April Book Club Review – ‘The Swans of Fifth Avenue’ by Melanie Benjamin
The story of Truman Capote’s very public social-suicide in the 1970s has become something of a tabloid legend and author Melanie Benjamin has created an entertaining narrative, The Swans of Fifth Avenue, surrounding these events; and why not when something as juicy as a literary darling betrays his glittering socialite friends, the crème de la crème of Manhattan’s high society? Read on for our April Book Club.
Our April Book Club book begings with four ladies at a luncheon, something has clearly upset them, hiding behind large sunglasses and bottles of champagne. Truman Capote’s name is mentioned along with the words ‘murder’ and ‘sue for libel’ but we still don’t know the subject of their frenzied conversation. As the story continues we are introduced to the impossibly glamorous ‘Swans’: Slim Hayward Keith, Marella Agnelli, Gloria Guinness, Pamela Churchill Hayward Harriman, C. Z. Guest, and Babe Paley. These women are the gate keepers to New York’s high society from the 1950s-1970s.
Truman Capote was a person who was obsessed, not just with those who had vast amounts of money, but with a certain caliber of rich – those who knew what style truly was, the taste makers. He collected people with achievements and power and looked upon them with equal parts awe and envy. Capote believed that money was the ticket to a charmed life – one of absolute freedom where ordinary rules simply did not apply. The author, Melanie Benjamin, paints these women in a very different light to the sycophantic description that Truman Capote’s character provides; she exposes the age old cliché of ‘money can’t buy happiness’. The ‘Swans’ have paid the ultimate price for their charmed life in which they can never truly be happy or free as they are controlled by the unspoken rules that their society dictates. Each of these women is terrified of being revealed for whom they really are, that the mask they present to the world will slip and they will be deemed unworthy of their husbands, friends, and lifestyles.
Benjamin paints a different world in which women are there to serve their men and be aesthetic objects, trophies, not as partners in life. She achieves this by delving into the women’s stories; Babe Paley’s talks of being groomed by her mother from a very young age to marry a wealthy man of a certain class. Babe is constantly told that her looks, her style, her manners and etiquette are all that matter. She is trained to always be perfect, look perfect, and act perfect, to constantly anticipate her husband’s needs and to never let him see her without her face and hair made up. This breeding places her on a pedestal from which Babe is only ever lonely and desperately unhappy. Her husband never truly knows who she is, he admires her as the perfect woman, something to be shown off to other men but that doesn’t stop him from having multiple affairs for her to turn a blind eye to.
The reason Truman Capote so loved these particular ladies was that few of them had been born into wealth or position in society, they had schemed and fought tooth and nail to get to where they were and therefore had deep dark secrets, ripe for the picking, behind their preened and polished facades. They loved him because he was the life of the party, incredibly intelligent and an incessant flatterer who earned their trust by spilling his own manipulated secrets – never quite the whole truth. As Capote’s real-life friend Oliver Smith put it, “The wealthy find objects that amuse them: that’s history.” So Truman Capote was ‘collected’ as well; he was invited into their inner sanctum of luxury holidays on super yachts, private planes, and fabulous society galas. He was there at the end of these nights when, lubricated by alcohol, the secrets would tumble out only to be mentally stored away to serve as the writer’s inspirations at a later date. Capote’s version of thanking them for this welcoming into their world? To expose their secrets in a ‘fictional’ short story La Cotê Basque in Esquire magazine; it is finally revealed to the readers that this is the subject of the ‘Swans’ opening conversation. Truman Capote’s swift ejection from their society comes as a complete surprise to him, expecting momentary annoyance from those in the story not the complete annihilation of his social life. As another real-life friend of Capote’s, Liz Smith said “After La Cote Basque he was never happy again.”
The Swans of Fifth Avenue is an easy and entertaining read which delves into the often hidden side of wealth and high society. It is an interesting look at a bygone era in one of the most famous cities in the world. Melanie Benjamin succeeds in maintaining a narrative that feels like a juicy gossip session with girlfriends whilst at the same time offering intimate insights into the glamorous world of Manhattan society pages.
April Book Club Questions
Respond to our April Book Club questions in the comments section below:
Were you envious of the characters’ lifestyles, did you feel sorry for them? Or both?
Why do you think that Truman Capote was so drawn to power and wealth?
Do you think any of the characters learnt anything by the end of the book?
What is your favourite era for style and dressing?
Did the interchanging timeline and viewpoints add to your enjoyment and understanding of the tale or did it muddle things?
Did you find any excerpts insightful? What were they?
What would you ask the author if you could?
What did you take away from the book? Did you learn something new? Were you exposed to a different way of thinking about people and their lives?
What recurring themes did you see in the novel?
Did you think that the book was a good example of historical fiction?