The Swans of Fifth Avenue

The Swans of Fifth Avenue

by Melanie Benjamin

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780345539755
Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
Publication date: 01/26/2016
Sold by: Random House
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 368
Sales rank: 4,874
File size: 2 MB

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.

From the Hardcover edition.

Read an Excerpt

chapter 1


Once upon a time—

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times—

There once was a man from Nantucket—

Truman giggled. He covered his mouth like a little boy, and tittered until his slender shoulders shook, his blue eyes so gleefully mischievous that he looked like a statue of Pan come to life.

“Oh, Big Mama! I am such a naughty imp!”

“True Heart, you are priceless!” Slim had laughed, too, she remembered, laughed until her ribs ached. Truman did that to her in those glorious early days; he made her laugh. That was it, really. The simple truth of the matter.

When he was young, back in 1955, when they were all young—or, at least, younger—when fame was new and friendships fledgling, fueled by champagne and caviar and gifts from Tiffany’s, Truman Capote was a hell of a lot of fun to be around.

“Once upon a time,” Slim had finally pronounced.

“Yes. Well . . . ,” and Truman drawled it out in his theatrical way, adding several syllables. “Once upon a time, there was New York.”

New York.

Stuyvesants and Vanderbilts and Roosevelts and staid, respectable Washington Square. Trinity Church. Mrs. Astor’s famous ballroom, the Four Hundred, snobby Ward McAllister, that traitor Edith Wharton, Delmonico’s. Zany Zelda and Scott in the Plaza fountain, the Algonquin Round Table, Dottie Parker and her razor tongue and pen, the Follies. Cholly Knickerbocker, 21, Lucky Strike dances at the Stork, El Morocco. The incomparable Hildegarde playing the Persian Room at the Plaza, Cary Grant kneeling at her feet in awe. Fifth Avenue: Henri Bendel, Bergdorf’s, Tiffany’s.

There was a subterranean New York, as well; “lower” in every meaning of the word. Ellis Island and the Bowery and the Lower East Side. The subway. Automats and Schrafft’s, hot dogs from a cart, pizza by the slice. Chickens hanging from windows in Chinatown, pickles from a barrel on Delancey. Beatniks in the Village with their torn stockings and dirty turtlenecks and disdain for everything.

But that wasn’t the New York that drew the climbers, the dreamers, the hungry. No, it was lofty New York, the city of penthouses and apartments in the St. Regis or the Plaza or the Waldorf, the New York for whom “Take the ‘A’ Train” was a song, not an option. The New York of big yellow taxis in a pinch, if the limousine was otherwise occupied. The New York of glittering opening nights at the Met; endless charity balls and banquets; wide, clean sidewalks uncluttered by pushcarts and clothing racks and children playing. Views of the park, the river, the bridge, not sooty brick walls or narrow, dank alleys.

The New York of the plays, the movies, the books; the New York of The New Yorker and Vanity Fair and Vogue.

It was a beacon, a spire, a beacon on top of a spire. A light, always glowing from afar, visible even from the cornfields of Iowa, the foothills of the Dakotas, the deserts of California. The swamps of Louisiana. Beckoning, always beckoning. Summoning the discontented, seducing the dreamers. Those whose blood ran too hot, and too quickly, causing them to look about at their placid families, their staid neighbors, the graves of their slumbering ancestors and say—

I’m different. I’m special. I’m more.

They all came to New York. Nancy Gross—nicknamed “Slim” by her friend the actor William Powell—from California. Gloria Guinness—“La Guinness”—born a peasant in a rural village in Mexico. Barbara Cushing—known as “Babe” from the day she was born, the youngest of three fabulous sisters from Boston.

And Truman. Truman Streckfus Persons Capote, who showed up one day on William S. and Babe Paley’s private plane, a tagalong guest of their good friends Jennifer Jones and David O. Selznick. Bill Paley, the chairman and founder of CBS, had gaped at the slender young fawn with the big blue eyes and funny voice; “I thought you meant President Truman,” he’d hissed to David. “I’ve never heard of this little—fellow. We have to spend the whole weekend with him?” Babe Paley, his wife, murmured softly, “Oh, Bill, of course you’ve heard of him,” as she went to greet their unexpected guest with her legendary warmth and graciousness.

Of course, Bill Paley had heard of Truman Capote. Who hadn’t, in Manhattan in 1955?

