 1965. Many other reviewers have given vivid intros.
For me, the weakest points are:
The symbolic bookends at the beginning and end, happily brief.
The dialogue at the imagined "swan power lunch" after the Esquire publication, which seems somewhat weak.
The re-working of who might have left the stains on those sheets. While Benjamin's version has some poignancy, Benjamin's choice, who cared deeply for Babe, would never have behaved so - and this version undercuts the point of Truman's story: the deliberate insult the old-money, un-swan-like WASP wife intended to wield as she conveyed her contempt for the Jewish mogul who dared to believe himself in her league.
The best parts are the voices of Truman, Babe, Bill, and Slim, who come to life. They grew on me until they felt fully formed. The writer makes real the fragile trust Truman and Babe hold in each other, until he goes too far.
I wish someone would publish depth biographies of these swans and their world, and i would also love a photographic history. We can be nostalgic because this world is as lost as Fitzgerald's hopes and dreams, as given to Gatzby. These socialites already seemed quaint and "as seen through a glass" in the seventies, and Amanda Burden, Babe Paley's daughter, has chosen and succeeded at a very different and modern sort of life.
Curously the most successful of these swans, in the terms of today's worldviews, are Pamela Harriman, "the courtesan of the century", the least swan-like, who transformed herself into a real power with a notable career; CZ Guest, gardening expert, and to appearances the least fragile, most confident and emotionally whole of this group, and the one who stayed in touch with Capote; Gloria Vanderbilt, survivor of a horrible childhood, who re-invented herself as a notable businesswoman.
I started this expecting a "beach read" and found much more.
Among the swans I mention, I give all the various names only of Pamela Harriman. This is not intended as catty. Pamela, sometimes called "the courtesan if the century", used her family heritage, aristocratic birth, husbands, membership in the Churchill family, lovers, connections, and shrewdness to create a unique and not always admirable life story. She seemed to live decades in luxurious idleness before she came to New York and started in earnest on her career of marriage upwards and transforming her growing influence into astonishing political power. Her various biographies are worthy reading.
He never recovered his persona, his character or his work after the acclaim that met the publication.
Along the way he was supported by "Swans of Fifth Avenue". This novel is based on the extraordinary, wealthy and multifaceted women friends who admitted him to "her world , a world of quiet elegance, artifice, presentation". He was already well known for such words as "Breakfast at Tiffany's". He lived within the world of these women, often lonely, thrilled to be patrons of Capote.
As the histories and private miseries of his swans and of Truman develop, a tragedy of hubris unfolds that intrigues the reader and provides that all so important "rich porn" of those who live a different life.