Book Review: The Swans of Fifth Avenue by Melanie Benjamin

The Swans of Fifth Avenue by Melanie Benjamin
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Publisher: Delacorte Press
Summary:  The New York Times bestselling author of The Aviator’s Wife returns with a triumphant new novel about New York’s “Swans” of the 1950s—and the scandalous, headline-making, and enthralling friendship between literary legend Truman Capote and peerless socialite Babe Paley.
Of all the glamorous stars of New York high society, none blazes brighter than Babe Paley. Her flawless face regularly graces the pages of Vogue, and she is celebrated and adored for her ineffable style and exquisite taste, especially among her friends—the alluring socialite Swans Slim Keith, C. Z. Guest, Gloria Guinness, and Pamela Churchill. By all appearances, Babe has it all: money, beauty, glamour, jewels, influential friends, a high-profile husband, and gorgeous homes. But beneath this elegantly composed exterior dwells a passionate woman—a woman desperately longing for true love and connection.

Enter Truman Capote. This diminutive golden-haired genius with a larger-than-life personality explodes onto the scene, setting Babe and her circle of Swans aflutter. Through Babe, Truman gains an unlikely entrΓ©e into the enviable lives of Manhattan’s elite, along with unparalleled access to the scandal and gossip of Babe’s powerful circle. Sure of the loyalty of the man she calls “True Heart,” Babe never imagines the destruction Truman will leave in his wake. But once a storyteller, always a storyteller—even when the stories aren’t his to tell.
Truman’s fame is at its peak when such notable celebrities as Frank and Mia Sinatra, Lauren Bacall, and Rose Kennedy converge on his glittering Black and White Ball. But all too soon, he’ll ignite a literary scandal whose repercussions echo through the years. The Swans of Fifth Avenue will seduce and startle readers as it opens the door onto one of America’s most sumptuous eras.

I decided to read this one because I was curious about the literary slap back that Truman Capote issued on Ann Woodward in La CΓ΄te Basque, 1965 . Sometime last year, I saw a special chronicling the killing of her husband Billy and found the Capote angle an interesting footnote. I'd never heard of the society doyennes most covered here (honestly, I was most hoping for an appearance of Woodward's socialite BFF Ann Slater, in her blue hued glasses glory) but that was not a barrier that bothered. The Swans are the ones who spilt the tea to Truman about Ann that inspired the story (which like this book, was veiled fiction).

Babe Paley was the clearest drawn and I will admit that the other women sort of blended into one another as indistinct as Socialite #2, #3, #4 (& I admit that I likely didn't keep them in order most of the time). They were all rendered as slight variations on a type where the type eclipses most all individualism. Still, these characters spun and slung more than their fair share of dirt and gossip & pearl clutched at Truman's insouciance, after he'd divulged & dished on them. I think Babe was supposed to be sympathetic but I didn't find that much for her, Truman or any of the rest. The Swans were famous for being famous, as in they got dressed and went out to lunch and also for the marriages they made. While none her were shown to have had academic, career or maternal (ignored, shipped off & tidily paddocked children all around) aspirations, they set an aspirational standard as wives at a particular time in history and there's still cultural fascination for an approximation of this type of lifestyle (money without the breeding, or to the manor born Social Register vouchsafe) in modern day celebrity gawking. Truman was interesting but I was never sure of his sincerity. In fairness, he was in good company there. He seemed more "real" to me but perhaps that's because I was familiar with stories about him before reading this.

There's likely something profound in the author's ability to render characters as being singularly ornamental in their own lives. Complete from acme to downfall for all involved, this telling felt odd as historical fiction and more like a novelization of events. It's a genre conundrum for me. Still, I will agree with this particular quote from the book that says perfectly how I felt about these characters as I tore through this book:

They leaned in to hear more gossip about the Hollywood star, whom no one would ever have invited into their home, but in whom they were all voraciously interested, anyway.

While the visit will remain somewhat memorable, I wouldn't want to know or be at table with such people. I'd be preoccupied counting the knives. Recommended for the beach and airport.

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