It’s the story literary freaks, pop culture geeks and gossip mavens all know. The story of a covey of fascinating young women who were known for being beautiful; graceful as swans. Beauty made them famous and envied and rich but it didn’t make them happy, Instead, Beauty made them insecure and lonely. They wanted friends who’d value them instead of their looks or the powerful men they had married. Then one day, this flock of sad, lovely, women befriended an unusual man, An odd, little man, who liked but didn’t lust after them. A clever talker of a man who cheered them up with the juicy gossip, whenever they were blue. The strange storyteller listened to each woman when she talked. and told each woman he adored her. And, because he was gay and understanding and fun, the women showered him with gifts and friendship. They even shared their deepest secrets with him.
Secrets he wrote down.
This is the setup for The Swans of Fifth Avenue, the story of a fascinating literary scandal. It stars some of the original American taste-makers of the mid-20th century like Babe Paley, and Slim Keith, and Truman Capote, the man they befriended. When he was a young, semi-successful writer, these women and many of their friends each found Capote to be a kindred spirit. He made them laugh and praised not only their faces and forms (referring to them collectively as “swans”) but their intelligence, taste, and souls. In turn, they supported him during the lean years and celebrated with him as they all found success. Then, when he was desperate for one more book, he published their nastiest secrets with just enough fiction on top to turn their humiliating memories into a guessing game for the reading public. At least one woman included in the story killed herself the day that she got a printed copy. The rest of the women ended the friendship. And was Capote surprised by their reaction?
Oddly enough, he was.
In one sense, The Swans of Fifth Avenue tells the story of how friendship is made and destroyed. It captures a bit of America in the center of the 20th century. Like Capote’s masterpiece, In Cold Blood, Swans is an amalgamation of research and imagination now known as the “non-fiction novel” But mostly, it’s an old-fashioned, gossipy fun book to read, perfect for the summer.
Capote, I think, would have loved being the star of this story. His swans, I believe, would not.