“Do you think it is about Bill?” New York socialite Babe Paley asked Slim Keith over the phone when the November 1975 issue of Esquire graced newspaper stands across the country. Truman Capote’s “La Côte Basque 1965,” the first installment of Capote’s roman à clef, “Future Prayers,” caused an uproar across the New York social scene by revealing long held secrets, affairs, and even murder, without even the dignity of disguises.
Melanie Benjamin chronicles Capote’s rise to fame as a 23-year-old wunderkin when “Other Voices, Other Rooms” won literary acclaim, to the socially ostracized alcoholic who passed away in 1984 with compassion, wit, and an ear for the ever-changing cadence of New York City. Her sympathetic characters, attention to detail, and perhaps the additional decades, keep “The Swans of Fifth Avenue” from wearing the label of vicious gossip pinned to “La Côte Basque 1965.”
What separates fact from fiction, fiction from gossip? In an interview with Playboy, Capote claims all fiction is gossip: “What in God’s green earth is Anna Karenina or War and Peace or Madame Bovary, if not gossip?” If, instead of writing one of the most well-know classics of Russian literature, Tolstoy found the period equivalent of TMZ to run a story about his neighbor’s mistress (who committed suicide) under the headline “Anna Karenina,” without corroboration, quotes, or valid sources…then Anna Karenina would be gossip. Instead, Tolstoy made a point of declaring Anna Karenina his first novel—a story that adhered to the strictures of the genre, yet expressed deeper meanings about life in Russia.
Fiction, like gossip, requires no corroboration. Unlike gossip, which provides the means with which to close our minds (labels, sound-bites, and catch-phrases), fiction encourages us to open our minds to people, places and experiences that make us more rounded, more educated and (hopefully) humane individuals. Fiction can shock us into questioning, into understanding, even into action. Gossip simply shocks us and adds another filter to our lens of perception.
Benjamin is not gossiping as much as airing two sides of a scandal and reconciling, for the fictional record, the stories of two friends who loved each other deeply and wounded each other mortally.
Benjamin’s Truman Capote is more like Capote than Capote himself. He giggles as he flaps his limp-wristed hands. He leaps on chairs and hugs his knees, delighting in gossip. He tells Babe Paley to twirl as he showers her with flower petals. He is vicious and magnanimous, brash and insecure, the charmer and the snake, brilliant but damaged. Benjamin evokes his exaggerated lisp and sardonic tongue, the mocking only noticeable to his choice few—his swans: Babe Paley, C. Z. Guest, Gloria Guinness, Pamela Churchill, and Slim Keith.
The swans gather, at the novel’s onset, to preen their ruffled feathers. Aged but still regal they purse their lipsticked mouths. They clasp their gloved hands over their chests in shock. They are angry and vengeful. He killed her they whisper, indignant, insistent, ready to close the doors of New York City against Capote for good.
Who did Capote’s pen kill, how and why? Benjamin sustains tension throughout most of the book with these questions, counting on Malala Yousafzai and the Jenner sisters to overshadow the Capote scandal of 1975 in the public’s immediate memory. Perhaps inspired by Capote’s “In Cold Blood,” Benjamin manages to make Capote’s life read, in part, as a tale of adultery, murder, and suicide.
His childhood, despite a friendship with Harper Lee, was largely lonely. Capote spent much of his young years with his mother’s relatives in rural Alabama, was a pawn in his parent’s divorce, and was shipped off for an unsuccessful stint in military school after his mother’s remarriage.
Benjamin sets readers up to understand Capote’s insecurity, his quest to be be loved and to posses beautiful things. He is the little boy in his star costume disappointed by the absence of his parents during the school parade, the little boy crying in the darkened theater as Pinocchio wishes to be real, or locked alone in a motel room waiting for his mother. He is the little boy tap-dancing, dressed as Shirley Temple, until his mother runs outside to throw up.
By the time Capote achieved literary fame in 1948 his life, and the fate of the world, looked much brighter. The end of WWII birthed the golden age of capitalism, the thirty-plus years of economic growth in the U.S. before the oil crisis, stock-market crash, and subsequent recession in the 1970s. Capote’s career had a similar arc, shooting beyond the moon with “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” “In Cold Blood,” and the infamous Black and White Ball, only to crash and disintegrate after the 1975 Esquire scandal. In 1948 however, Capote was only beginning to explore and indulge in his love of the truly wealthy and beautiful.
She called him True Heart. He, in turn, called her Boeblink. Their affair of the heart required no carnality, but extracted an even greater passion, and demanded, ultimately, as great a sublimation of self as any physical affair. They understood each other as no one else had: “rare and exotic and yet so completely messy and ordinary. So ordinary that great pains must be taken to disguise that fact, to protect the feelings of those who invest so much in expectation and perfection.”
Babe Paley is still a fashion icon—the epitome of style, class, and grace. An editor at Vogue, a best-dressed woman and society-page favorite, Babe Paley didn’t follow trends, she set them. Benjamin emphasizes Babe’s upbringing as a destined-wife, one of three daughters bred to wed early, well, and as many times as necessary to achieve the proper social ends. Capote is her confessor and teacher—he brings her books, exposes her to music, and encourages her to let the mask slip, ever so slightly.
Babe’s husband, Bill Paley, is head of CBS and is always hungry. He is in awe of his wife but is never satiated by her. He is always gobbling, food, sex, power, if only because he is a Jewish man trying to prove himself in a Gentile’s world. Capote’s seduction of Bill, for Capote does seduce even if no clothing ever comes off and no sexual advance occurs, is directly tied to Bill’s desire to prove himself the biggest man.
In the end, loving Truman Capote is like loving Holly Golightly, or a wild thing: “If you let yourself love a wild thing. You’ll end up looking at the sky.”