The Swans of Fifth Avenue: A Novel

The Swans of Fifth Avenue: A Novel

by Melanie Benjamin


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NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER • The author of The Aviator’s Wife returns with a triumphant new novel about New York’s “Swans” of the 1950s—and the scandalous, headline-making, and enthralling friendship between literary legend Truman Capote and peerless socialite Babe Paley.

People’s Book of the Week • USA Today’s #1 “New and Noteworthy” Book • Entertainment Weekly’s Must List • LibraryReads Top Ten Pick

Of all the glamorous stars of New York high society, none blazes brighter than Babe Paley. Her flawless face regularly graces the pages of Vogue, and she is celebrated and adored for her ineffable style and exquisite taste, especially among her friends—the alluring socialite Swans Slim Keith, C. Z. Guest, Gloria Guinness, and Pamela Churchill. By all appearances, Babe has it all: money, beauty, glamour, jewels, influential friends, a prestigious husband, and gorgeous homes. But beneath this elegantly composed exterior dwells a passionate woman—a woman desperately longing for true love and connection.

Enter Truman Capote. This diminutive golden-haired genius with a larger-than-life personality explodes onto the scene, setting Babe and her circle of Swans aflutter. Through Babe, Truman gains an unlikely entrée into the enviable lives of Manhattan’s elite, along with unparalleled access to the scandal and gossip of Babe’s powerful circle. Sure of the loyalty of the man she calls “True Heart,” Babe never imagines the destruction Truman will leave in his wake. But once a storyteller, always a storyteller—even when the stories aren’t his to tell.

Truman’s fame is at its peak when such notable celebrities as Frank and Mia Sinatra, Lauren Bacall, and Rose Kennedy converge on his glittering Black and White Ball. But all too soon, he’ll ignite a literary scandal whose repercussions echo through the years. The Swans of Fifth Avenue will seduce and startle readers as it opens the door onto one of America’s most sumptuous eras.

Praise for The Swans of Fifth Avenue

“Exceptional storytelling . . . teeming with scandal, gossip and excitement.”—Harper’s Bazaar

“This moving fictionalization brings the whole cast of characters back to vivid life. Gossipy and fun, it’s also a nuanced look at the beauty and cruelty of a rarefied, bygone world.”People

“The era and the sordid details come back to life in this jewel of a novel.”O: The Oprah Magazine

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780345528704
Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
Publication date: 10/25/2016
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 400
Sales rank: 117,528
Product dimensions: 7.90(w) x 5.20(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Melanie Benjamin is the New York Times bestselling author of The Aviator’s Wife, The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb, and Alice I Have Been. Benjamin lives in Chicago, where she is at work on her next historical novel.

Read an Excerpt

chapter 1

Excerpted from "The Swans of Fifth Avenue"
by .
Copyright © 2016 Melanie Benjamin.
Excerpted by permission of Random House Publishing Group.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Reading Group Guide

What Would Babe Do?

