On Melanie Benjamin’s “The Swans of Fifth Avenue”

Image courtesy of Amazon.com

This review appears on paperbackparis.com:

The wise prophet Biggy Smalls once said: “I don’t know what they want from me/ It’s like the more money we come across/The more problems we see.”

More problems indeed.

Melanie Benjamin tells us a fairy tale in The Swans of Fifth Avenue. Barbara “Babe” Cushing Mortimer Paley, a beautiful, filthy rich socialite who leads a coterie of other beautiful, filthy rich women—our swans—falls in love with the overly ambitious, conniving, unapologetically fey literary upstart Truman Capote.

It isn’t a physical love; it can never be that. But they come to know each other in the most intimate ways imaginable. The perpetually lonely and insecure Babe feels beautiful only in Capote’s presence. Her philandering husband—CBS magnate, Bill Paley—can’t help but notice that his wife’s inhibitions fly away when she’s around the garrulous, gossipy young writer. And Capote finds his muse in her. She teaches him everything about life among the obscenely wealthy where everything is beautiful.

As in every ill-fated fairy tale, though, wealth and beauty come at a cost. Babe is expected to be perfect at all times; she is her mother’s daughter—the ultimate trophy wife. That’s all she ever was.

Reading her daily ritual is exhausting in and of itself. No one sees her without a fully made up face. She wakes up hours before her husband in order to perfect her look, to make sure every piece of her outfit is in place and casually trend setting. You see, the day Babe Paley tied her scarf around the handle of her purse on a hot day was the day it became a sensation. Women all over the world followed suit.

Capote salivates over this life he’s been welcomed into. Babe, Slim Keith, Gloria Guinness, Marella Agnelli, C.Z. Guest, and Pamela Churchill Harriman all let their guard down around him—this outrageous, hilarious man who can spin a tale out of half-truths.

That is their biggest mistake.

Capote skyrockets to fame (and infamy) upon the publication of his seminal non-fiction novel, In Cold Blood. The swans are slightly taken aback at the talent lying dormant in their friend–their True Heart, but they lavish him with praise, and he gains the notoriety he has always craved.

On November 28, 1966, he throws a Black and White Ball. Books have since been devoted to studying that night and its dynamics, but Benjamin’s astute judgment paints an image that encapsulates its essence.

That night changed him forever. Desperate to recapture the apex of his fame in 1966, Capote gathers all the secrets his beautiful friends have ever told him and publishes “La Cote Basque, 1965.” The world of the swans erupts, and Capote believes he’s done nothing wrong. They were the ones who opened their mouths, and he’s an artist. What did they expect?

Well. No one crosses the swans, so it’s a rapid fall from grace for Capote.

If I had encountered these people in any other context, I would have hated them outright. The true-blue working class in me screams, “Well what about the people who live paycheck to paycheck and raise their own babies. The people for whom Givenchy and Balenciaga are just Scrabble tiles thrown against a wall, for all they care.”

Wealth disgusts me, and I have little patience for it. But Benjamin is one hell of a good writer, and she got me to empathize with them…even sympathize with them on occasion. The level of scrutiny Babe faces is incomprehensible to me, but she faces it with admirable stoicism.

Capote, on the other hand, has always held a position in my mind that’s difficult to describe. His literary talent cannot be denied. In Cold Blood is a great piece of literature, but it always seemed to me that he used Dick Hickock and Percy Smith–manipulated their emotions and trust—to get exactly what he wanted: a book that would bring him fame. His relationship with Harper Lee was all but severed because of it.

My respect and loathing of him has always been a balance that shifts here and there, but this novel has left with me with more of a negative impression of the writer. Maybe it’s the journalist in me, but he violated the sacred covenant of minimizing harm in one’s work.

Nevertheless, Benjamin’s characterizations and examinations of conscience provide a layered analysis of this fateful point in history when Vietnam raged for years and came to an inauspicious end, racial barriers began to crumble, and Capote broke Babe Paley’s heart.

6 thoughts on “On Melanie Benjamin’s “The Swans of Fifth Avenue”

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