The Swans of Fifth Avenue

Written by Melanie Benjamin
Review by Helene Williams

In 1950s New York City, the newspapers’ society pages were full of pictures and stories of the high and mighty women married to rich and powerful men: women such as Barbara “Babe” Paley, wife of CBS chairman Bill Paley, and her friends, “Slim” Keith, Gloria Guinness, and Pamela Harriman, among others. Often those pictures included Truman Capote, a favorite among high society women. As a gay, well-dressed, amusing writer who at times dived into the seamy underside of New York culture, Truman was an exotic specimen to these women – someone who entertained them endlessly, but was not a threat to their husbands or marital status.

Benjamin recreates this world of glamour, cigarettes, alcohol and gossip, following Babe, Truman, and the other swans from the mid-1950s into the 1970s, when the unthinkable happened, and the women found their intimate inner lives revealed in print in one of Truman’s stories. Along the way, Benjamin builds the relationship between Truman and Babe, two people longing to be loved for themselves, but who always felt they needed to put on the perfect front; they shared their innermost secrets and were honest with each other, learning to trust the intimacy of deep friendship. This contrasts with the increasingly garish and bright New York culture, always demanding the newest fashions (in clothing as well as sex and drugs), which also threatens the well-bred women in Babe’s circle.

The final betrayal isn’t by the changing culture, but by one of their own; readers are treated to the inner workings of Truman’s writing habits, and the desperate search for inspiration, which would keep his name in the press and his books in print. Readers will enjoy – and be saddened by – this fascinating peek into the lives of the real people behind the society pages.