An elegant woman in a backless black dress, black gloves, and smoking a cigarette sets off the red background on the cover of Melanie Benjamin's delicious historical novel, The Swans of Fifth Avenue.
The woman is rich, slightly elusive, and reveals her true self only to her closest friends. She is Babe Paley and the swans are the social doyennes of 1950s--Slim Keith, C.Z. Guest, Gloria Guinness, and Pamela Churchill--who befriended Truman Capote, spilling their guts and gossip to him. in a case of misguided ego and judgment, Capote betrayed them in a story published in Esquire entitled "La Cote Basque."
This much is true, as the beginning of the implosion of Capote; we've seen the clips, the slurred words, and sad state of his downward spiral.
The fiction takes over as Benjamin imagines Babe and Bill Paley's unconventional close friendship with Capote as the emotional center of the novel. Capote noted: "Babe Paley had only one flaw: she was perfect. Otherwise she was perfect." Why would she socially connect to this funny little man whose insecurities were well known? What follows is the story of how two very lonely, successful and rich people took refuge in each other.
Once the thinly veiled profiles and gossip about the Swans was in print, Truman Capote was quickly shunned by the ruling social class of the world he so wanted to impress, the damage so severe as to cause one woman's suicide.
Benjamin's daring to put words in the mouth of a great writer is audacious, but her conclusions about the consequences of the lives we live are entirely believable.