Since the hardcover of The Swans of Fifth Avenue was published, I’ve been asked by many readers if there was any one particular Swan who has influenced me in my own life; if there’s one I personally identify with.
I always answer that I think I identified the most with Slim Keith; her voice in the book is the most like my own. I loved her attitude, her ability to cut through the bullshit. I loved that she alone didn’t really seem to take all the trappings of wealth seriously.
But as far as who’s influenced me the most, I think I’d have to answer Babe. Because there have been several times, since writing the book, when I’ve found myself asking WWBD?
What Would Babe Do?
It came up when I was preparing for my book tour last winter. All of a sudden, my typical author wardrobe didn’t seem up to snuff: How could I go out and talk about these fabulous women wearing my usual black upon black upon more black? So I asked myself, What Would Babe Do?
Babe would purchase an entire new wardrobe. She would build it meticulously, piece by piece. She would spend days trying each piece on, combining them in different ways, looking for maximum impact. Maximum fabulousness.
It was a little hard to convince my husband that my frequent outings to Bloomingdale’s and Nordstrom were vital to my career, but ultimately, I stopped trying to convince him, asking myself once more—-
What Would Babe Do?
She’d go shopping anyway. And so I did.
When it came time to pack this fabulous wardrobe for the tour, I wrestled with the usual dilemma. Do I bring everything or pack lightly? WWBD?
She’d bring everything. So into my brand new suitcase (another result of WWBD?) everything went.
Should I pack carry—on? Resign myself to a few tiny jars of the bare minimum of toiletries—-a tube of all—purpose moisturizer, toothpaste, mouthwash—-and hope for the best? Or should I bring along my dependable arsenal, my jars and tubes of unguents and potions: the toner and concealer and night cream and day cream and wrinkle cream and eye cream, the perfume, the liquid foundation, the shampoo and conditioner and styling product, the hairspray? The hand lotion that smells like lavender?
What Would Babe Do?
In the suitcase went everything; out the window went the convenience of not having to check the bag.
Now, I know authors who can breeze through a tour with one single backpack. I have never been one of those authors, but I’ve always felt terrible about that. I’ve always suspected that I’m way more high—maintenance than most of my peers, and that isn’t a comfortable feeling. Or—-it wasn’t. Until I spent a lot of time with Babe Paley while researching and writing The Swans of Fifth -Avenue. And I realized that depending upon a ritual, finding delight in the discipline of maintenance, of pampering, of making up and dressing well, isn’t the frivolous time—waster I used to think it was.
Babe lived in a different era, an era when a hairdresser visited her every day to set, style, and spritz. A fabulous, glamorous time—-a time I sometimes long for, to tell the truth, especially when I’m jammed into an airplane protected from my seatmate by only a thin layer of yoga pant, watching fellow passengers floss their teeth or trim their nails.
Every day, after hours spent perfecting herself, Babe emerged from her home looking rested, ready, and beautiful. Every single day, even if she was just walking the dog. And it was a treat to see her, according to every account. A feast for the eyes. And for the senses.
Isn’t that lovely? That she cared enough to give that to the world? That she respected people enough to live up to their expectation of her?
I’m not saying I present such a picture, and even at my most vain, I don’t spend hours on my hair. But I do appreciate the time and consideration that Babe gave to her appearance; it’s a treat to look at all the photos of her, and marvel at such perfection, such an ornament of a different, more glamorous time.
I know I’ll never look like Babe Paley. I also know I don’t have to; I have a different canvas for my art—-the page—-whereas Babe’s only creative outlet, her only canvas, was herself. I’m the lucky one, of course.
But I also no longer feel uncomfortable about my own somewhat high—maintenance schedule; I don’t discount it as wasted time or vanity run amok. I no longer feel sheepish about not being able to travel with only a backpack and a toothbrush. Because at the end of the day, after I’ve unpacked all my unguents and potions and hung all my nice clothes and lined up all the shoes, I feel special. Cared for. By myself.
And isn’t that a nice gift? To bestow attention upon yourself, to pamper yourself?
Isn’t it a nice gift to give to everyone who happens to pass you on the street, or sit next to you on a plane, or show up at your book signing? The gift of your best, most polished self?
I think so. And that, more than anything else, is What Babe Paley Would Do.

1. The Swans have very complicated relationships with one another—-perhaps most notably, Slim and Pamela were both married to the same man. What ties these women together, despite their differences and the sometimes competitive nature of their friendships?

2. Truman is embraced wholeheartedly by the Swans when he first appears on the New York social scene. What do you think draws them to him?

3. Discuss Babe’s marriage to Bill. What are its strengths? What are its weaknesses?

4. What do you think of Truman’s relationship with fame? At times, he seems willing to sacrifice almost anything (love, his health, and his friendships) in pursuit of the limelight. How does that serve him, ultimately?

5. Why do you think Truman published “La Cote Basque 1965”? What point was he making about (or to) the story’s subjects?

6. Truman and Babe were both heavily influenced by their mothers. In what ways were their childhood experiences similar? In what ways were they different?

7. Babe and her sisters were raised for successful marriages. Did they live up to their mother’s hopes?

8. Pick three words to describe Truman and Babe’s friendship. (Or pick one word to describe Truman, one to describe Babe, and one to describe their friendship.)

9. Do you think Babe forgave Truman in the end?

10. A number of characters tell stories throughout the novel. What are some of the stories that you tell—-about yourself or about others? In what ways do stories shape our experiences?

