Saturday, January 9, 2016

Melanie Benjamin writes historical fiction as if she  lived it with her characters, the often famous and always interesting subjects of her books. Her latest novel, The Swans of Fifth Avenue is no exception.  

If  you are a Truman Capote devotee, you already know that the 'Swans,' are a reference to Capote's female cadre, Babe Cushing Paley, Slim Keith, Gloria Guiness, Lee Radziwell, Pam Churchill Harriman, &  C.Z. Guest among others.  If you aren't familiar with these names think world's best dressed list, style icons, People Magazine covers, trendsetters, business moguls, and lives of the rich and famous.

This novel is a tell all, re-hashing of Capote's New York fun fueled days and nights as a mini-me companion, amateur therapist, walker, and finally betrayer of the women he professed to love and adore as only a gay man could in the rollicking world of the social and cultural 1950's -1975. He rocked this same world by writing a barely disguised Esquire piece laying out collected secrets and exposing the personal lives of his swans for all to see, a form of social kamikaze that broke hearts,  (you'll never think about Babe Paley as a mere style icon after this book), ruined friendships and permanently iced the self-destructive Capote from his position as favored guest/friend/confidante to the swans.

A talented, celebrated  writer by profession, Capote charmed this group of wealthy women and became by extension, "just one of the girls," someone they could relax with, bond with, lunch with, weekend with and confide in - much to Paley's later chagrin. Truman both cany  and troubled, tortured and  sympathetic, empathetic and churlish, was a man child who fascinated the women and gathered them into a charmed circle. 

At times envious of his swans  wealthy husbands and easy lifestyles,  he even  became chummy with the often uptight, workaholic, philandering husbands who were bemused by this often cryptic, unusual person who so appealed to their wives. 

Benjamin's book is a painful, marvelous exploration of friendships that enchant and sustain us and in the end devastate us. I thought her book The Aviator's Wife about the Lindbergh's was her best, and then I read this one. 

Read this or be left behind when everyone is talking about the new book!  You'll  be captivated by the women and the web that Capote was able to weave, and your heart will 
break for all of the very real people in this novel, including Truman Capote. But you'll long remember  Babe Paley and think that a photo of this lovely woman  never gives a hint of her reality beyond the perfection and grace of clothing and personal style.