The Swans of Fifth Avenue by Melanie Benjamin (Bantam, 2016)
Just a few months ago I published a Retro-Review of In Cold Blood, written by one of the greatest 20 century American authors, Truman Capote. For those of us who remember seeing the more than eccentric writer, who was chased by the demons of self-loathing his entire life, on late night television in the 1960s and 70s, Capote had become a caricature of himself, lost in a drunken haze of self-indulgence. The Swans of Fifth Avenue, written by Melanie Benjamin is not quite a “non-fiction” novel, the genre that Capote claimed to have coined, by it’s not far from it.
Benjamin’s novel is brilliant, achingly touching, and explores the depths of Capote’s misguided attempts to entertain his group of “swans,” the alluring women of New York society, who reigned during the period that Capote garnered acclaim with Breakfast at Tiffany’s until his loathsome spiral into depression fueled by severe alcoholism. If you remember the stories of Capote’s swans, the book will transport one back to the days of Camelot and the Kennedys, a period when women wore hats, gloves, and sparkled with jewels purchased at places like Winston’s and Tiffany’s. If the swans came before your time, the novel is still remarkable in its study of women of means, struggling to come out from behind the shadows of their rich and powerful husbands.
This is, quite simply, a book not to be missed.
The Prologue of the novel is a dream sequence, in which a cluster of graceful swans eye the strange nymph hopping from one leg to another on the shore, “filled with the old fear; that he wasn’t good enough, brave enough, handsome enough, tall enough---enough. Still he hoped, he dreamed, he waited; holding his breath, he fixed his gaze upon the most dazzling of them all, the lead swan.” (p.iii) This poignant opening could very well be Capote’s fading thoughts as he passed out of his pathetic existence into the oblivion of death, a kinder fate than the expulsion he endured following his decision to use the secrets that he knew to expose the women he supposedly adored..
Never good enough; never good enough for his real father who disappeared out of his life at a young age, never good enough for his beautiful mother who abandoned him when she married a man named Capote and left the boy to be raised by his elderly, distant cousins in Monroeville, Alabama, never good enough as a real-man in his own mind, never good enough to win the Pulitzer, just never good enough. So Truman Capote faked it into society, and succeeded until his petty jealousies became monsters of destruction, too evil to fathom and he was shunned by society until his pathetic death in 1984.
Capote crossed a line which ultimately expelled him from the lives of Slim Hawks Hayward Keith, Marella Agnelli, Gloria Guiness, Pamela Churchill, Hayward Harriman, C.Z. Guest, and the inimitable queen of the swans, Babe Paley, wife of CBS television, William S. Paley. And how did Capote cross this line? Out of desperation caused by severe writer’s block, Capote stooped to spilling the swans’ secrets in a nasty story “La Cote Basque 1965.”
Capote became the darling of the swans when he was a struggling, but very witty, sylph, with blonde hair that swept across his blue eyes. He was quite pretty himself, in the early days, and amusing. He became the confidante of Lee Radziwill, sister of Jacqueline Kennedy, and absorbed the “dish” that Radziwill imparted.
With the publication of his first major hit, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Capote became a celebrity in his own right, and each of the “swans” believed that she had been the prototype for Capote’s heroine, Holly Golightly.
At a party that Babe Paley threw for her “True-heart,” in honor of his best seller, Capote reveals to Bill Paley, “Everyone wants to be in a book . . . I’ve simply been deluged by women who believe that they’re the model for Holly. Carol Marcus, Gloria Vanderbilt, Gloria Guiness, Marella, Slim, even, They all think that some part of Holly is based on them.” (p. 109)
Benjamim brilliantly portrays the delusional world of high society on Fifth Avenue, New York City by stripping off the high fashion, jewels and make-up and revealing through Capote’s eyes the lonely, betrayed wives that they are. And while he is gnawing them to their cores, he is all the time looking for the mother who had betrayed and left him, leaving his psyche scarred forever. By prodding the swans, Capote was bitten by snakes particularly his beautiful Babe, who never spoke to him again after the appearance of the vile story “La Cote Basque,” in Esquire magazine.
The realization began to hit when the swans refused to take his calls:
“No, Mrs. Agnelli asks that you please stop calling.”
“Lady Keith says to tell you to go to hell.”
“Mrs. Guinness has requested that you no longer call.”
“Mrs. Harriman would like you to stop phoning.”
“Mrs. Paley is ---is no longer taking your calls.” (p.289)k
And as Capote is forced to face the chaos that he alone has created, “he rolled off the chair, threw himself on the carpet, threw himself a tantrum that splashed over him like a hallucination from his childhood, drowning him with its force, and he was alone again, all alone in the dark, and the door was locked and Mama was gone, and when would she be back? What if she never came back? What if he died here, alone?” (p.290)
Benjamin’s writing is as elegant as the people about whom she writes. The words slip through the reader’s fingers like silk. The Swans of Fifth Avenue is worth the time to read and ponder, discuss with friends and savor.