Truman, Truman, Truman—voices whispered, hissed, envied, disdained. Barely thirty, the Boy Wonder, the Wunderkind, the Tiny Terror (this last, however, mainly uttered by other writers, it must be admitted). Truman Capote, slender, wistful bangs and soulful eyes and unsettling, pouty lips, reclining lazily, staring sultrily from the jacket of his first novel, Other Voices, Other Rooms. A novel that neither Babe nor any of her friends such as Slim or Gloria had bothered to read, it must be admitted. But still, they whispered his name at cocktail parties, benefits, and luncheons.

“You must meet—”

“I’m simply mad about—”

“Of course you know—”


“I introduced you to him first,” Slim reminded Babe after that fateful weekend jaunt to the Paleys’ home in Jamaica; that startling, stunning weekend when Babe and Truman had found themselves blinking at the first dazzling sunrise of friendship, still so new that they didn’t quite understand that it was friendship, this thing that had cast a spell over the two of them to the exclusion of mere mortals. “You just don’t remember. But he was mine, my True Heart. It’s not fair that you’ve stolen him from me.” And Slim pouted and shook her blond hair, always hanging over one eye, looking more like Lauren Bacall than did Lauren Bacall, which was only appropriate, since Lauren Bacall had modeled herself after Slim. “Around the time he was working on the screenplay of Beat the Devil, Leland brought him home for dinner one night. Don’t you remember?”

“No, it was I who first discovered him,” Gloria insisted with a flash of her exotic dark eyes; that flash that always threatened to expose her real origin, concealed so nearly completely beneath the Balenciaga dresses and Kenneth hairstyles—and studied British accent. “I’m surprised, Slim, that you don’t recall. It was soon after he adapted The Grass Harp for Broadway. I don’t generally go in for Broadway, naturally,” she said with an arch look at Slim, who bristled. “But I’m very glad I went to that opening night. I told you all about him then, Babe.”

“My dear, no. I invited him for the weekend, in Paris, don’t you recall?” Pamela broke in, her voice so veddy, veddy British that they all, instinctively, leaned in to hear her (and they all, instinctively, recognized the ploy for what it was, and the many times their husbands had done the same thing, only to encounter Pamela’s magnificent cleavage displayed in a low-cut Dior). “Long before any of you—back when he had just published Other Voices, Other Rooms. Bennett Cerf, you know, the publisher”—and she could barely suppress a shudder; one simply did not like to admit one knew those types—“asked me if I could entertain this young novelist of his, as he was rather nervous about reviews. You were there, Babe. I’m certain of it.”

“Ladies, ladies,” admonished C.Z., unflappable and untouchable as ever, never quite “in” but never quite “out” of their world—simple and uncomplicated, a Hitchcock blonde with a sunny smile (and a clenched, exceedingly proper Boston drawl). But C.Z., they all knew, was happier puttering around in her garden, spade in hand, or tending to her horses than she was lunching at Le Pavillon. “I don’t usually care about this sort of thing, but I do believe I was the one who introduced Truman to Babe. We were shopping at Bergdorf’s. Truman is marvelous at picking out just the right handbag. You were there that afternoon, Babe.”

“No, I propose it was on our yacht,” Marella said in her uncertain English; her entire manner was shy and tentative around her friends, since she was much younger than they were, never entirely sure of her place, despite her fabulous wealth and exquisite beauty—and a face that Truman had pronounced “what Botticelli would have created, had Botticelli had more talent!” “Alec Korda brought him along, one summer. I believe you and Bill were there, Babe, were you not?”

Babe Paley, cool in a blue linen Chanel suit that did not crease, no matter the radiator heat of a New York summer, didn’t reply; she merely looked on, amused, as she removed her gloves, folded them carefully, and slipped them inside her Hermès alligator bag. Seated in the middle of the best table at Le Pavillon, she surveyed her surroundings.

This was her world, a world of quiet elegance, artifice, presentation. And luncheon was the highlight of the day, the reason for getting up in the morning and going to the hairdresser, buying the latest Givenchy or Balenciaga; the reward for managing the perfect house, the perfect children, the perfect husband. And for maintaining the perfect body. After all, one generally dined at home, or at a dinner party; why else employ a personal chef or two? But one went out for luncheon, at The Colony or Quo Vadis. But especially Le Pavillon, where the owner, Henri Soulé, displayed his society ladies like the objets of fine art that they were, seating them proudly in the front room, spreading them out in plush red-velvet banquettes, setting the table with the finest linen, Baccarat glasses, exquisite china and silver, and cut crystal bowls of fresh flowers. They drank their favorite wine, pushed the finest French cuisine around their plates (for in order to wear the kind of clothes and possess the kind of cachet to be welcome at Le Pavillon, naturally one could not actually eat), gossiped, and were seen.

