Chrissie's Reviews > The Swans of Fifth Avenue

The Swans of Fifth Avenue by Melanie Benjamin
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really liked it
bookshelves: audible, bio, hf, usa, 2016-read

I listened to the audiobook narration by Cassandra Campbell and Paul Boehmer. Both did an excellent job at mimicking Truman Capote’s drawl, lisp and voice. I listened to Capote on YouTube to confirm if the intonations were correct renderings or perhaps exaggerations. I am satisfied that they both captured the lilt of the characters’ true voices. The chapters are split between the different narrators rather than having Campbell read the females and Boehmer the males. The speed was easy to follow and the voices felt utterly genuine. I feel the narration deserves five stars.

The book I give four. I separate the two ratings.

While I listened I had a nagging doubt, “Is all that I am being told really true?” After checking internet I became convinced. I feel the author has done a tremendous job assimilating all the known facts. It is she that has added fictional dialog. Before reading the book I knew very little about the central characters: Truman Capote, Babe Cushing Mortimer Paley and her husband William S. Paley (the founder of CBS), Nancy “Slim” Keith, Gloria Guinness, Lucy Douglas "C. Z." Guest, Marella Agnelli and Jack Dunphy (Capote’s long time lover). All of them have photos and in-depth articles on them on the net. These women were the high society dames of NYC in the 50s, the “Swans of Fifth Avenue”. All ultra-wealthy, all attractive, all the cream of the crop, the pace-setters. Most promiscuous. So if reading about the elite draws you, then this is a must read. The book is well-researched. Of course, if you want to know about Capote, this is another reason to read the book. It is this that drew me. This is one of those books that you finish wondering if it wouldn’t have been more pleasant to not know the truth. The truth is ugly.

So you learn about New York high society in the 50s and you learn about the above people’s lives all the way through to their deaths. You learn about why Babe and Truman Capote became such close friends. What was it in them that drew them to each other? The author believes she understands, and her reasoning is definitely convincing. The change in Capote after his magnificent Black and White Ball at the Plaza Hotel in 1967 is important too. All of his books are discussed, and how they relate to his life. There is an author’s note at the end that says exactly what is fact and what fiction. The fictional elements ring true.
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Reading Progress

January 13, 2016 – Shelved
January 13, 2016 – Shelved as: wishlist-b
January 13, 2016 – Shelved as: audible
January 13, 2016 – Shelved as: bio
January 13, 2016 – Shelved as: hf
January 13, 2016 – Shelved as: usa
April 8, 2016 – Shelved as: own-unlistened
April 8, 2016 – Shelved as: 2016-read
April 24, 2016 – Started Reading
April 27, 2016 – Finished Reading

Comments Showing 1-38 of 38 (38 new)

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message 1: by Diane S ☔ (new)

Diane S ☔ How is this one? Haven't read it.


Chrissie Well, the people are not my kind of people but I am taking them for who they are. I have to see if I believe what the author is saying about why each one behaves as he/she does. Sometimes I find myself questioning the validity. I certainly hope there is an author's note at the end. Others have said that she stuck to the facts.

So, I guess you could say I am ambivalent.

I don't know much about these women. Perhaps I will not be able to decide if the author has drawn them correctly.

The central focus is on Truman and Babe.


Chrissie I should add this - there is a lot of gossip here that goes in one ear and out the other. Sometimes I get bored.


message 4: by Diane S ☔ (last edited Apr 25, 2016 08:35AM) (new)

Diane S ☔ Yes, when I paged through this as I was processing this book at work, I noticed the gossipy tone. So I decided to pass on it. If you end up liking it I may give it a go.


Chrissie I am always wondering, "Is the author drawing these people correctly? Often not very flatteringly. I don't know what I think, but I am uncomfortable. IF a nasty statement is made about a person I certainly hope it is based on fact, and maybe there is another pov?????


message 6: by Maureen (new)

Maureen I'm surprised you chose this, interested to see how it turns out for you.


Chrissie Maureen, I try all sorts of different books.


