Book review: Truman Capote and the friends he couldn’t help but betray

Melanie Benjamin's historical fiction imagines the friendship between Capote and socialite Babe Paley, drawn together by their sense of having failed to live up to impossible expectations

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 09 February, 2016, 4:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 09 February, 2016, 4:00am

The Swans of Fifth Avenue

by Melanie Benjamin

Random House

It may seem a strange comparison, but the lives of Truman Capote, Jack Kerouac and Hunter S. Thompson share a common sadness. In different degrees, after producing their major works, none was able to focus enough on their writing to create anything of remotely similar significance.

Melanie Benjamin’s new book The Swans of Fifth Avenue is a historical novel that portrays the close friendship between Capote and Barbara “Babe” Paley, and Capote’s relationship with a number of New York socialites. The novel also imagines what happens during Capote’s ascent as a writer – many critics still consider In Cold Blood his greatest piece of writing – and his later descent into the role of trivial talk show celebrity and massive consumer of alcohol and drugs.

Benjamin’s thoughtful, entertaining and tragic work begins at the now defunct New York restaurant La Côte Basque, where Benjamin imagines the reaction of several of Capote’s circle of friends, whom Capote called “swans,” to the publication of Capote’s story La Côte Basque 1965 in a 1979 edition of Esquire magazine. The story is an excerpt from his unfinished novel Answered Prayers. The publication of the excerpt did in fact spawn a literary scandal because the members of the circle recognised themselves – under different names – as well as stories they had told Capote, supposedly in confidence. His swans felt betrayed.

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The central relationship in Benjamin’s work is between Capote and Paley, socialite, fashion icon and wife of CBS president William Paley. In Benjamin’s hands, both are complex characters. Capote, because of his sexual orientation, could never please his mother. He seeks in equal measure beauty and to be loved and admired. Babe Paley had to aspire to perfection – in clothes, beauty, and marriage to the right person – to please her mother. Capote and Paley share their innermost secrets with each other.

When In Cold Blood makes Capote rich and famous, Paley becomes terrified of losing their friendship.

Capote admits to himself that “he would never have been admitted to their circles on the basis of anything so drearily ordinary as talent or truth”. And Babe Paley wishes she could escape the rules and expectations of her class.

We are fortunate that Truman Capote left us some great works. The Swans of Fifth Avenue makes you wonder what else Capote might have produced.

Tribune News Service