A Manhattan Scandal About Manhattan Scandals in “Swans of Fifth Avenue”

A Manhattan Scandal About Manhattan Scandals in “Swans of Fifth Avenue”

The Swans of Fifth Avenueby Melanie Benjamin, the author of Alice I Have Been, tells the story of Truman Capote and his New York socialite friends, especially highlighting his relationship with Babe Paley. This whole novel is a gossipy delight, especially since I was mostly familiar with Truman Capote through In Cold Blood and Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and this story reveals a whole new side. I love manners novels, and this has wonderfully cutting accounts of which social activities are acceptable (sleeping with friends’ properly pedigreed husbands) and which are embarrassing faux pas (touching up one’s lipstick in public).

After years of gossiping, traveling, and dining in all the right places, Capote publishes a short story, “La Côte Basque 1965,” about the scandals of thinly-veiled Manhattan socialites. Predictably, Manhattan society is outraged by Capote’s publishing of deep secrets and dirty laundry, not to mention his terribly unflattering descriptions of very recognizable characters.  Swans of Fifth Avenue shows Capote’s affection for Babe Paley, his closest friend among the “swans,” but even her secrets slip out and appear in his work. Or did they slip out accidentally? The novel also covers Capote’s decline from witty new writer to a drunk and drugged out hedonist, and by the end, it’s hard to know just how much of Capote’s public airing of friends’ secrets was thoughtless, calculated, or just self-destructive.

Reading The Swans of Fifth Avenue sent me to the library for the rest of Capote’s works. I discovered that his inability to write and publish after the wild success of In Cold Blood and the wild scandal of “La Côte Basque 1965″ was not exaggerated for this novel, and many of his other works, including two new novels set in New York, Answered Prayers and Summer Crossing, were never finished or published in his lifetime.

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