11. Who was your favorite character? Why?

12. Who surprised you the most? Why?

13. Aging is a prominent theme throughout the novel, as the opulent fifties come to an end and a new generation of socialites supplants the glamorous Swans. What did you think of that? How do you feel about getting older?

14. Discuss the significance of memory in this novel. In what ways do we distort our memories? What, if anything, is the significance of this?

15. If you have read any of Melanie Benjamin’s previous books, compare and contrast this work with her earlier novels. Is this story a departure? If so, in what ways? If not, how is it in keeping with her other writing?

16. Babe always presents a very carefully composed face to the world. Only occasionally do we see that mask slip. Discuss those moments. Who is the real Babe, beneath the makeup and jewels?

17. How has the role of women in society shifted from the 1960s to today?

18. Can you think of a woman who is the modern equivalent of Babe Paley and her circle of friends?

Customer Reviews

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The Swans of Fifth Avenue: A Novel 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 26 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I really enjoyed this glimpse into the lives of the rich and famous. Benjamin doesn't fail to weave a wonderful story which transports you to another world and time. Really well written and woven!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Just divine
eagle3tx More than 1 year ago
Guilty Pleasure . . . Insight into the NYC wealthy fashionable high society of the 1960s. Largely a biography of Truman Capote, plus his ladies social circle, and particularly his very close personal relationship with Barbara Paley, the epitome of the NYC social scene. In many ways a very tragic story of a woman raised to be only the perfect wife and appurtenance to a wealthy man. Full of delicious gossip. Those of us not old enough to have been impressed by this time-frame life-style when it was happening can enjoy living vicariously all the rumors, back-stabbing, and nastiness among women competing for the top rung.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Clever novel. Fascinating tale of Truman Capote and his rich friends. I kept my computer handy to read more about the 'swans' and others in the book. The novel includes cancer, suicide, facts, the Black and White ball, writing success and failures, lovers, adultery, cruelty, snobs, and more. Loved the book and it deserves an A+++++
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Will pass the time, but not great fun like I'd hoped. Became distracted by googling all the 'Swans' and lost interest before the end.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Interesting view point, from inside the group. Sometimes repetitive and slow, but I enjoyed it mostly.
JaneAusten1947 7 months ago
Great read. One of those books you can't put down but when you are close to the end you slow down because you don't want it to end. Highly recommend.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
A fun read, full of beautiful characters. It will stick with you long after the last page is read. ~*~LEB~*~
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marianne goldberg More than 1 year ago
We picked it for a book club. I could not get through 100 pages.
MaryErena More than 1 year ago
A good read that revealed an attention getting Truman Capote. I didn't know much about TC before reading this novel. In the beginning I felt sorry for him and what he claims he endured as a child. As the story progress, his real self comes out. I enjoyed reading about the Swans and how they became the talk of the town. But at what price? Second book I have read by Melanie Benjamin and look forward to more by her. She has a talent letting the reader know the good and bad characteristics of the characters. A good summer read for sure.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Can't wait to read the entire book.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Loved this book it was fun and still had a very big message
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
....-a book showing the reader the underside of the lives we read about with their secrets, power and betrayal, rather like secretly reading the grocery store tabloids
Piney10 More than 1 year ago
I really enjoyed reading this book and could not put it down. A very interesting story of the rich and famous women in New York City in the 50s, 60s and 70s and their relationship with Truman Capote. Very well done!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Wonderful read
literarymuseVC More than 1 year ago
1975 is the final year when Truman Capote is at the height of his success, having published the well-known nonfiction books, In Cold Blood and Breakfast at Tiffany’s, as well as numerous stories, plays and other articles. In the 50’s and 60’s he has gathered around him a coterie of socially powerful, famous but challenged woman. Beloved by these women, whose fragile natures he has emotionally healed and strengthened, Truman at first is bolstered by their admiration, indeed adoration. Their fragility, however, simply mirrors Truman’s own inner turmoil. This is their volatile story! First we meet Barbara (“Babe”) Cushing Mortimer Paley, a stylish trend setter who is married to a top executive of CBS, William S. Paley, devourer of women and autocratic businessman feared by all. Even he is enamored of Truman but the anomaly here is that Babe really doesn’t care about his opinion of “True Heart” Truman because for the