THE SWANS OF FIFTH AVENUE: A NOVEL
By Melanie Benjamin
Delacorte Press, $28, 368 pages
Writing her delicious nonfiction novel “The Swans of Fifth Avenue,” Melanie Benjamin, has learned a great deal about treachery, lechery, betrayal, deceit and good old-fashioned lies. She has also become an expert on manipulation, cheating and all types of saving face. Literally and figuratively.
She has accomplished this delving into the inner recesses of the posh, sophisticated world of post-World War II New York. Skillfully portraying Manhattan’s halcyon years of cafe society, which morphed into the jet set, when the privileged and pampered partied at swanky night clubs like El Morocco and the Stork Club, shopped at Bergdorf Goodman, Saks Fifth Avenue and Henri Bendel and dined at 21, Le Pavilion and Le Cote Basque.
It is within the confines of the elegant Cote Basque with its masses of flowers and lovely murals that her catty narrative is set. (In many ways it is highly reminiscent of Clare Boothe Luce’s malevolent 1930s play “The Women.”)
The tale is based on mischievous literary lion Truman Capote and his coterie of glamorous ladies who lunch. His so called swans.
By far the most important is his intimate connection with the most glorious swan of all, Babe Paley.
She was in a class by herself. The ultimate Wasp, the pinnacle of Gotham society. Stunning, chic, aloof. The epitome of good taste and good manners. But she was also insecure and desperately lonely — caught in a loveless, sexless marriage. Her husband, William S. Paley, the founder and CEO of CBS, was a notorious playboy and philanderer who, beside showering his wife with jewels, evinced little interest in her or her life.
Enter ambitious Capote, a wispy, flaxen-haired boy from sleepy Monroeville, Alabama, with a talent for writing and a passion for gossip and scandal, determined to make his mark in the big city
With his acerbic tongue and gift for storytelling the flamboyant young author wangled his way into Babe’s confidence. She trusted him completely, and her powerful circle of alluring socialites, including Marella Agnelli, Pamela Churchill, Gloria Guiness, Slim Keith and C Z Guest. He became one of them. Their “True Heart,” their scathingly witty best friend who, with his lover, Jack Dunphy, accompanied them on their yachts, airplanes, and to their lavish homes around the world.
He was privy to all their indiscretions — relishing, memorizing every single confession. Unfortunately, they forgot he was a writer for whom everything was copy.
The secret of Truman’s success was that he was wildly entertaining. “Truman leapt into their midst and suddenly the gossip was more delicious, the amusements were more diverse. He had sat on the beds of everyone of his swans and whispered how beautiful they were. How precious. They all knew he was saying the same thing to each one of them. They didn’t mind. Because beneath the beauty, they were all so … lonely.”
So was he and somehow these intensely personal relationships validated his existence..
Over the years he became the celebrated author of the novella “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” which was adapted into the popular film, and the best-seller “In Cold Blood,” a pioneering form of narrative nonfiction.
With this fame came alcohol and drugs, but at the peak of his popularity and despite his demons and addictions he pulled off one of the biggest social coups of the 20th century. An opulent Black and White Ball in honor of Kay Graham, publisher of The Washington Post, at the ritzy Plaza Hotel. Stars like Frank Sinatra, Rose Kennedy and Lauren Bacall donned masks and waltzed around the ballroom, generating an avalanche of publicity.
Several alcohol-fueled years later on Oct. 17, 1975, his carefully constructed world imploded. It was the day Esquire published his “Cote Basque 1965,” an excerpt from his unfinished novel “Answered Prayers.” It was an act of both malice and self-destruction.
In thinly-veiled fiction Lady Ina Coolbirth, the main character, dishes the dirt on her society friends over a liquid luncheon at the restaurant. It was not hard for readers to recognize his swans and their torrid affairs, especially the one dealing with a priapic media mogul who has a sordid fling in his apartment while his wife is out and spends hours trying to scrub the stained sheets.
It was the ultimate betrayal for Babe Paley, who was ill with lung cancer. She recognized her faithless husband and never spoke to Capote again. He was barred from her funeral. The rest of the swans followed suit and slammed their doors in his face.
He claimed to be baffled by their reactions and wounded by their rejection.
How could they not know?
“He began to scribble down stories that were not his, but that just made them even juicier,” writes Ms. Benjamin. “He could tell them better than their owners could, and why else had they been told to him, if not for him to use them?
“Oh, those swans of his might be coy and say, ‘Now True Heart, don’t you dare repeat!’— this before telling him something particularly divine, and he might cross his heart and hope to die if he ever did.
“But neither of them meant it. They couldn’t have. Or they wouldn’t have told the stories to him in the first place.
“They wouldn’t have let him in.”
But they all did.
• Sandra McElwaine is Washington correspondent for The Daily Beast.
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