The Swans of Fifth Avenue, by Melanie Benjamin

louis-icart-leda-and-the-swan-prints-and-multiples-etching-engraving-aquatint

Leda and the Swan, Louis Icart

How glorious it must have been. Debuting designer gowns. Two standing appointments each week with New York’s most sought-after hair stylist. Two, three, four homes, fully-staffed. A private plane — or yacht — or both. In Melanie Benjamin’s The Swans of Fifth Avenue, the lives of the rich and famous (and infamous) in New York’s City Golden Fifties and Sixties swim to magnificent, and at first, enviable life.

Author Truman Capote brings the swans together prior to attaining his own literary fame. He is a young man about town, with golden hair, a unique accent, and a way of looking at life completely new to his lady friends. And what friends. Chief among them:

35-barbara-babe-cushing-mortimer-paley-theredlist

Paley

Babe Paley, wife of CBS Chairman William S. Paley. A great beauty, fashion model, and Mr. Blackwell’s lifetime achievement award winner.*

Slim_Keith

Keith

 

Slim Hawks Hayward Keith, the original California girl; wife of Howard Hawks and inspiration for Lauren Bacall.*

Gloria Guinness, “La Guinness,” born in Guadalajara, La Guinness used marriage to make her way up to contributing editor of Harper’s Bazaar, wealth and the best dressed list. * gloria-guinness-avedon

Pamela Rutherford Churchill Hayward Harriman, of most recent note, funpam harrimandraiser extraordinaire for the Democratic party, stealer of Slim Hayward’s husband, mistress to the rich and famous.

Enter Truman Capote.

Slim’s hands shook as she spilled a packet of menthols all over her plate. . . . “I’d like to know who the hell it was who befriended that little midget in the first place.”

“It wasn’t I,” Pamela insisted. “I never did like the bugger.”

“Oh, no, it wasn’t me — I warned you about him, didn’t I?” Gloria asked rhetorically, those Latin eyes flashing so dangerously, it was a good thing there were only butter knives on the table.

“I don’t believe it was me,” Marella murmured. “No, no, it was not.”

“It sure as hell wasn’t me.” Slim spat it out. “And if he’s not convicted for murder, I’m going to sue him for libel, at the very least.”

The Swans of Fifth Avenue begins and ends with La Cote Basque, 1965, a scandalous story Capote published in Esquire magazine, after Breakfast at Tiffany’s, after In Cold Blood. The middle of the novel circles through Capote’s complex relationships with these fabulously wealthy and beautiful women: the symbiotic relationship he had with many, and the parasitic turns it took. Along the way, the reader is treated to delightful descriptions that read like Page 6 from 1965. I kept putting the book down to look up photos of the characters and was never disappointed.

We even get to attend Capote’s legendary black and white ball in November of 1966, the swans-fifth-avenue-225-shadowparty to end all parties.

. . . This was a palace, and the ballroom was fit for a fairy tale, with crystal chandeliers, masses of flowers, parquet dance floor, and gilded mirrors on the wall. There was a small orchestra — Truman had whispered “Its Peter Duchin!” earlier . . .

And everywhere you looked, there was somebody famous! Lauren Bacall! Joan Fontaine, so big on the movie screen but so tiny in person! Margaret Truman and Alice Roosevelt Longfellow and Lynda Bird Johnson, swapping confidences about what it was like to live in the White House!

Of course there were so many Vanderbilts and Astors and Whitneys that the Deweys simply couldn’t keep them straight, so they didn’t try.

black and white ball

Glorious, divinely glorious, and oh, so fun to read. My book club read it this month. Reading the Swans of Fifth Avenue sounds more sophisticated than, but has the same impact, as rummaging through your neighbor’s dirty laundry. Read it. You’ll like it.

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So, of course these women don’t eat. They smoke stacks and stacks of cigarettes and drink Cristal. But William S. Paley eats and Babe does her durndest to make sure he enjoys it. “Lamb chops — so tender you can eat them with a spoon! — and these adorable baby vegetables I found in the city, and brought out with me today in a little wicker basket. And potatoes, new and succulent, with butter and rosemary picked fresh just an hour ago.”

