The Swans of Fifth Avenue is a novel of imagined experience, focusing on the relationship between author Truman Capote and socialite Babe Paley. The “Swans” consist of Babe and her friends beginning in the 1950s who live lives of wealth so great that appearances dominate every moment of their existence. The money comes from former and present marriages to men who pursue their careers leaving social obligation details to their wives. Time seems to hang heavy on the attractive to beautiful women, and they fill it with obsessive attention to personal grooming, stylish clothing, soirees, traveling from one lavish residence to another, spending time on ocean liner sized private yachts, and frequent elaborate lunches at New York City’s finest and most exclusive restaurants. The paparazzi of the time were welcomed to take photos of the women posing for studies in opulence. No camera could catch the urgently churning webbed feet of the swans struggling to maintain appearances, the photos showing only the serene aimless floating of the lovely creatures.
Truman entered into this “lush life” perceived by people who count as a handsome, witty, and talented writer. He loves the vibrant scene of the City and uses his charisma, talent, and work for Vogue to insinuate himself into the social stratosphere of Fifth Avenue. The wealthy men seem happy to have gay and exuberant Truman around to act as a diversion for their wives. Few people knew the psychological importance/dependence “Tru” fostered in the intelligent, lonely, and aimless socialites. This was especially true of Truman and Babe who recognized at first glance the vulnerability and insecurity in each other just below the surface of the public personas they affected. In a way, the love affair that developed between Truman and Babe was like that of Lady Brett Ashley and Jake Barnes in Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises; love requited in all aspects but one.
Melanie Benjamin states in an author’s note that she had no inside information about the beautiful people in her novel. She was not a member of their circle, but she did research the public history of them. The fiction is in the writer’s imagination of the dialogues and monologues of the real life characters behind closed social barriers and closed doors of expensive restaurants, hotels, and residences. Since the story is about “a way you’ll never be,” readers are caught up in the mesmerizing interaction of the characters by their external conversations and internal ruminations. Benjamin is so effective at imagining the public and private experiences of Babe, Truman, and the members of the tribe that readers will forget that The Swans of Fifth Avenue is a work of fiction. Readers also may feel they are welcome visitors to the rare atmosphere of the highest social class of people in business, the arts, and public media. Readers will not envy the swans and their connections, but rather will be one of them. As I read the excellent novel, I kept thinking of a song that I have enjoyed for many years, Natalie Cole’s interpretation of Lush Life by Billy Strayhorn.
This is a wonderfully entertaining novel that will bring back active echoes of the past for the older reader, interesting social history for the less seasoned adult readers, and glimpses of bizarre behavior that occurred in ancient history for young adults.