March 20, 2016
BY JUDY CARMACK BROSS
Chicagoan Melanie Benjamin’s tale of elegance and artifice, The Swans of Fifth Avenue, has been sitting regally on the New York Times Best Sellers list for a seventh week, alongside works by literary heavy-hitters like Harper Lee and John Grisham (and many beloved book series).
Home briefly from a cross-country book tour, Melanie talked about the socialite swans among her pages – Babe Paley, C.Z. Guest, Gloria Guinness, Slim Keith, Marella Agnelli, and Pamela Churchill – whose rarified lives are rocked by a literary scandal and personal betrayal.
Written as a novel, the book captures that day in 1975 when the women discover that their close friend Truman Capote, who had been part of their enchanted circle for 20 years, has aired their dirty laundry in Esquire magazine. The piece, a short story titled La Cote Basque 1965, was published as a teaser chapter to his still-unfinished novel, Answered Prayers (the existing chapters were published in the late 1980s).
At the center of the book is Barbara “Babe” Paley, who was – and remains to many – a fashion icon. Among other things, it was her nonchalant tying of a scarf to her purse that launched her to style star status and earned her many imitators. But despite her recognition as arbiter of good taste, her pedigree as a Boston Cushing sister and her power position as wife of CBS founder William Paley, Melanie describes her as a woman who “trailed loneliness after her along with the faint grassy scent of Balmain’s Vent Vert.” And it is Babe who suffers most in the story after Capote’s bombshell.
Melanie took time from the demands of her book tour to answer some questions:
Why do you think The Swans of Fifth Avenue is flying off the shelves?
It is gossipy and a good read, but it’s more than that. These icons who appeared in the headlines and in the pages of Vogue were real people who had things to overcome and to hide. Also, the 1950s and 1960s still fascinate.
Who are your favorite characters in the book?
Babe and Truman are my favorites. They both touched my heart. As a writer, I was very protective of her. I found myself focusing on Frank Sinatra, who attended Truman’s Black and White Ball with his wife Mia Farrow. I was writing about that glittering masked gala given by Truman at the height of his popularity in 1966, in part from Sinatra’s point of view. Truman’s guest of honor at the Ball was the Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham, who is like Cinderella and the reader at the same time. She is overwhelmed by an afternoon at Kenneth’s salon, where the swans are having their hair coifed to their accentuate elaborate masks, as well as by the celebrities who attended the Ball at the Plaza, and by Truman himself.
What about Pamela Churchill Hayward Harriman, then Pamela Churchill? Bill Paley once called her “the greatest courtesan of all time” and in your book, she has taken Leland Hayward away from his then-wife Slim Keith.
She is the most predatory of all the women in the book. She surely knew how to trade up, up, and up. But in the 1930s and 1940s, there were not a lot of options, and marrying well was considered wise. She really took it all to the bank.
What are Truman and Babe’s legacies? In Cold Blood was considered to be the first novel in the true crime genre and many felt that it should have won the Pulitzer Prize. Of Babe, I read that Bill Blass said that despite the high fashion, perfect makeup, and Verdura jewelry, that “you noticed Babe and nothing else.”
Truman was a genius of a writer, and what most people remember are the scenes from the end of his life: the flamboyant behavior and all the excesses. But his writing endures. Babe will always be a fashion icon, after years of being on everyone’s best-dressed lists, she was elected to the International Fashion Hall of Fame. I have heard her described as “the ultimate trophy wife” and to me, she is always a little bit heartbreaking.
Truman was called “True Heart” by the swans, and not only lunched with them, but was a guest at their homes, on their yachts, and private planes around the world. You get the sense that, although he betrayed them by telling the most intimate of their secrets, he was surprised that they held it against him. He claimed he was always a storyteller, did he expect them not to have known what he would do? In one passage, Babe seems to say that she understands that he expected her ultimate forgiveness. Do you think he realized what he was doing?
This is the key question and I hope people who are interested will read my book. The story is about his self-destructive path – he has tattled and is punished for it. The reader has to decide in the end if Babe forgave him.
This is a true story and, like your best seller The Aviator’s Wife about Anne Morrow Lindbergh, it is written as fiction with imaginary dialogue. How is your research structured?
I am not a stenographer to the past. I read everything there is about my subjects, watched Breakfast at Tiffany’s more times than I can count, as well as film clips, but I leave room for my imagination to work. The conversations are fictionalized but the timeline is real.
What is your writing schedule and have you started something new?
I am an extremely disciplined writer and I write 2,000 words each morning until I get the draft of a manuscript. Then, I go back and revise; that is the delicate work. And then I have a book – or I don’t. I have books that I probably will never publish. I am always writing and I do have a new book in the works. I don’t like to talk about my books until they are ready.
Have you been writing all your life? Are there current authors whom you enjoy reading?
I am a late bloomer and was active in theater when I was growing up. I didn’t start writing until I was 40. I wasn’t artistic at all, but I was always an avid reader. My taste is still very eclectic, and I enjoy everything except mysteries, romance, or science fiction. Currently, I am reading Amy Bloom, Jane Smiley and I just finished Angela Flournoy’s debut novel, The Turner House.
After a brief Miami Beach vacation and a few literary festivals, Melanie anticipates being back at her writing desk in Chicago. Born in Indianapolis, Melanie writes in an author’s note: “I never did make it to New York to live. But I did make it to Chicago, which I love; finally, I am a big city girl.”