I had to take a little hiatus on our Sundays With Writers series simply because I had to really buckle down and read some new books so we could begin featuring more incredible writers on our site. Today it thrills me to get to share an interview with Melanie Benjamin to discuss her latest novel The Swans of Fifth Avenue. I have read every single book written by her and have loved them all. If you haven’t dug into her other books check out The Aviator’s Wife, The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb, & Alice I Have Been for some REALLY fantastic historical fiction escapes. She has a way of exploring moments in history with such fresh eyes that I have adored her work for many years.
Yup, I am a gushing fan girl!
Centered on two dynamic, complicated, and compelling protagonists—Truman Capote and Babe Paley- The Swans of Fifth Avenue is steeped in the glamour and perfumed and smoky atmosphere of New York’s high society. Babe Paley—known for her high-profile marriage to CBS founder William Paley and her ranking in the International Best-Dressed Hall of Fame—was one of the reigning monarchs of New York’s high society in the 1950s. Replete with gossip, scandal, betrayal, and a vibrant cast of real-life supporting characters, readers will be seduced by this startling new look at the infamous society swans.
You can really tell that Benjamin is passionate about this era and the telling of the story of Truman Capote and his swans. I think the challenge with this story is that many of these characters are so unlikable and not easy to relate to. Benjamin beautifully adds depth though in her fictional retelling of Capote and the ladies that grew to love him, that shows that all he wanted in life was the love of his mother.
As someone who was unfamiliar with his life story, I had a great time reading all of the stories and hunting for the pictures of all these elite ladies after I finished this one. There is lots of glamour and backstabbing that reads a bit like a good gossip magazine.
Grab your coffee and let’s chat with Melanie Benjamin about her latest book today!
Before we dive into The Swans of Fifth Avenue, your incredible new novel, I wanted to ask you a question that I have been curious about for quite some time. Why did you decide to write under a pseudonym and how does that work for an author? Did you select a name, did your publishing house, or was it a combination of working together to create this?
I published 2 books, 10 years ago, under my real name but those books were not successful. I found that in order to be published again, particularly once moving to historical fiction, I needed to submit under a pseudonym – something that happens more often than you might think. I chose the name, combining my first name with my son’s first name.
Although a huge fan of Breakfast at Tiffany’s, the movie version, I was embarrassingly unfamiliar with Truman Capote and his career and social climb with the book. I understand that in your teens you were familiar with the Truman Capote towards the end of his career, but you were less familiar with the beginning of his story. What compelled you to want to research him and what do you think was the most surprising fact you uncovered about him when you first started researching his story?
I simply came across the only book I owned written by him, this book called “Answered Prayers.” (I have often found inspiration for my novels in my own bookshelves; this is how I wrote THE AVIATOR’S WIFE, by re-reading a biography of Charles Lindbergh that I’d read years before.) While paging through this book I came across the short story “La Cote Basque 1965,” and had a vague recollection that the publication of this short story had resulted in a significant literary scandal, which I immediately realized might be a juicy topic for a novel. And then I was off!
All of Truman’s swans had such interesting lives, but the one swan that really stood out for me was Babe Paley, who worked so very hard to be the perfect trophy wife. Even Truman has been quoted as saying, “Babe Paley had only one fault. She was perfect. Otherwise, she was perfect.”
You really pull back the curtain though and show what a strain that was on Babe and her inability to allow anyone to see her flaws. Do you think she suffered from OCD or do you think the traumatic car accident she was in and her upbringing made her unable to show her true self to people?
I think she was a creative woman who was told to stifle that creative impulse in order to do what she was raised to do, what her mother expected of her: Marry, and marry spectacularly. This sublimation of her creativity meant that she had no outlet other than making sure her life, and that of her husband, was, at least on the surface, perfect. And she did pour her entire self into making that so – at least, to the naked eye. That kind of sublimation means that you can’t show your real, ugly, messy, vulnerable side to people; they simply don’t expect it of you and wouldn’t know what to do. But with Truman, for some reason, she felt she could be herself, and show that imperfect side of her personality.
Truly, one of my favorite scenes that you carved in this book was when Babe & Truman go to the movie theater and Truman is crying because he relates so much to Pinocchio and his desire to be a real boy because he has never felt like one. Did Truman share about rejection from his mother because of his sexuality or is this something that you wanted to fictionally explore?
It’s fairly well documented that Truman had a very uneasy relationship with his mother. She basically abandoned him as a child, and when she did send for him, when he was around the age of ten, she had a very difficult time accepting him as he was – an unashamed homosexual, different, even as a young man. He never tried to be anything other than who he was. But his mother forced him to attend military school – an absolute disaster – and simply could not accept his homosexuality. So I didn’t make those facts up; they are recorded. But what I explore, as a novelist, is the way Truman reacted to this; the real toll he never felt comfortable sharing. In front of most everyone in his life, Truman joked everything away, or chose not to tell the truth at all, significantly embellishing his memories and experiences. While focusing on his relationship with Babe—and truly, only the two of them knew what drew them to each other, and what cemented this unusual, passionate relationship—I had to imagine, then, that to Babe, he did reveal the psychological scars.
You have curated a fantastic guide to following in the footsteps of the swans. Did you visit, stay, or eat at any of the places that were featured in your guide? Which of these experiences made you feel most like a swan yourself?
Yes, I did! I think having tea at the St. Regis made me feel the most swan-like. It was elegant, but not intimidating. I felt the Plaza was more intimidating. Bergdorf’s, too. But I loved the St. Regis!
Due to Truman’s inability to create the next great book, he publishes the secrets of the swans in the short story that ends up kicking him out of the inner circle. Did you sympathize with Truman as a writer and that desperation to create the next big thing?
Yes, and no. I’ve never feared running out of stories to tell. But I’ve also not had the life-changing experience, the instant, world-wide celebrity that Truman enjoyed after IN COLD BLOOD was published. Part of me understood his desire to relax and enjoy the fame that came his way; he’d worked for years on the book, and that takes a toll. But I really did mourn how he wasted his talent, after that. Early on, Truman was the most disciplined of writers. After IN COLD BLOOD, he was not.
(follow Melanie Benjamin on Facebook so you can see her cute shoe collection!)
I understand that you love to treat yourself to new shoes for your book tours. As someone who is a bit shoe obsessed, I can appreciate this! What shoes did you treat yourself to for this tour and do you think they would be swan-approved?
I have a pair of fabulous Donald J. Pliner booties that have really turned out to be workhorses (editor’s note- I found a similar budget-friendly pair for you, dear readers!). In that—they’re comfortable, they look great with everything! I also bought some L.K. Bennet snakeskin (fake, I think!) pumps that, unfortunately, have not worked out so well. The first time I wore them, they stretched out so that my foot was sliding, and then I tore some of the snakeskin print on the heels. I’m going to take them to a shoe repair place and see if I can salvage them. They’re so pretty! And they cost so much! But I do think both pairs would be swan-approved (although probably far too cheap, for the Swans. I’m sure they went for Ferragamo and Prada.).
If we want to explore the story of Truman Capote or the swans more, what was your favorite book and/or documentary that you can recommend so we can dive more into the story after reading your book?
I recommend several books in my author’s note at the end of THE SWANS. Any of these would be great, but I suppose the most comprehensive is Gerald Clarke’s biography.
Moss Hart’s ACT ONE.
You can connect with Melanie Benjamin on her website or through Facebook! I’m always thankful for these moments with writers and I hope you will pick up this amazing book! You can always connect with me on GoodReads, through our books section of our site, and you can read our entire Sundays With Writers series for more author profiles. Happy reading, friends!
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