Chrissie Diane, I have a hard time with the book. It is not like I fit in their social group in any possible way. On the other hand I believe the author has depicted them correctly. Their lines fit them very well So even if I am uncomfortable, the book is well done. I am about half way through. Amazingly accurate depiction of the central characters.


message 9: by Diane S ☔ (new)

Diane S ☔ Well I have it so maybe I will read this then. She is a very good writer so I guess I should try. Am interested in the subject. Thanks, Chrissie.


Chrissie I'll tell you how I lmade up my mind about the authenticity of what is being given me. I went on to YouTube. I listened and looked at the individuals while they spoke......... I think you say a lot in how you move your body, in the manner of your speech. I felt that after seeing the real thing when I returned to the audibook I was convinced that the feel of the individuals had been well captured. I have of course also read on the net about facts of their lives. I feel the author has done a good job of capturing their identities.

Look, some people you are attracted to. Others you are not. These people fall into the latter group. Most people do not say this outright, but we all know we behave in this manner. I'm just putting it out there b/c it is the truth. I cringe when I read this book. At the same time I see their pain and it helps me understand and accept them for who they are.

This is why I say I do not like reading the book but I think it is well done. at least so far. I have read almost half.

Sometimes the book hops forward many years. I don't like that.


message 11: by Diane S ☔ (new)

Diane S ☔ Interesting, Chrissie and funny but I never think of looking on you tube. Wiki I am always using but that was a great idea you had. I liked this author's book on Lindbergh quite a bit. She seems to do alot of research. Will see how you feel at the end.


Chrissie The reason I went to YouTube was because of the intonations used by the two narrators. I had to see if they were accurate . Seems so.

I remain uncomfortable reading this.


message 13: by Lisa (new)

Lisa Vegan Great review, Chrissie, and I can see why you liked it and were impressed, but I'm skipping it. I'm not interested enough to devote myself to an entire book about these people. I admit though that your review intrigued me.


Chrissie Lisa, thank you. The people can be a difficult bunch to read about, but I am very glad I did. I learned a lot about Capote.

There is not that much about Harper Lee. I guess I should have mentioned that. I guess I should have mentioned that....... You finish a review and realize there is always something missing.


message 15: by Lisa (last edited Apr 27, 2016 10:46AM) (new)

Lisa Vegan Chrissie wrote: "There is not that much about Harper Lee. I guess I should have mentioned that. I guess I should have mentioned that....... You finish a review and realize there is always something missing. "

Maybe by that time they were on the outs? Hmm, when did he write In Cold Blood? They were still friends at that point.

Yeah, I think I'd get too depressed reading this. The weirdest things make me depressed, or not, compared to many people.


Chrissie It was first published in 1965, but he had been working on it for quite some time and had to wait for the final verdict before it could be completed.

Their friendship is discussed but not in detail. He felt he was the better writer! Yet his loud talk covered up a lack of self -confidence.


message 17: by Lisa (new)

Lisa Vegan From all I've read I am not at all find of him. I feel as though I should feel sorry for him but I rarely do.


message 18: by Lisa (last edited Apr 27, 2016 12:12PM) (new)

Lisa Vegan I read the book I think in 1966 and I know I saw the movie with my father and stepsister at the time when it first was in theaters in 1967. I was young. 13 and 14. It freaked me out but I loved the book. Harper Lee should have gotten more credit not the other way around.


message 19: by Chrissie (last edited Apr 27, 2016 12:20PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Chrissie I am very surprised that this man wrote this book..... I am not the only one to feel this way it seems. It was amusing that I said this to myself and then others said the same thing in the book. I am talking about In Cold Blood, Lisa.

Very little is said about their shared work on the book.


message 20: by Lisa (new)

Lisa Vegan Well Capote certainly never properly acknowledged Lee's help. Some childhood friendships aren't meant to last. Sad.


B the BookAddict Good review, Chrissie. I already had this on my tbr but will move it up a position or two. I'm guessing that Harper Lee would never have been a 'swan of fifth avenue', lol:)


message 22: by Chrissie (last edited Apr 28, 2016 12:37AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Chrissie Lisa, the book confirms my belief that neither money nor fame bring happiness.

Bette, Harper Lee doesn't figure in this book very much, as you understand. No, she certainly didn't live the lives of such as these! Her life is more normal and in my view preferable.

