“The Swans of Fifth Avenue: A Novel”
Author: Melanie Benjamin
Publisher: Random House
Price: $28.00 (Hardcover)
The life of Truman Capote does have the arc of a novel about it. Neglected and, one might say, abandoned by his mother and father, raised by cousins in Monroeville, small, feminine, lonely, longing to be rich and famous, Capote struggled for years, working harder at his writing than anyone could ever guess.
His labor was rewarded. First short stories appeared, then small novels like “Other Voices, Other Rooms” and “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” then his magnum opus, the nonfiction “In Cold Blood.” Capote made it to the top and rewarded himself in 1966 with the magnificent Black and White Ball at the Waldorf Astoria.
Along with the fame and money, in the fifties he also secured entrée into the highest echelon of high society. A vivacious companion and raconteur, he held listeners, usually women, spellbound, but more importantly, perhaps, he was a great listener himself.
Oddly, the society ladies who became his friends and confidantes needed a friend and a listener. At the restaurant Le Pavillon or La Cote Basque, Truman would lunch and gossip with Slim Keith, Gloria Guinness, C. Z. Guest, Princess Marella Agnelli and Pamela Churchill Hayward Harriman. In this book we learn that ladies don’t actually eat; they push exquisite French cuisine around on their plates. When they shop at Bergdorf or elsewhere, they are taken to a special suite of rooms, given champagne and treats, and clothing is brought them to try on. As luxurious as all this sounds, it was also isolating.
We learn their biographies , which are mainly the histories of marrying for money, and a lot about Givenchy gowns, expensive shoes and complicated make-up.
As hugely rich and powerful as these women were—Marella’s husband owned Fiat, Pamela was married to Averill Harriman and had been married to Winston’s son, Randolph, for example—they felt lonely, often sad.
Perhaps loneliest of all was Babe, wife of Bill Paley, head of CBS.
Although Truman assured each of his long-necked beauties she was his favorite, they all knew it was Babe.
That relationship is at the heart of this novel, or one might say novelization, since the actual narrative is very well known, available in biographies of Capote and of Slim Keith, William Paley and others. In this sense, “Swans” joins the stream of recent books such as “The Paris Wife,” “Z,” and “West of Sunset,” which fictionalize literary history and biography. Benjamin’s achievement here is in creating scenes and dialogue and even presuming to know Babe’s or Truman’s thoughts. It mostly works. Matters get a little gooey or hyperbolic at times, but Truman was certainly those things.
Benjamin does a pretty good job of showing the intimacy between Truman and Babe. Her husband, one of the more infamous philanderers of his time, neglected her. She was not close to her children. Truman was the brightest, warmest spot in her life. Without the usual sexual component, or the accompanying stresses, they genuinely needed and loved one another.
Capote, however, acknowledged that he had ingratiated himself with Babe and the others using a simple technique: bare your soul, expose your wound, then wait to hear a secret back. It worked. He cruised the Mediterranean on their yachts, weekended at their estates.
But, after “In Cold Blood,” which had, literally, exhausted him, Capote’s artistic powers waned. He announced many times , including on his late night television appearances, that he was writing a new “Remembrance of Things Past,” that he would be the Proust of New York in the twentieth century, but in truth, he was getting nowhere. Desperate to publish, in 1975 he betrayed these women in the stories that made up “Answered Prayers,” revealing their secrets. Their embarrassment was massive; one of the lesser swans committed suicide. They wondered, had he been playing them all the while? How did that “little midget,” that “southern-fried-bastard" get into their circle in the first place. Was it all a con?
Furious, they cut him off entirely. He was devastated.
He tried to explain. They should have known that, to him, as a writer, it was all material.
Don Noble is host of the Alabama Public Television literary interview show “Bookmark with Don Noble.” A shorter form of this review was originally broadcast on Alabama Public Radio.