The Swans
of Fifth Avenue

By Melanie Benjamin

Delacorte Press.

341 pp. $28

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Reviewed by

Katherine Bailey


nolead ends Though short in stature, Truman Capote was larger than life. "I'm different. I'm special. I'm more," he tells himself. In The Swans of Fifth Avenue, author Melanie Benjamin applies her imagination to the relationship between Capote and Babe Paley, the stunningly beautiful Manhattan socialite and wife of Bill Paley, founder and president of CBS. Set for the most part in the 1950s and '60s, the book is an outstanding rendering of Truman and Babe's mutual attraction - no matter that he was proudly gay and she was impeccably faithful to her husband.

A needy Truman admits to Babe his greatest fear: "that no one will love me." He is lonely even at a party to celebrate the success of Breakfast at Tiffany's. Babe's own loneliness is the result of her marriage to a remote man who chases other women.

Truman and Babe converse endlessly as they swim in the pools of her estates. A big topic is the flaws of the "five swans. That's Truman's name for the clique of wealthy women with whom Babe socializes: Gloria Guinness, Slim Hayward, Pamela Digby Churchill, and Marella Agnelli. These women, Benjamin writes, had style, but Babe was style: It "was there . . . not just in Babe's coveted orbit but in her Givenchy pocket, her Hermès handbag, her Wedgewood teacup."

In 1966, when truman had reached the top of his chosen worlds - literary and social - he decided to throw a party: "A party so grand, so exclusive, it would keep him in the headlines for months. It would make those who weren't invited weep and flee the country. [It] would go down in history as . . . the cherry on top of the sundae, the caviar on top of the toast." Held in the grand ballroom of the Plaza Hotel and attended by 500 costumed, rich, and famous guests, the Black and White Ball is Truman's way of telling the world: "I want you to remember just who I am now . . . the acclaimed author of the acclaimed In Cold Blood . . . the book none of you shallow idiots could ever have written. . . . I'm not just your favorite dinner guest, your token fag."

After the party, Truman's life goes inexorably downhill. Aging and the incessant consumption of vodka take a toll on his complexion. Truman publishes short stories that alienate the "swans," and they turn on their onetime friend. Increasingly, he employs his gift for words "to wound and offend."

Benjamin has given us a compelling look at an American icon, a talented yet vulnerable man, and the complex woman he loved in his own distinctive way.

Katherine Bailey also reviews for the Minneapolis Star Tribune. Visit her at katherinebaileyonbooks.com.