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Book Club Choices: The Swans of Fifth Avenue by Melanie Benjamin

Most people know Truman Capote by his writing—especially In Cold Blood and Breakfast at Tiffany’s. What many may not know is that Capote was quite the darling of high society during the 1950s and 1960s. A diminutive, gay man, Capote seemed to fit in with the women of New York who were married to wealthy and important men and spent their days and evenings “being seen.”

In particular, Truman Capote became best friends with Babe Paley, who was married to the serially unfaithful founder of CBS, William Paley. Babe not only brought Truman into her elite circle of high fashion and seemingly perfect friends; she (and her friends) confided their deepest secrets to him. By and large, these women who lunched were captives of their times. Each had style, humor, and intelligence, and were trapped in marriages more about the money than love.

Populated with names that still linger in today’s memory—Slim Keith, Gloria Guinness, CZ Guest, and Pamela Churchill (even Jackie Onassis has a cameo)—we learn about their lives behind the facades. We also learn about Truman’s unhappy upbringing and his descent into alcoholism and extreme narcissism, which eventually has him spilling the Swans’ secrets in an expose for Esquire. He is shocked when they feel utterly betrayed. Such is the extent of his delusional sense of impunity.

This novel drips with the times of high society New York just prior to the revolutionary changes that take the country by storm in the mid-1960s. A terrific read.

The Swans of Fifth Avenue by Melanie Benjamin. Bantam/Penguin Random House; ISBN 9780345528704. $16.

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