Here I am, in a retro style, ready to tell you about a novel I loved: “The Swans of Fifth Avenue”, by Melanie Benjamin.
Melanie Benjamin brings high-society New York socialites from the 50’s like Slim Keith, C.Z. Guest, Maria Agnelli and Gloria Guinness back to life and focuses on their meeting with Truman Capote.
Bedazzled by their beauty, their social aura and their sophistication, Truman Capote called them his “Swans” and their Queen was the most elegant, unattainable one of all: Babe Paley.
Babe Paley lived a life from another time. Born in a family from the high-bourgeoisie on the East Coast of the U.S. in 1915, she was raised, like her sisters, as a little racehorse with one objective: to marry, and to marry well. Which she did, twice. Her second wedding was to William Paley, an immensely rich man, who was incredibly keen to enter the “café society” of the time.
Thereafter, Babe Paley lived between her flat on Fifth Avenue and her different properties but she did so under the public eye, that deemed her an icon of elegance. Constantly photographed – by Vogue amongst many others – she was the socialite par excellence, who set and ended trends.
Her friends, rich wives or heiresses were all of the same pedigree and this little crowd was bored to death, suffocated by the stranglehold of solitude imposed by appearances.
In 1955, when Babe Paley met Truman Capote – the beloved child of America – a fresh-minded man of absolute extravagance, he turned these completely and desperately idle women’s world around. The Swans were electrified by this small man, whose success was immense and whose irreverence total.
Platonic but searing and absolute love at first sight struck Babe and Truman. Their friendship was deep and fusional, one savored the reality and the passionate honesty she was never given and the other found in her the maternal figure he had never had.
Their fusional friendship lasted about twenty years.
It was destroyed in a flash, because of Truman Capote, who committed both the worst treason and his worst novella in 1975, with the publication of “La Côte Basque 1965”, a collection of gossip and secrets stolen from his dear Swans.
The small collection was a scandal. Truman Capote appeared in all his uninspired author’s misery: he chose to wield a scalpel in place of a pen. The secrets revealed went from adultery to murder.
The small collection can be read in the unfinished “Answered Prayers”, which has no literary significance and naught but historical significance, if but around this particular episode.
The disaster was total. “La Côte Basque 1965” signed the end of Truman Capote, whose social suicide was unequivocal. He resorted to drugs and alcohol ‘til the end of his life, which he lived in such confusion that he was unsure why people were angry with him. “La Côte Basque 1965” also marked the end of Babe. “He killed her, it’s as simple as that”: Babe died less than three years after the novella’s publication, ill and isolated. Her heart was probably broken”.
Melanie Benjamin’s beautiful, informed writing brought me infinite pleasure, the portraits she drew were rich, full of humanity and incredibly well researched.
There is so much to say on fairness in life, being and appearances and the weight of emotional baggage. I felt deeply sorry for Babe and Truman, who both lived more in the realm of appearances than simply that of being, each carrying the weight of their ordinary and extraordinary follies.
Sad and fascinating, really.
July 5, 2019
Roland Mouret dress – Bvlgari purse – Agnelle gloves – Vintage bibi hat and belt – Prada coat embellished with a Chanel brooch – Pura Lopez heels