The New York Times best-selling 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 prestigious 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 entrée 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 listeners as it opens the door onto one of America's most sumptuous eras.
"The strange and fascinating relationship between Truman Capote and his 'swans' is wonderfully reimagined in this engrossing novel. It's a credit to Benjamin that we end up caring so much for these women of power, grace, and beauty - and for Capote, too." (Sara Gruen, New York Times best-selling author of Water for Elephants)
"Benjamin convincingly portrays a large cast of colorful historical figures while crafting a compelling, gossipy narrative with rich emotional depth." (Library Journal)
"A deliciously spiky novel of love and betrayal." (Alex George, author of A Good American)
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If You Are Of Certain Age, You'll Enjoy This
Wanted to give 4-1/2 stars. Not quite perfect....
Some readers will have little interest in these characters and their world, floating like whipped cream on top of the Fifties and Sixties. The complex of relationships between Truman Capote and his "swans" (wealthy, socially powerful, gorgeous society women: Babe Paley and her sisters, Slim Keith, CZ Guest, Gloria Guinness, Marella Agnelli, Carol Matthau, Gloria Vanderbilt, Pamel Digby Churchill Heyward Harriman and others); and their husbands, esp Bill Paley, is here treated in a "non-fiction novel", a literary form Capote claimed to invent, and used to impressive effect in his masterpiece, In Cold Blood.
Benjamin is not a stylist at Capote's level, but she writes well. (I should mention that i listened to an audible version instead of reading print.) She brings to life the emotional activity behind all that luxurious beauty and social perfection - she is esp good with Capote, Babe Paley, Slim Keith, and Bill Paley, our principle players.
I was already familiar with many of these stories, esp Capote's triumph and fall, and the aftermath of the story La Cote Basque, 1965. Many other reviewers have given vivid intros.
For me, the weakest points are:
The symbolic bookends at the beginning and end, happily brief.
The dialogue at the imagined "swan power lunch" after the Esquire publication, which seems somewhat weak.
The re-working of who might have left the stains on those sheets. While Benjamin's version has some poignancy, Benjamin's choice, who cared deeply for Babe, would never have behaved so - and this version undercuts the point of Truman's story: the deliberate insult the old-money, un-swan-like WASP wife intended to wield as she conveyed her contempt for the Jewish mogul who dared to believe himself in her league.
The best parts are the voices of Truman, Babe, Bill, and Slim, who come to life. They grew on me until they felt fully formed. The writer makes real the fragile trust Truman and Babe hold in each other, until he goes too far.
I wish someone would publish depth biographies of these swans and their world, and i would also love a photographic history. We can be nostalgic because this world is as lost as Fitzgerald's hopes and dreams, as given to Gatzby. These socialites already seemed quaint and "as seen through a glass" in the seventies, and Amanda Burden, Babe Paley's daughter, has chosen and succeeded at a very different and modern sort of life.
Curously the most successful of these swans, in the terms of today's worldviews, are Pamela Harriman, "the courtesan of the century", the least swan-like, who transformed herself into a real power with a notable career; CZ Guest, gardening expert, and to appearances the least fragile, most confident and emotionally whole of this group, and the one who stayed in touch with Capote; Gloria Vanderbilt, survivor of a horrible childhood, also re-invented herself as a notable businesswoman.
I started this expecting a "beach read" and found much more.
- Constant Reader