Gossip and glamour, fashion and extravagance…. this is the world of mid-twentieth-century New York City that Melanie Benjamin creates so well in her novel, The Swans of Fifth Avenue. Specifically, high-society Manhattan in the mid-1950s, when bouffant hairstyles and two-pack-a-day cigarette habits were in vogue.
The parties and openings and galas positively glitter in this story. And the two figures who are at the center of this universe are the literary figure Truman Capote and the elegant socialite Babe Paley. Truman refers to Babe and her beautiful friends as his “Swans,” and he brings laughter, stories, and especially gossip into their shallow lives. The novel focuses particularly on the close friendship between Babe and Truman. As the intimacy deepens, the hollowness of their lives becomes more and more apparent.
The friendship between Truman and the Swans ends dramatically with the publication, in 1975, of his scandalous short story La Cote Basque 1965. Babe and her friends can’t forgive how Truman exposes their private lives, with all the failings and ugliness they work so hard to keep out of sight.
The strength of the novel is the portrayal of the inner lives of Babe Paley and Truman Capote. Melanie Benjamin goes beyond the impeccable surfaces of their high-society lives and successfully creates characters with feelings, flaws, and desperate attempts to convince themselves that their lives are as beautiful as they look.
Other novels featuring New York high society include:
The Darlings by Cristina Alger
The Rules of Civility by Amor Towles