THE SWANS OF FIFTH AVENUE by Melanie Benjamin

THE SWANS OF FIFTH AVENUE

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KIRKUS REVIEW

Class, cliques, and cattiness converge in this New York fable based on the lives of Truman Capote and his greatest fan, Babe Paley.

As it happens, Benjamin (The Aviator’s Wife, 2013, etc.) puts more honey than vinegar in her rendering of the disarming palship between the openly gay author of Breakfast at Tiffany’s and his much-married “Bobolink”—Barbara “Babe” Cushing Mortimer Paley, the outwardly towering, inwardly cowering Upper East Side matron he squired around town for a quarter century. A chorus of the couple’s BFFs provides commentary on their history, as Benjamin spirals chirpily through the hedonistic '50s, '60s, and '70s, cherry-picking scenes of their first, chance weekend together at the Paleys' compound in Jamaica (“So many wanted to catch him at it! Watch as genius burned!”), thick as thieves over lunch at Le Cirque, or swapping confidences about their narcissistic mothers—more craved than kisses—at slumber parties in the Hamptons, all the way through to the publication of Capote’s masterpiece, In Cold Blood, and his infamous Black and White masquerade ball. The event that allegedly drove them apart—when Truman mauled Babe and her set in thinly disguised print—has been raked over repeatedly by critics, filmmakers, and biographers (including Babe’s friend Slim Keith—one of the Kenneth-coiffed swans alluded to in the title), so it's no surprise when the novel re-creates some iconic moments leading up to the rift: such as when Truman notices for the first time that Babe's husband—CBS executive William S. Paley—smiles "like a man who had just swallowed an entire human being." (Capote recognizes a keeper—and files it away “in his photographic memory, to be used at a later date.”) The character Benjamin takes most imaginative liberty with, naturally, is Babe—the cool cucumber in Mainbocher who (the chatter went) could brush off her husband’s wolfishness with practiced ease and neither bleeped a word against nor spoke to her literary pet again after he published "La Cote Basque 1965."

Elegant Babe's thoughts, if not her lips, are unsealed at last. Those unaware of the scandal get CliffsNotes; and everyone else gets a chance to judge whether a swan’s muteness can be more interesting than her gripe.

Pub Date: Jan. 26th, 2016
ISBN: 978-0-345-52869-8
Page count: 368pp
Publisher: Delacorte
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1st, 2015




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