THE SWANS OF FIFTH AVENUE: A Novel (2016)
Delacorte Press, 369 pp.
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My late mother-in-law used to tell tales of post-World War Two New York City that made it sound like the most sophisticated place on earth. It might have been. Author Melanie Benjamin—the pen name for Melanie Miller Hauser–scored big with her 2013 novel The Aviator's Wife, but the Swans of Fifth Avenue is even more compelling. She takes us into the city my mother-in-law loved, but inside circles of which she could have only dreamed: those of what today we'd call the one-percent.
Benjamin's latest effort is subtitled "A Novel" because it fictionalizes dialogue and situations of real people. Her namesake "swans" (so dubbed in real-life) were New York socialites Barbara "Babe" Paley, the wife of CBS founder and magnate William S. Paley; Lady Nancy "Slim" Keith, a fashion model (barely) married to British royalty; Mexican-born beauty Gloria Guinness; actress, columnist, and dilettante C. Z. Guest, who once posed nude for Diego Rivera; and Pamela Churchill Hayward, later known as the Democratic Party hostess and diplomat bearing the last name of her third husband, W. Averell Harriman. Around our five swans circle a bouquet of women with slightly lesser pedigrees: actress Lauren Bacall; Washington Post heiress Katherine Graham; Italian Princess Maella Agnelli, the wife of Fiat's largest stockholder; fashion columnist Diana Vreeland; Rose Kennedy; and scores of others. It is a world that centers on Saxs Fifth Avenue, Bergdorf Goodman, the Hotel St. Regis, Vogue, Esquire, Vanity Fair, and lunches at posh venues such as 21, Le Pavillon, and Le Côte Basque. Those lunches, over which Babe Paley presided like a cross between a duchess and a saint, were the distaff equivalent of the Algonquin Table, a place where regal, beautiful women exchanged gossip, quips, and mutual support. Benjamin lets us know early on that we will be voyeurs of their lives. These women only "lunch," because they have private chefs to prepare dinners back in their private hotel suites. Almost none of the meticulously prepared petite fours and sandwiches are actually consumed. The cigarettes each chain-smoked were more than the custom of the time–elegance was handmaiden to a perpetual starvation diet.
It's our first clue that there is trouble in what outsiders saw as Paradise. These women graced the covers of style magazines, but their cultural capital was literally skin-deep, and their social power was a veritable fiction. They collected husbands like they shopped for jewels, but powerful men were happy to display such eye candy as confirmations of their importance–as long as sexual fidelity wasn't part of the bargain. Babe was practically a nun for having had just one previous husband, though Bill Paley had the promiscuous habits of an alley cat. For the women, though, shopping for diamonds and husbands was emblematic of stultifying boredom. Like swans, their primary role was to adorn the pond—in this case, their husbands' public world. They also collected fascinating people, a polite society version of court jesters. And into their early 1960s social scene pranced writer Truman Capote—a pet monkey for the swans.
Capote was everything the swans couldn't be: flamboyant, catty, naughty, openly arrogant, and unafraid to proclaim his own genius. His openly homosexual lifestyle was less prelude to the yet-to-emerge gay rights movement than an affirmation of the old adage that, if you're going to be swim outside of the mainstream, call a press conference before you jump, do so with both feet, and thrash about so outrageously that those tempted to condemn or fear you are instead amused. Benjamin leaves us with questions of who was playing whom. Was Capote a mere plaything for bored socialites, or did he use them to open doors that would have never opened on their own.? Except Babe didn't see it either way. She called Truman "True Heart," the only person who ever saw her without her face made up or her reserve set to high alert. Was theirs a strange kind of love, or was Capote incapable of loving anyone other than himself?
Once In Cold Blood was published in 1965, the press clippings confirmed Capote's high opinion of himself, though Benjamin leaves it to us to determine whether we are reading a tragedy or a study of megalomania. Capote (1924-84) never finished another book. In fact, he wrote very little of consequence in his time left on earth, except a vicious 1975 magazine article titled "Côte Basque, 1965" that told tales out of school and earned the ever-lasting enmity of the swans. Did it also break Babe's heart? Was Capote, in the end, exactly what he appeared to be: a mincing windbag fraud surviving on celebrity blood?*
The Swans of Fifth Avenue is a delicious, moving, and guilt-inducing read that is a 20th century analog to Edith Wharton's Age of Innocence. Should we feel ashamed for eavesdropping? Smug and superior to those who thought they had it all? Is this a tale of hubris, or just a very sad story? Benjamin's final chapters, set amidst New York's descent into cheap glitz and tawdriness in the 1970s, rip the sheen off of the city's grandeur. When, she asks, did rich people stop living in hotels? That simple question makes us wonder if New York's graciousness was always just a gilded front, or if something magical and hopeful faded like the swans' beauty. A good book takes us to unfamiliar worlds and makes us ponder. This is a very good book indeed.
*For the record, I am among those prone to seeing Capote as a charlatan. In Cold Blood was crisply written and was certainly unique at the time, but other works–especially Breakfast at Tiffany's–feel antiquated. Like his Southern friend Harper Lee, Capote may have only had one good book in him.