Book Club Guide—The Swans of Fifth Avenue, by Melanie Benjamin
Celebrities are a dime a dozen these days, especially the kind whose fame is more manufactured than earned. But long before America gave us the Kardashians, it had the Swans of Fifth Avenue. Unlike today’s stars, the Swans—Babe Paley, Slim Keith, and the other New York socialites that kept company with them—did not have the benefit of living their lives on TV, but they knew how to cultivate their fame in newspaper society pages, glossy spreads in Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar, and the dining rooms of the city’s most elite restaurants and clubs. Melanie Benjamin’s novel gently digs beneath the layers of makeup and money to mine some imagined truth about the storied lives of this set, and it reveals all that glittered was not exactly gold. At the center of this fictionalized history is Truman Capote. Though best known as the Pulitzer Prize–winning author of In Cold Blood and Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Capote enjoyed being a character as much as creating one. He gradually maneuvered his way into Babe’s inner circle and also—according to Benjamin’s telling—into her heart. But the friendship came to an ugly and abrupt end when Capote betrayed the group by publishing a tell-all in Esquire in 1975. Book clubs will enjoy learning about this scandal through a novelist’s lens. To enrich your discussion, read The Swans of Fifth Avenue alongside one of Truman Capote’s novels—or simply pair it with Champagne and caviar to capture the flavor of the book.
Society and Superficiality:
For Babe Paley and the women in this circle, how much of their behavior can be blamed on the social scene? According to the novel, to what extent do they have control and choice in the lives they lead?
Are there any moments in the novel when the female characters let their guard down and show us a more authentic self?
Marriage and Divorce:
What seems to be the driving force behind Babe and Bill Paley’s marriage? Is that true for most of the marriages in this social group?
Does anyone in the novel marry for love? Or does anyone find love, either inside or outside marriage?
What happens to Truman’s relationship with his longtime partner, Jack?
Do any of the women in the book experience real friendship with one another? Or are their relationships based mostly on social connections?
Among the women in the inner circle, which actions by one friend to another surprised you?
Do the women consider Truman a true friend? Why do they embrace and welcome him into their circle?
Fact or Fiction:
Is it difficult to separate fact from fiction in this novel? Which facts does the author take liberties with, and which do you believe to be true?
Are the conversations Melanie Benjamin creates between characters believable?
Do you find the depiction of Truman Capote convincing? How does the portrayal of him fit with what you knew of or thought about the legendary author?
What motives does the novelist assign to Truman for his actions? Do you find those motives probable?