MaryAnn there is not a whole lot on C.Z., one of the less prominent figures in the book. The two main figures are Babe and Truman, although you get plenty of information about the others. A book this size cannot be a complete biography on all eight mentioned above. If you want detailed information on C.Z. read instead a biography about her.


message 23: by Lisa (new)

Lisa Vegan Chrissie, I'd hate fame but money would go a long way for me. I could spend paragraphs on that. Those wealthy miserable people would be even more miserable if in extreme poverty. A lot less support and many fewer distractions at the very least.


Chrissie I understand what you are saying, Lisa.


Faith Justice Glad you like it, Chrissie. Have you read any other of Benjamin's books? I particularly liked The Aviator's Wife.


Chrissie Faith, I have not read anything else by the author. What I read about the lindbergh couple, and which I can recommend is Lindbergh. I do have the one you mention on my TBR list.


B the BookAddict Faith wrote: "Glad you like it, Chrissie. Have you read any other of Benjamin's books? I particularly liked The Aviator's Wife."

I agree, Faith, that's an excellent book. Lindbergh was such a control freak and obsessive, wasn't he?


Chrissie Faith and Bette, does The Aviator's Wife also have an author's note that explains what is fact and what fiction? Does she stick to or alter the facts? Please specify.


Faith Justice It's been a couple of years, but I seem to recall she did have a note. I remember a reference to the fact she had read Anne Lindbergh's diaries/autobiography? (the story is from her POV). I seem to remember she added a solo flight Lindbergh took her on for romantic interest, before he took Anne, her mother and sister up on documented flights--so pretty specific detail.

Added: Just checked my review and I specifically mention the Author's Note. Should have done that first!


Chrissie Faith, thanks for checking. i have added it to my wishlist now.


B the BookAddict Chrissie, here's a question taken from a Q and A with Benjamin.

ArtsATL: "How close do you stick to the historical record, and how much research do you do?"

Benjamin: "I wish I could tell you I have a formula. I think people expect me to say, “Well, 50 percent is real,” et cetera, but it’s not that way. I read, I explore, I discover, I research, but I don’t read everything, because I need to give my imagination room. I need to have something unexplored left to imagine in my fiction.

I will say that I primarily incorporate the biggest events in the person’s life, but not all of them. You have to pick and choose. You can’t put everything in a novel. For example, I may have left Anne’s early writing career somewhat unexplored and a lot of the details of the kidnapping, including the trial, out of my novel. These events did not fit into the story I wanted to tell, which was the story of Anne’s journey through this marriage. You can’t incorporate everything.

You have to learn that right away. I pick the major points of a person’s life, and these are the foundations upon which I build the fictional house. I’m always looking for the closed doors and locked closets of a person’s life. That’s what I’m imagining. We may know they married in 1929, but what made her say yes when he proposed after such a short courtship? That’s the thing I explore through fiction."

Whole Q and A at link: http://www.artsatl.com/2013/01/qa-3/


message 32: by Chrissie (last edited Apr 29, 2016 10:26PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Chrissie Her reply seems perfect. Thanks for the link, Bette.

I too am interested in: " the story of Anne’s journey through (her) marriage. "

I'll read the book in May! You have totally convinced me.

Bette, have you read all of her books? Which are your favorites / least favorites?


B the BookAddict Chrissie, I've only read The Aviator's Wife but should get a move on and read something else by Benjamin.


Chrissie Bette, one does wish one could read faster but not at the expense of lower absorption. You have to have time to think.

How are your renovations coming? That takes a lot of time....and worry. What exactly are you doing?


B the BookAddict Finished, thank goodness. The builder took the dining room floor up and replaced the joists, replaced weatherboards on old laundry (now my garden shed) and removed all the rubbish from those jobs. The painters came in and repainted front of house (sandstone) and walls of garden shed. All up just on 7K. I'm getting them back to paint the side of the house now and the four chimneys. That'll be another 4K but then the house maintenance will be perfect:)


Chrissie Sounds great,and after doing that you must feel kind of "safe". Keeping up a house is no easy task.


B the BookAddict No it's not. Worse still is knowing my DH would have been able to attend to these jobs himself:(


Chrissie It is hard being alone. My heart goes out to you.

I know what you are talking about with renovations..... If you don't keep an eye on them they don't do as you say.


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