Even after that divine dinner, Paley is hungry and makes himself a footlong salami sandwich on rye.

I myself love those little baby vegetables. I boil water, stick them in there for about 2-3 minutes, just until a wee bit tender when pierced with a fork, then empty the pan and plunge the vegetables into ice water. It retains the color and flavor.

For the baby potatoes, I would roast them whole on 450 with salt and pepper and olive oil (not butter), turning them occasionally to make sure the outside gets nice and browned. When they are done, put a handful of fresh, chopped rosemary into a bowl and add the potatoes and mix gently.

Lamb chops — you’re on your own.

MUSIC

Frank Sinatra, baby. Frankie attended the Black and White Ball with his new bride Mia Farrow. Sinatra at the Sands was recorded live at the Sands Hotel (Vegas) in 1966, the year of the ball and has a lot of the classics you’ll want to hear.

I also found a Peter Duchin album on iTunes called Windmills of Your Mind with some 1960s classics as well.

Cygnus_atratus_%22Mulgo%22

 

Happy Reading!

 

 

 

*Paley and Guinness portraits by Richard Avedon.

 

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SweetBitter by Stephanie Danler

waiters

Stephanie Danler’s restaurant bildungsroman SweetBitter hit at exactly the right time to garner big buzz (Vogue, Vanity Fair, The Paris Review!) and accolades from the in-the-know literati. SweetBitter, the cautionary tale of a star-struck dreamer who comes to New York City to live her dream by — working as a back server in a fancy restaurant. Yes. Really. Tess, our protagonist, doesn’t want to be an actor or a singer or America’s next top model. She doesn’t really know what she wants to be. Just “SOMETHING” and “IN NEW YORK.” So, she sets out to interview for a busboy position at Famous NY Restaurant in Union Square, the best in the city, and after she’s hired, learns how to flirt with the bad boy, reject the good boy, drink till dawn, do drugs, be a pawn in someone else’s game of chess, get taken advantage of, take advantage of, and brown nose the important guests, among other things.

According to author Gabrielle Hamilton, owner of Prune Restaurant in New York, who reviewed SweetBitter for the New York Times “This is the dead-on collective mind matter of the current youth of our tribe. Restaurant is and always will be a young person’s game, but the busboys these days have more in common with the class they serve than ever before.” http://www.nytimes.com/2016/05/29/books/review/sweetbitter-by-stephanie-danler.html?_r=0

Daffy_duck_cartoom_wallpaper-normal5.4

“Picking up,” I said, harder, hands outstretched, ready.

It was all one motion. The roasted half duck had been in the window for going on five minutes while it waited for the risotto, the plate baking. At first, as with all burns, I felt nothing. I reacted in anticipation. When the plate shattered and the duck thudded clumsily on the mats, I cried out, pulling my hand to my chest, caving.

Chef looked at me. He had never really seen me before.

“Are you kidding me?” he asked. Quiet. All the line cooks, butchers, prep guys, pastry girls watched me.

“I burned myself.” I held out my palm, already streaked with red, as proof.

“Are you fucking kidding me?” Louder. A rumbling, then quiet. Even the tickets stopped printing. “Where do you come from? What kind of bullshit TGI Fridays waitresses are they bringing in now? You think that’s a burn? Do you want me to call your mommy?”

“The plates are too hot,” I said. And then I couldn’t take it back.

I stared at his feet, at the mess on the floor. I bent over to pick up the beautifully burnished duck. I thought he might hit me. I flinched, but held it out to him by its leg.

