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