The Swans of Fifth Avenue
Melanie Benjamin
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The Swans of Fifth Avenue
Melanie Benjamin
368 pages
January 2016
rated 4 1/2 of 5 possible stars

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Marilyn Monroe. Georgia O’Keeffe. Ernest Hemingway. Truman Capote. Certain names become household words. Generally, these people achieve this status for two reasons: one, for their incredible talent, and the other, for their huge and complex personalities.

Truman Capote was one of America’s best writers of the 20th century, penning the first “nonfiction novel” crime story, In Cold Blood. That book was the forerunner of true-crime books that now proliferate at a rapid pace, and which no longer shock their readers.

This novel, The Swans of Fifth Avenue, set in the 1950s primarily in Manhattan, relates the story of the relationships he had with several women, weaving in the writing of In Cold Blood and Breakfast at Tiffany’s, the famous Black & White Ball at the Plaza, and Capote’s long-term relationship with Jack Dunphy, also a writer, who was extremely forgiving.

Capote was short, gay, flamboyant, talkative, and friendly. He generally claimed center stage. He had a photographic memory; he was a hard worker. Some of his best friends were people in high places, women like Marilyn Monroe, Jackie O., and Lauren Bacall. He drew them in with witty stories and extravagant parties; he made life more interesting for anyone who knew him.

He called many of these women--all striking, impeccably dressed, most married--his “swans.” At least two of them fell in love with him, and he, in turn, loved them as best he could. But after he lured these swans into his immediate circle and was invited onto their yachts, to their European summer homes, he began the process of betraying them.

In the novel, as in life, Capote’s swans are extremely rich; the most enamored of Capote is Babe Paley, wife of Bill Paley, the chairman and founder of CBS. Capote calls her Bobolink. She is lovely, statuesque. She and her socialite friends spend their time shopping and hosting tea and cocktail parties. Like Babe, many of them are bored, as they are little more than trophy wives, although not the young versions. They buy new clothes weekly; they wear gold, perfect makeup, and diamonds; they constantly have their hair done; and if they have children, they employ full-time nannies. A few have multiple homes.

Truman is funny and lively; they can tell him their most juicy secrets, and they do. Babe tells him things she has never told anyone else. One night, when Bill is away, they even sleep together, clothed. “But Truman, the little fairy--he was the one to put a shine to her, make her sweat, glow, muss her hair,” notes the narrator.

Their lives, and Truman’s, are glamorous, if one doesn’t look beneath under the sheets. Babe and one other swan, Slim Keith, keep confiding in Truman. One woman, at least, commits suicide, perhaps because of the shame of stories Capote tells her social circle.

The Swans of Fifth Avenue, Benjamin’s fourth novel, is extremely readable, gossipy, and fun. The reader wants to know about all the parties, the disillusionment, the recriminations. The author manages to present Capote as the complex person he apparently was. Almost everyone, including the straitlaced people of Kansas, whom he met while researching In Cold Blood, like him and overlook his eccentricities. The book is both funny and poignant. However, because it’s about the swans, primarily, important parts of Capote’s life--the way he treated Perry and Dick, or the way he felt after they were hanged, or the relationship he had toward the end with a married Texan man and his family--are not noted here.

This novel provides a close fictional look at how an extremely talented, extremely lonely, and often childlike person lived his life. Go back to In Cold Blood and his other books to gather more glimpses of his childhood and his other lives. Also recommended is the biography by Gerald Clarke, one of many, as people continue to be fascinated by these big talents with their endlessly fascinating, almost inscrutable personalities.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at © Deborah Straw, 2016

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