Saturday, January 9, 2016

BOOK REVIEW: The Swans of Fifth Avenue by Melanie Benjamin

Disclaimer: I received this book for free from Netgalley. This did not influence my review.

Melanie Benjamin has an impressive talent for getting into the heads of historical characters. A few years ago, I enjoyed her novel The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb. I haven’t yet gotten around to The Aviator’s Wife, but when I saw her newest book, The Swans of Fifth Avenue, I had to request it from Netgalley. I love books about literary figures. This novel presents us with a peek at the life of Truman Capote (whose Breakfast at Tiffany’s I reviewed early in my blogging career. I now have to read In Cold Blood.)

In the 1940's through the 60's, there was a clique of very wealthy, very beautiful women, primarily based in New York City, who were featured in society columns and magazines and known as socialites and fashion icons. Some came from wealth and others scrabbled their way up, but they all had style to spare, a style they supported by way of wealthy husbands. Into this exclusive band of women entered Truman Capote. They adored him, and he called them his swans.

Early on, Truman was a writer with talent and promise, but before he had even really made a name for himself in the literary world, he was able to infiltrate high society. He was flamboyant, charming, entertaining, and a good listener (when he wasn’t hogging the conversation himself.) Because he was gay, the wealthy husbands had no qualms about allowing unfettered access to their wives. Many of the men found him entertaining as well.

Although Truman had a gift for making each of the people he interacted with feel that they were special to him, he had a particularly strong friendship with the recognized queen of New York, Babe Paley. Married to CBS tycoon Bill Paley, she had fabulous wealth and, more importantly, fabulous taste. (I found it an interesting tidbit that she was the daughter of Harvey Cushing, a pioneering brain surgeon.) Universally admired, she and Truman became the closest of friends, and she was one of his greatest champions.

The novel opens in the aftermath of the publication of a short story in Esquire in which Truman Capote uses gossip collected from his swans over many years as the basis for an exposé of high society. In this story, he very thinly disguises the people he claimed were his friends, and lays their secrets bare. Needless to say, they are not amused.

The thing that shocks them all the most is that a large part of the story focuses on exposing the very private difficulties of the woman he supposedly cared for the most: Babe Paley. Truman is about to learn (or relearn) what it means to be a social pariah.

Melanie Benjamin’s novel takes the reader back and forth through time to witness Truman Capote’s rise and fall. Through a combination of the characters’ thoughts and their voracious gossiping, the lives of many of the glamorous and famous people of the times are presented in intimate detail. If you ever may have imagined that lifestyle to be appealing, this book will assure you that it is not.


  1. I have heard so much about this book! Loved your review. Made me feel oddly glad to be plain and normal, and not a "swan." :)

  2. Lovely review! I read this book last year and put it in my top ten for 2015. Melanie Benjamin has a real gift. I've loved everything of hers I've read.

  3. So anxious to read this one. I will meet Ms. Benjamin on January 30th! I have a copy of The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb and hope to read it before meeting her. I loved The Aviator's Wife and Alice I Have Been! Nice review!