“Are you retarded? Get out of my kitchen. Don’t even think about setting foot in here again. This is a church.” He slammed his hands on the stainless steel in front of him. “A fucking church!”

chefStephanie Danler traverses the seasons of one year in  Tess’s life, just as the kitchen turns to focus on flavors, foods, and menus. I enjoyed SweetBitter’s backstage insight into the kitchen life, the sharing of family meal for staff before the guests arrive, the surreptitious tasting of oysters, truffles, champagne, the late night after work complimentary shift drink for all, the one holiday a year party on New Year’s Day. This was information Anthony Bourdain didn’t reveal in Kitchen Confidential. And Danler has the credentials. I reached out to literary agent Melissa Flashman (a Lexington, KY girl making it good in the Big Apple) of Trident Media, Danler’s agent, who told me Stephanie “worked at Union Square Cafe as well as many other NYT restaurants, bars and a wine shop.”

Danler answered several questions for Vanity Fair, one of which was why use the setting of the very famous Union Square Cafe.

I set it in Union Square not just because that was my first job and my first entryway, but [also because] that restaurant has an ethic and a level of professionalism that is unmatched in New York City. Danny Meyer is a genius and that was his first place.

I could have set it at a more Balthazar-style place, or a more Blue Water Grill–style place, but I wasn’t really looking for that kind of atmosphere. What I found when I went to Union Square Cafe was this group of super-educated, highly creative, ultra-professional servers.

There are places where you clock in, you clock out, and then there are places where you invest emotionally, and I needed a setting where people were investing.

What I didn’t enjoy? Now I know rats are standard residents of every New York City restaurant.

SweetBitter is another in the New York-food genre I’ve been reading lately, perhaps a bit sweetbittercheekier, younger, hipper than The Nest and Modern Lovers, but somewhere on the spectrum. Danler has an MFA from The New School, according to her book jacket, and the prose is clean, tight, clear, well-ordered. Much like a well-run kitchen.

My recommendation: SweetBitter will make a good basis for discussion at your book club. There are men-women issues, generational issues, employer-employee issues, and food. Oh, also, just in passing, did I mention there is wine? Like on every page? Wine, Wine, Wine, Wine, Wine. And the occasional glass of whine.

*Note: I did reach out to Stephanie Danler, hoping for a recipe, a music recommendation, or a private thought. Melissa Flashman sent my email on to her publicist. But seriously, the woman is being interviewed by Vanity Fair, Vogue and Paris Review. Unsurprisingly, she hasn’t responded yet. If she does, I’ll let you know.

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I think we might as well go with the one that dropped on the floor. I don’t know if I can roast a duck, but it sounds like it would be fun to try.

Good, Italian bread

Oysters on the half shell

Roasted Duck. Here’s a good looking recipe from Epicurious.com, one of my go-to websites for cooking. http://www.epicurious.com/recipes/food/views/crisp-roast-duck-235744

Risotto

Red wine

Agent Flashman followed up with me to suggest that Stephanie would suggest Campari Soda as a read-with. Sounds delicious.

MUSIC

There’s music throughout SweetBitter but not much of it is familiar to me. I do however love the soundtrack from the movie Chef, downloadable at Amazon and iTunes. That’s what I would play.

MOVIE CAST

Tess — Kiernan Shipke (perfect big budget vehicle for her movie coming out)

Jake — Chris Pine

Simone — Keri Russell

Howard — Matthew McConaughey

Will — Skylar Astin

Happy Reading!

 

 

 

The Nest, by Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney

the nestThe Nest has buzz. An excellent review by the New York Times. A huge advance payment to a first-time author from a publisher. It does not, however, have any characters I liked or could root for in his/her quest to attain a share of The Nest (egg).

faberge eggSummary

The Plumb siblings, (Leo, Jack, Bea and Melody) have been waiting. Waiting for years.
Counting their egg well before it hatched on Melody’s fortieth
birthday. Ignoring the concerns, counseling, and skepticism of friends, family, and lovers in a mutual, bull-headed reliance on the largesse that is to come. Frankly, none of them deserve their father’s well-planned beneficence.

