Posted in Book, Book Review, books, family

Winter without snow? +”The Swans of Fifth Avenue” by Melanie Benjamin

I grew up in Colorado, looking at calendar scenes as part of my every day life. On the plains, from the houses I grew up in, the Rocky Mountains were in the distance, snowy and beautiful. I lived in the Rocky Mountains, working at one of the big ski resorts (Beaver Creek) for few wonderful years. And when I got married, we moved to the southern suburbs of Denver, within about a 30 minute drive to the foothills that precluded the larger mountains beyond.

So. when we get a winter like this winter, I get depressed. No snow?! What the crap?!!!

We moved from Colorado to Ohio in early January of 2007. We left Colorado New Year’s Day. When we left, there was more than a foot of snow on the ground, because that December had been especially snowy. As we watched the snowcapped Rocky Mountains recede into the background, I couldn’t help but think that Colorado was giving me, it’s daughter, the best send off; one of snow and sunshine.

There have been years since we’ve been in Ohio with little snow. A couple of those were cold and or icy. One was unseasonably warm. The last couple have been really cold and very snowy (remember the Polar Vortex anyone?!).

And thus, we’ve arrived at the non-wintery winter of 2015-16. No noticable snow, very few cold days (although there have been a few, including today). Rain, yes. Gray days, yes. But very little of the white stuff.

I know there are people in the world that hate snow and cold. But to me it’s life, and it’s seasonal, and it means there will be summer soon. Growing up, my family owned a sporting goods store and ski shop. Winter success for the business relied on good snow, so we could rent and sell ski equipment, and people would buy new ski jackets, snow pants, gloves, socks, hats, turtlenecks, long underwear, glove liners, sock liners, boot warmers, neck gators, ski googles, glasses, flasks, bota bags . . .  all the stuff necessary to keep one warm and moving on the slopes. And all the other winter fun necessities–ice skates, snowshoes, sleds, and toboggans.  Without snow and cold, the winter months weren’t as successful or fun.

So snow equates to success and fun, in my mind.


But beyond that, snow is somewhat transcendental, at least for me. The snow falling quietly in the night, muffling the house from outside noises. The purity of snow, the white blanketing of perfect (at least for awhile). Clean, quiet, soft, fluffy, cold.

A good snow is God’s way of telling you to spend time with yourself. Whether it’s by the fire with a big blanket and a good book or shushing down the slopes knee deep in soft powder (I was a Colorado skiier; I rarely ski now, unfortunately), snow means introspection. Snow swallows sounds and quiets the outside world, giving me the time to think, plan, and just ‘be.’

So a year, like this year, without real snow, makes me itchy and edgy and sad.

There’s still a chance we could get a couple of good snows (and snow days). I’ll keep my fingers and toes crossed, hoping for a snow that stops the world for awhile.

Okay, onto The Swans of Fifth Avenue by Melanie Benjamin.

‘You’ll be fine,’ Truman soothed.

‘I might not be.’

‘No, you might not, but still you don’t know that. You don’t know anything right now.’

Truman Capote and Babe Paley in The Swans of New York


The Premise

Babe Paley, the beautiful New York socialite, wife of the founder of CBS, setter of the Manhattan scene in the fifties and early sixties, known for her taste and style. She was the queen among her closest friends–The Swans–those women married to the rich and powerful of Manhattan.

Truman Capote, writer extraordinaire, on his way up the literary ladder. With his large personality and his love of the high life, he finds connections with each of the swans, but especially Babe.

The two of them connect, finding each in each other a kindred spirit in their lonely lives. Sure of his friendship, Babe confides in Truman, telling him things about herself and her life that she’s never given voice.

But, when he starts to spin away from Babe and the other Swans, he beings drinking and drugging away his literary talent. When all original thoughts have dried up, he turns to his swans, telling their secrets and breaking their hearts — and smashing Babe Paley into pieces.

My Thoughts

About half way through this book, I turned to the Google machine and started wondering if these women were real. Of course Truman Capote was real, and I knew Bill Paley was real, so I imagined that his wife was really Babe. Was there a real friendship? Were these real women? I thought so, but my history of New York socialites wasn’t quite up to snuff.

Turns out they were all real, and Capote’s short story “La Côte Basque 1965” did set the social set a flurry, and caused his own social suicide. None of his Swans ever let him back in, and most refused to speak to him in any real way. Babe Paley, his best friend, never spoke to him again. (The best article I read was Capote’s Swan Dive in Vanity Fair December, 2012.)

In The Swans of Fifth Avenue, Melanie Benjamin takes the known and fictionalizes it, doing what Capote did best in In Cold Blood. Focusing on Babe Paley’s friendship with Capote, she tells stories of their friendship, blurring the line between fact and fiction (Babe was an intensely private person). Benjamin also spends time on Slim Keith, an outspoken beauty who lived larger-than-life in her own way. Slim was friends with close with both Babe and Capote, although Benjamin makes her seem both smarter with what she shares with Capote and more accepting when he writes about it.

Other Swans are sparingly featured, as well as other well known women (I’m not sure if they were considered Swans or not) like Jackie Kennedy Onassis, Lee Radziwill, and Gloria Vanderbilt. Capote did skewer them in his article as well.

I enjoyed this book, although it did get a little tedious at times. The class and outright coolness of Manhattan in the fifties and sixties is highlighted, and it shines through. The downfall of Capote falls in step with what some consider the downfall of style; the drug-addled craziness of the later sixties and the seventies.

But the heart of this book is friendship and betrayal, of women unable to open up to each other (or their spouses), but willing to share secrets with a man enthusiastic about life, beauty, and stories. It’s the story of loneliness, and the cost of selling your soul to get your heart’s desire. The cost is never worth it, by the way.

I give The Swans of Fifth Avenue 4 stars. A fun, stylish read from a different time.




I love to read; writing is my outlet. My blog is my way to combine the two, with a some life stories thrown in for good measure.

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