first time in her life she knows what it’s like to love and be loved. This will prove to be a catastrophic surrender on her part. We next meet Marella Agnelli, C. Z. Guest, Gloria Guiness, Pamela Churchill Harriman and Slim Keith, who have all told Truman their deepest, darkest secrets. They represent the trendsetters of the period and those who love the world of fashion, beauty, style will love the numerous descriptions of these ladies’ dress, makeup and food preferences. What begins as meeting for champagne and hors oeuvres will degenerate over time into drinking and pills. Unity and love o so slowly evolves into whispered, malign comments arising from unacknowledged jealousy. Money and power, however, rule the day and their secrets are secure until one momentous day of betrayal by their best friend, Truman! What begins as a delicious and amusing bonding of these friends, whose daily concerns are about perfect appearances, rapidly becomes a cruel expose that breaks all concerned but especially one declining character! Truman himself is transformed in ways that startle readers, a picture so far from one would have imagined when starting this story. This novel is supposedly based on reality and as such stands as the iconic tale, a period piece of literary, historical fiction. The Swans of Fifth Avenue depicts the fashionistas of the mid-20th Century! Remarkable fiction!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Literary, intelligent, and racy - all at the same time
Deb-Krenzer More than 1 year ago
This is my second book by Melanie Benjamin and like the other, I absolutely loved it! I knew of Truman Capote and that he had written "In Cold Blood" and that he was a strange looking thing that sort of talked funny as I had seen him on the talk shows growing up. I remember him clapping his hands and sitting on his feet all excited about the story he was telling. I never knew about his swans and the book that he wrote about them. What I loved most about this book was googling those women and seeing their images. It gave me a real connection to the characters like I have never had. I even saw the picture of Penelope Tree (whom I had never heard of) in her black and white ball attire. If those women freaked about that showing of midriff, they could not even prepare for what was to come. HA!!! Of course, that does not take away anything from the author and the conversations that she imagined and shared with us. The characters were already developed before I decided "Hey, I can look these women up on Google". What a fascinating story of a poor man who makes it rich and still isn't happy and a rich girl who has everything and still isn't happy until they both come together. However, due to their lives and human makeup, they would never be together. It was an ecstatic, slow and moving journey to the top and a short, crashing journey to the bottom. The book was an absolute gem even without the characters being famous, it would have been a great story. The fact that it was true only makes it that much sadder. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book. While I had to put it down to put up Christmas decorations, I was thinking the whole time that I could not wait to get back to it. The wait was two days too long, but worth it when I made it back. I highly recommend this book. Written during an era when a big change was coming to America, the swans were some of the last of their breed. Reading how the author shows us how the world was and how it was becoming through their eyes held my interest throughout and totally entertained me along the way. Huge thanks to Random House/Ballantine and Net Galley for approving me to receive a free e-galley in exchange for an honest review. I loved this book! Melanie Benjamin has just moved up the ranks on my TBR author list!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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ConfuzzledShannon More than 1 year ago
Based on a real friendship of socialites and an author taking place at a different time in the USA. Author Truman Capote made a name for himself after writing Breakfast at Tiffany's and In Cold Blood. His fame gave him a ticket to parties in New York that would introduce him to a group of woman famous in their own right, for being fashionistas and marrying men with wealth and stature. Truman’s favorite lady socialite was Babe Paley and he was her favorite as well. This historical fiction author Melanie Benjamin imagined conversations that probably happened within the “Swans”. Eventually leading towards the downfall of Truman Capote and the change of what is fame and who has it. . Melanie Benjamin really has a knack for finding the voice of the people she is writing about. Everything feels so truthful as if she was actually in the room with the characters she wrote about. Since what she is writing about is historical fiction, the characters are real people but the social interactions are imagined by author. This book did take me a little longer to fall into and really believe the voices. This could also be because it was the first by Melanie Benjamin that I read in ebook format. I find that I do not connect to the story as well as I do with a physical book. I also like to draw out reading the end of her books because they are just so good. Historical fiction books are good after a reading slump because if it is written well enough you want to read other books about people the book is based on. This is the 4th book by Melanie Benjamin all historical fictions and all have been so enjoyable. I now have to wait for her next one. I hope the wait is not too long.