The Swans of Fifth Avenue

The Swans of Fifth Avenue by Melanie Benjamin
Published by Delacorte Press
Publication date: January 26th 2016
Genres: Fiction, Historical, Pop culture
five-stars

swans

 

Once upon a time there was a group of very special women who lived in New York City. They were icons of fashion and social arbiters of everything that was right about high society. It was the 1950s and they were Babe Paley, Slim Keith, Gloria Guinness, Pamela Churchill, and Marella Agnelli and they were The Swans of Fifth Avenue. So named by the small, witty, flamboyantly gay author who entered their midst and proceeded to enchant and amuse them. He was Truman Capote and they were his flock. In this deliciously dishy novel author Melanie Benjamin follows the outrageous Capote from the time he makes the acquaintance of this privileged group of socialites until he pulls back the curtain on the fantasy of their lives with the publication of a short story that detailed their not-so-pristine secrets.

While The Swans of Fifth Avenue is showcased as decadent fiction—peering into the other-worldly life of the rich and famous—Benjamin melds the opulence with her imaginings of the lives beneath the couture clothes, private jets, and jewels. The story focuses on Babe Paley, who was widely acknowledged through the 1940s and into the 1960s as the best dressed woman in the world. What Benjamin shows is that marriage to a powerful man had no bearing on happiness or fulfillment. Babe was one more ornament on the tree of William Paley’s life. An ornament whose sole purpose was to enhance his reputation.

Be perfect. Because that’s what people expect of you now. Because what are you, if not that? Who are you?

 

Every aspect of his life and every whim he ever had was indulged so that he was left only to run the CBS empire and sleep with whatever young tart caught his eye. In return, Babe had a surface life that gleamed with all the best money could buy. Multiple homes and the staff to maintain them, furs, jewels, couture clothes, and a social life with other rare creatures such as herself. They lunched, they sunned, they skied, they drank champagne like tap water and boy, did they gossip. Capote pranced into their superficial lives like a shot of adrenaline to the heart and they embraced him. He called each his pet, his best friend, his one and only. Except that, even to the others, he and Babe had a special relationship

 

He was exactly like her. Rare and exotic and yet so completely messy and ordinary. Disgustingly ordinary. So ordinary that great pains must be taken to disguise the fact, to protect the feelings of those who invested so much in exoticism and perfection.

It’s through these insights into the insecurities of people with brilliant façades that brings a touch of humanity to Swans. Not too much, because they are still gossipy, backstabbing hens, but Babe’s loneliness in the midst of all the adulation from the outside world feels real. That she and her friends chose to open up to the infectious but wily Capote feels at once like a betrayal and a ‘what did you expect’ moment. While the details glitter they are reflective of the cold ice that lies beneath each of the characters lives and that is where Benjamin excels. For Capote, reaching his literary goals was not enough and he soon loses himself to the allure of the high life. The addiction to fame overtakes the desire and ability to create so he is left to mine territory he shouldn’t—the private lives of his so-called friends.

Another of the aspects of Swans that Benjamin exploits so perfectly is that this was a time of glamour in its purest, most physical manifestations. There were no paparazzi, no selfies, no women being caught out at events without underwear—it simply wasn’t done. And the way things were done was still of paramount importance. Yes, cameras photographed Babe, Slim, Gloria and Marella endlessly but it was to showcase their elegance and style, not to exploit their foibles. Privacy and its not so glamorous sister, secrecy, ruled these times. Capote was the first to publicly out the scandals of this insular world and Benjamin captures his mesmerizing voice perfectly in an intelligent novel that delighted me from beginning to end. The high drama of The Swans of Fifth Avenue makes for charismatic reading that is as seductive as the world it portrays.

five-stars

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    • You are too kind! I finally had to stop writing because all that was left was “BUY THIS BOOK!!”. It was the right book at the right time for me.

    • It is perfect after a heavy book because it is still really intelligent but so entertaining as well. Rich people behaving badly!

  1. OHHHH! This sounds so delightful!! What a treat, Catherine! I’m so glad you enjoyed this one; I may need to find a copy for myself. This would make a great read after something a little more emotionally taxing; the Advil to Sarah’s alcohol, to quote her recent feature – ha! Thanks so much for sharing this one!

    • Absolutely! It is not emotionally taxing but it’s well-written so yes, it’s rich people behaving badly but it is awesome. 😉

  2. I always mean to actually READ Truman Capote and haven’t done it yet despite the fact that his swans have always fascinated me. I can’t decide if I need to run to the library and start on the real stuff or just get this book to get a taste? Either way I’m really excited that you loved this one because I’ve been waiting to read it.

    • I might not bother with his stuff about NYC because Benjamin really covers it in this book, but maybe In Cold Blood? It was so controversial for its time- true crime fiction. No one had ever written fiction about actual murders before.

    • I have been wanting to read In Cold Blood for a long time. I also feel like I should read at least one of his books before reading this one. I have to say, though, Eva, that this one sounds perfect for you!

    • Yes, ma’am! At first I wasn’t sure, because it’s not heavy literary fiction, but then I decided it is perfectly done for what it is and I loved it! So, 5 stars!

  3. I am so thrilled you liked this so much! Benjamin is one of my all-time favorite authors. I loved Alice I Have Been and The Aviator’s Wife and am hoping to read The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb yet this week before I meet her this Saturday! Yay!