It’s Leo, the eldest, who puts the nest into jeopardy with his incredibly selfish and stupid drug-addled behavior. The Plumb matriarch (widowed, remarried and the apparent source of her children’s disagreeable personalities) uses the nest rather than her own funds to solve Leo’s problems. Leo promises Jack (selfish, narcissistic, insecure), Bea (bland, depressed, colorless), and Melody (overbearing, self-pitying, stalker) he will repay the money. And ignoring all family and non-family history of big brother’s behavior, the siblings believe him.

New York Times Review

The New York Times review included the following passage:

28BOOKSWEENEY-superJumbo

Photo of the author by Lisa Whitman for the New York Times

Ms. Sweeney takes her story to Grand Central Terminal, and to the sequence she has said gave her the idea for “The Nest” in the first place. What if a group of siblings were forced to meet for lunch at the Oyster Bar, but each one of them required a fortifying belt at another place before the actual family meeting? It could tell readers a lot about the family in general and the characters as individuals, too.

It’s a handy trick, just right for the Nancy Meyers movie that “The Nest” could easily become. Ecco reportedly paid a disproportionately big advance for this book. But consider what Ms. Meyers or a similar director could do with four adorably mixed-up siblings and their romantic woes, crazy run-ins and rich-person problems. So what if the book isn’t very funny? Neither are those movies, and that hasn’t stopped them.  http://www.nytimes.com/2016/03/28/books/review-in-the-nest-a-family-pot-to-split-sets-sibling-relations-to-a-slow-boil.html?_r=0

I couldn’t disagree more. Nancy Meyers wouldn’t touch this with a ten-foot pole. There’s not much humor, no one to like or root for, and frankly, The Nest isn’t funny. At all. I’m not sure it it’s even supposed to be. To me, it read like a strident warning — not just about the family dynamics of inheritance but of the people we can become in our attempts to control others.

From the Book

He was tired of gossip. God, was he tired of gossip. By the time he sold it, SpeakEasyMedia had fully morphed into the very thing Leo most loathed. It had become a pathetic parody of itself, not any more admirable or honest or transparent than the many publications and people they ruthlessly ridiculed—twenty-two to thirty-four times a day to be exact, that was the number the accountants had come up with, how many daily posts they needed on each of their fourteen sites to generate enough clickthroughs to keep the advertisers happy. An absurd amount, a number that meant they had to give prominence to the mundane, shine a spotlight of mockery on the unlucky and often undeserving—publishing stories that were immediately forgotten except by the poor sods who’d been fed to the ever-hungry machine that was SpeakEasyMedia. “The cockroaches of the Internet,” one national magazine had dubbed them, illustrating the article with a cartoon drawing of Leo as King Roach. He was tired of being King Roach. The numbers the larger media company dangled seemed huge to Leo who was also, at that particular moment, besotted with his new publicist, Victoria Gross, who had come from money and was accustomed to money and looked around the room of Leo’s tiny apartment the first time she visited as if she’d just stepped into a homeless shelter.

My book club really liked the book. And I have to say I did take a lot from reading it. It was well-written, quick-witted, and I certainly learned a few lessons from it. Who not to be.

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There’s an Italian, spring-themed dinner planned that is the denouement:

“Walker had lined the table with platters of bread and cheese, tiny ceramic bowls of olives. He’d scattered lemons and twigs of rosemary down the center.”

In addition, Walker served:

Champagne

Lemonade

Chicken scaloppini

Limoncello for dessert

Coconut cake

MUSIC

This is a stream-of-consciousness list inspired by my reading – some are mentioned in the text.

Just the Way You Look Tonight, Harry Connick, Jr.

Heartbreaker, Pat Benatar

You Make Me Feel Like Dancing, Leo Sayer

Jumpin Jack Flash, The Rolling Stones

I Will Survive, Gloria Gaynor

All By Myself, Eric Carmen

Unchained Melody, The Righteous Brothers

Paperback Writer, The Beatles

MOVIE CASTING

Leo — Ben Affleck

Jack — Robert Downey, Jr.

Bea — Laura Linney

Melody — Laura Dern

Stephanie –Amy Adams

Walter — John C. Reilly

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