Monthly Archives: May 2016

The Swans of Fifth Avenue: A Novel by Melanie Benjamin – Book

swans of fifth

I always had a secret, and to some family members, not so secret, interest in all things artsy-New York City. In eighth grade we took a class trip to NYC. I remember well the mix of butterflies and awe I felt the first time I saw Fifth Avenue and Central Park, stayed in a real hotel, and went to a show (even if it was only the Rockettes) (even if some of my classmates were dropping water balloons out of the hotel windows).

I came from a very poor family and our greatest beauty came from the care our parents lavished on us. Books and movies gave me my first glimpses of both material luxury and true deprivation. So I confess, although I understood that the life of sophistication, style, and wealth can be superficial and exclusionary, and perhaps even psychically empty; it also gave access to wonderful art that expands awareness and beauty that drugs the senses.

I devoured Mademoiselle, Glamour, and Vogue magazines. I poured over the furniture and clothing and the fancy careers in the Doris Day movies, even more important to me than the romance, or at least part and parcel of it. Could love really be love without mid-century modern décor, designer gowns, and furs? This was pretty heady stuff for a girl who slept three-to-a bed until she was ten or eleven and it was a fantasy world that was never realized, perhaps because my creation of it was so two-dimensional.

Anyway, Melanie Benjamin, author of The Swans of Fifth Avenue: A Novel seems to have caught the same bug I did, although perhaps a bit later. Her wealthy role models are from the 70’s, while mine were from the 50’s. She was fascinated by Truman Capote and the New York scene he briefly “swam” in until he sabotaged himself. (Perhaps even in the social sphere “what goes up must come down”.) Benjamin has written a fiction book, but she has done her research. She was as fascinated by these “stars” as I was when I learned about Dorothy Parker and the Algonquin Round Table and Sylvia Plath, author of The Bell Jar who committed suicide, so incomprehensibly. (Was it clinical depression or a broken heart, or both, or neither?)

So there is some room in my brain for this gossipy speculation about beautiful, famous (and sometimes infamous) people. Truman Capote as the author’s words describe him, was very young and charismatic, smart and witty – on the edge of fame when he attracted the attention of those five young society swans with their lovely long necks. He was not attracted to women sexually which made it easier for him to befriend these beauties in this close-knit group of New York’s most photographed and admired women, who were really only famous for their style and for who they were married to. The author shows how Truman courted them, worshipped them, was worshipped by them, and then betrayed them.

Melanie Benjamin did a great job with a novel that could have read like a piece of fluff. The details of the lives of the five swans (Slim Hawks, Pamela Churchill, Gloria Guinness, Marella Agnelli, and Babe Paley) are mostly public and have been covered by others in books this author has studied. The dialogue rings true but was created by the author who tries to explain how this unusual relationship might have worked well for all involved until it didn’t. Not my usual fare, but it does tie into my sentimental roots and it is well done. I enjoyed The Swans of Fifth Avenue.

By Nancy Brisson

Desert Dwellers and Polar Ice Caps

polar ice3

How do we get desert dwellers to care that the polar ice caps are melting. We can’t even get Republicans who can see what is happening in Norfolk and Miami to pay attention. When you live in a dry, hot part of the world and you are bent on conquest or survival it is difficult to remember that everything is interconnected, even if some of your best oil wells are located near coastlines. How do we get a terrorist caught up in bringing back the 14th century to look over his shoulder and see the tsunami in his future?

Republicans, if they entertain the notion of climate change at all, refuse to accept that it is caused by human activities. We know why they do this; investments and power structures. If we find alternatives to fossil fuels they fear that their bank accounts will dwindle. They cannot accept that the age of fossil fuels, and, in fact, the Industrial Age is ending. They are starving poorer Americans, hoarding all the money on purpose. Of course they enjoy being rich, but you can only buy so many homes and yachts. Their real aim is to recreate 1890’s America when there were no worker’s rights, no unions, no minimum wage requirements, and no regulations on businesses.

You cannot get factories back to America if workers expect to get paid thirty or forty dollars an hour. You have to get them down around two dollars an hour. No wonder the GOP hates the movement for a $15 minimum wage. If you add addiction into the no-minimum-wage mix, we get to the bottom even faster. Furthermore if you think that humans have played no role in climate change then you can claim that, ergo, there is nothing humans can do to stop such changes and you can carry on blithely with your plan for a fossil-fuel-based master/serf economy. Take all the people’s toys away and make them climb that ladder of opportunity all over again – an Industrial Age do-over.

I know there are those who will say that we have to still have factories, we have to still produce things and, of course, we always will, but it does not take hundreds of workers to run a modern factory. The application of robotics is setting people free of work and creating new problems because then we have no alternative productive role to offer them.

Some may decide to be academics, but not everyone can or will choose that route. We really need to work on the roles societies will provide for people who are not needed to do work, or we need to find work they will feel good about doing. The American work ethic works against this. Rich folks get all huffy about people who don’t have a reason to or skill set for work. In America those who work labor for longer hours with shorter vacations than almost any other developed nation. There has to be a better goal for Americans who are not wealthy than working for the Future Taskmasters of America. I have heard people trying to start a back to the farm movement but farming was not as romantic a lifestyle in reality as it is in memory. Just read One Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley.

How do we get rich people – Capitalist “pigs” as we used to call them – on board to prepare Earth for the 9 billion people who will live on it by 2050? Without their help, with their very active opposition, it is a push-pull operation and basically a wash. Progress is in baby steps when we need giant ones. How do we get megalomaniacs intent on power to tune into anything except their own selfish drive for fame, or historical relevance, or whatever when they may just be, at base, mad men. Without China, without Russia, without the Middle East or Africa who is left to work on this truly existential threat – in the sense of a threat to human survival?

Are humans worth fighting to save or should we just let extinction happen to a species that has proven to be a bit too rapacious to coexist peacefully anywhere. And as for the idea that freedom alone should be attractive to people in every nation, I do not think that we are setting a very good example for the ways in which freedom makes life wonderful. In fact sometimes our notion of freedom makes it impossible to impose an organizational global design that might help us meet future needs.

There are no walls in the ocean (well, except by the Netherlands) so one body of water hits every nation with a coast line. Bodies of water within nations such as rivers and lakes will eventually rise also. We don’t need more salt water. The world will need a lot of fresh water for those 9 billion people. Water levels are just one outcome of polar melting. It is easy to foresee fear and anger growing as changes occur to geography and crowded coastal cities. It is easy to foresee tempers on edge and fights breaking out. Unless we are proactive and devise strategies to deal with negative human interactions, apocalyptic scenes may be as common in the near future as natural disasters are becoming in the present.

polar ice drowned city

Getting people, made ever suspicious of conspiracy by those who oppose change, worried about losing freedom or losing comfort, to create any sort of “matrix” of leadership that can ameliorate chaos seems almost impossible to imagine. Our war/peace dynamic may be so hard-wired into us that we will continue to fight our way right through climate change and beyond (if there is a beyond). We surely need some heroes and heroines who disregard the worst in humanity to save the best in humanity if we are to survive the population explosion and simultaneous climate change. If thinking about these things does not convince people that war is an obsolete and primitive construct then I don’t know what will.

However the militants will not stop their crusades for some probably unreachable ideal in order to give space to find a solution to issues of climate crisis. It is the human condition to strive for a cultural equality or religious purity or manifest destiny that will, most likely, never exist. So actually the question becomes one of finding a way to keep the weaponized bickering at bay while also creating a new schema for a crowded planet that is at an environmental tipping point. I worry that this will ever happen.

Here’s Jimmy Kimmel on the subject:


By Nancy Brisson