Photographers were always gathered on the sidewalk outside, waiting to snap the beautiful people inside, and Babe, tall, regal, a gracious smile on her face, was the most sought-after of all, to her friends’ eternal dismay and her own weary disdain—although the most observant, like Slim, might notice that Babe would pause, imperceptibly, if no photographer happened to be around, as if looking, or wishing, for one magically to appear.

Why was Babe Paley such a favorite? Why was she the most fussed over, the most sought out for a quick, reverent hello by those not privileged to be seated with her? She was not the most beautiful; that honor must go to Gloria Guinness, with her exquisite neck, lustrous black hair, and flashing eyes. She was not the most amusing; that was Slim Hayward, with her quips and her quick wit, honed at the feet of men like Ernest Hemingway and Howard Hawks and Gary Cooper. She was not the most noble; no, that would be a tie between the Honorable Pamela Digby Churchill, daughter of a baron, ex-daughter-in-law of a prime minister, and Marella Agnelli, a bona fide Italian princess, married to Gianni Agnelli, the heir to the Fiat kingdom.

It was her style, that indefinable asset. It was said that the others had style but Babe was style. No one noticed Babe’s clothes, for instance; not at first, even though she was always clad in the chicest, most exquisite designs. They noticed her, her tall, slender frame, her grave dark eyes, the way she had of holding her handbag in the crook of her arm, the simple grace with which she pushed her sunglasses on top of her hair or unbuttoned a coat with just one hand, allowing it to fall elegantly from her shoulders into the always-waiting arms of a maître d’.

What they did not notice was the loneliness that trailed after her, along with the faint, grassy scent of her favorite fragrance, Balmain’s Vent Vert. The loneliness that, despite fabulous wealth, numerous houses, children, the most vibrant and powerful husband of all her friends, was her constant companion—or, at least, had been. Until now.

“It doesn’t really matter,” Babe finally pronounced, settling it once and for all. “I’m simply so very glad to know him. To Truman!” And she raised a flute of Cristal.

“To Truman!” her five friends all echoed, and they toasted to their latest find, excited and hungrily anticipating fresh amusements galore, nothing more.

“To Truman,” Babe whispered to herself, and smiled a private little smile that none of her friends had ever seen before. But the Duchess of Windsor had just entered the restaurant, her harsh little face turned first to the left, then to the right, as if she really were royalty, igniting a small wildfire of catty conversation—“Isn’t the duke the most boring man you’ve ever met? But those jewels! The one thing he’s ever done right!”—and none of Babe’s friends was even looking at her.

Except for Slim, who narrowed her eyes and bit her lip. And wondered.

chapter 2


There was another young woman who dreamed of New York; another young woman who knew that if she could only find her way there, she could live happily ever after—with or without her young son. Her name was Lillie Mae Faulk, and she was from Monroeville, Alabama. She came to New York, too.

Once upon a time.

“My mother’s name was Nina,” Truman told Gloria, told C.Z., told Slim. His eyes gleamed softly, reverently. “Nina was beautiful—a real lady. She was too much for Monroeville, Alabama! She always told me, ‘Truman, my little man, I’m going to take you to New York one day.’ And she did, when I was eleven. That’s when my life really began—because it’s New York! Not sleepy little Monroeville, where nothing ever happened. Although I did get bit by a cottonmouth once, and nearly died. Nearly—oh, my goodness, I was one foot over the line! But they saved me. Nothing can kill me, not even a snake!”

“Oh!” Slim gasped. Then she grinned. “Let me see the scar!”

“Big Mama!” Truman wagged a finger at her but obliged, rolling up his shirt to reveal a thin, supple arm, paler than the moon, covered with a fine down of silken blond hair, as white as the hair on his head, the hair brushing his eyes, always falling, falling over his face like a curtain or a veil. “See?”

Slim did see: two faint punctures on his forearm, barely visible.

“These are my scars, my only scars,” Truman told her, triumphantly. “I don’t have any others!”

“My mother’s name was really Lillie Mae,” Truman revealed to Babe. It was early in their friendship, those days when they had to catch each other up on everything that had happened to them, so that they could mark their lives—Before. And After.

“Lillie Mae Faulk. And she was a selfish bitch,” Truman said, his voice flat for once. He wasn’t trying to captivate or ensnare; he knew he had Babe, knew it in his heart. Knew it as a dream come true, for that was what it was.

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The Swans of Fifth Avenue: A Novel 3.9 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 25 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.
Anonymous 28 days 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 5 months ago
Anonymous 5 months ago
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.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Wonderful book.