The Swans of Fifth Avenue, by Melanie Benjamin


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:



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




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.


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.


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.



Happy Reading!




*Paley and Guinness portraits by Richard Avedon.