Lifestyle & Culture

Weekend Reading: The Swans of Fifth Avenue

In 1975, Esquire magazine published chapters from Answered Prayers, a novel in progress by Truman Capote. Capote had already become a sensation by way of his “nonfiction novel,” In Cold Blood, but by 1975 his contract for the new novel was about nine years old. Capote never finished the book, but the published chapters caused scandal and acrimony among the New York society figures on whom he based his tale—thinly disguised socialites whose secrets he exploited. He called the women his “swans,” and he betrayed them all. The Swans of Fifth Avenue, by Melanie Benjamin and published this week by Delacorte, an imprint of Random House, recounts that sordid betrayal, but our excerpt focuses on a much earlier time, about how Capote came to write his famous novella, Breakfast at Tiffany’s. You can find The Swans of Fifth Avenue from here.

Truman at Work

SO MANY WANTED to catch him at it! Watch as genius burned! Not his fellow authors, of course; they were far too blasé and jaded to care. But his swans, in particular, all longed to see Truman Capote write. They went out of their way to offer him help—for if they weren’t Swans3webpatrons of the arts, then who were they?

They weren’t patrons of the arts.

But Gloria [Guinness] offered him his own beach villa at her place in Palm Beach. Slim [Hawks Hayward Keith] provided him with hampers of food from ’21’ so he would be properly nourished. Pamela [Churchill Hayward Harriman] offered to sit at his feet, literally, a muse. Marella [Agnelli] invited him to work on her yacht, bobbing up and down in the Mediterranean.

Truman refused. As much as he loved and appreciated their lives, their comforts, their wealth and bounty, when it came to his work, he displayed a monastic discipline none of his new friends could have suspected. Work was work; play was play. And never the twain shall meet.

Except—

Well, perhaps there was a time ahead when they could; he wondered. There were marvelous stories here, ripe for the picking. And if Truman wasn’t a storyteller, then who was he?

Melanie Benjamin photo by Deborah Feingold

Author Melanie Benjamin. / Photo by Deborah Feingold.

Truman was a storyteller.

But for now, the story he was telling was not theirs, although he already knew they would all want to lay claim to it when it was done. But this particular story was entirely of his own invention; he resented the implication by so many that he could write only from his own life. Other Voices, Other Rooms—why, that wasn’t autobiographical at all! It was a story. Made up in his own mind. The story of a young boy without a family, without a home, seduced into darkness, born into light—but the darkness beckoning, always beckoning.

No, his first novel wasn’t autobiographical at all.

And this new story; he had an idea for a title. He’d heard a sailor on leave, during the war, tell another sailor that he’d take him to breakfast at the most expensive place in town. Where did he want to go?

“Well,” the naïve sailor had replied, “I always heard that Tiffany’s was the most expensive place in New York.”

Breakfast at Tiffany’s. It was a great title, that much Truman knew. Beyond that—

Truman gathered up a notebook. A simple composition book with lined paper. He sharpened his pencils, settled in on a velvet sofa beneath a window, and propped up the notebook on his knees.

His forehead furrowed, he read what he had written the day before, the words in his tiny, squared-off handwriting, meticulous, spare.

“Listen, Fred, you’ve got to cross your heart and kiss your elbow—”

And Truman was lost in the words. Awash in sentence structure, agonizing over punctuation. Studying the picture on the page; rearranging paragraph breaks so that there was just enough white space. Going back and forth, in his mind, between the words approximation and facsimile until finally choosing approximation.

Perhaps contortionists can kiss their elbow; she had to accept an approximation.

Truman worked through the entire afternoon, then stopped. Some internal alarm inside him, as nascent as the primordial switch that turns winter to spring, simply said, “Enough. Enough for today. One more word and you will question everything you’ve written so far.”

–Melanie Benjamin

From the book The Swans of Fifth Avenue by Melanie Benjamin. Copyright © 2016 by Melanie Hauser. Reprinted by arrangement with Delacorte, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House Inc. All rights reserved. 



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