Read The Swans of Fifth Avenue Online
Authors: Melanie Benjamin
The Swans of Fifth Avenue
is a work of historical fiction. Apart from the well-known actual people, events, and locales that figure in the narrative, all names, characters, places, and incidents are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to current events or locales, or to living persons, is entirely coincidental.
Copyright Â© 2016 by Melanie Hauser
All rights reserved.
Published in the United States by Delacorte Press, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York.
colophon are registered trademarks of Penguin Random House LLC.
The Swans of Fifth Avenue : a novel / Melanie Benjamin.
ISBN 978-0-345-52869-8 â ISBN 978-0-345-53975-5 (eBook)
1. Capote, Truman, 1924â1984âFiction. 2. Paley, Babe MortimerâFiction. 3. Upper classâNew York (State)âNew YorkâFiction. I. Title.
Book design by Barbara M. Bachman, adapted for eBook
Cover design: Belina Huey
Cover photograph: Â© Lillian Bassman, 1956
HE BEST TIME TO LEAVE A PARTY IS WHEN THE PARTY'S JUST BEGINNING.
anguid, lovely, lonely; the swans arched their beautiful necks and turned to gaze at him as he stood rooted to the shore, his feet encased in mud. They fluttered their eyelashes, rustled their feathers, and glided over to their leader, the most beautiful of all. There was no sound save the sigh of their graceful bodies drifting across the water.
Watching from the shore, wringing his hands, willing himself still for once, even as he had a childish urge to hop first on one foot, then the other, he was filled with the old fear; that he wasn't good enough, brave enough, handsome enough, tall enoughâ
Still he hoped, he dreamed, he waited; holding his breath, he fixed his gaze upon the most dazzling of them all, the lead swan. Like he was making a birthday wish, he blew his breath toward her and her alone, praying the wind would catch it and carry it to her, a prayer.
As she bent her lovely head toward the other swans, she was seen to listen gravely, as if this was a most solemn rite; as if there was no other topic in the world that needed her attention, no wars and deaths and treaties and dilemmas. Only this, his happiness.
The other swans whispered, whispered; one hissed, but he could not tell which it was. Then they broke ranks; they swam into a preordained formation, a perfect arc surrounding their leader, who remained utterly still, her head bowed in reflection.
Then she raised her head, turned, and looked at him, still standing on the shore. They all turned to look; the swans, with one choreographed movement, beckoned to him with their blinding-white wings that were arms, he saw for the first time. Arms as white as snow leopards; whiter than the pearls around the swans' fragile necks.
The lead swan did not beckon. But her eyes, those dark, glittering pools of unfathomable loneliness, never left his as his feet took wing; as he skimmed the surface of the water, not a swan, no, never would he be one of them, and even then he knew it. He was a nymph, a hovering dragonflyâa sprite, landing among the swans with a burst of delighted laughter. They laughed, as well, all of themâexcept for their leader.
She only continued to watch him as he was passed about from one to the other like a new baby. When the swans were finished, when they sat him down on the water and took up their positions once more, he found himself between them and the lead swan. Uncertain, but dizzy with joy and belonging, he took a step toward her, still marveling at how the water was not water but the most polished marble beneath his feet, the feathers on the swans were not feathers but fur and cashmere and silk and satin, threaded together, hand-sewn to their disciplined bodies that were designed only for adornment.
swan, nowâthat was how he thought of her, and would forever, naming her, claiming her, forgetting already that it hadn't been his privilege to do the choosingâheld out her hand, and he took it, as trustingly as a child. Mischievously as an imp.
Then the swans closed ranks about him.
And he was home.
e killed her. It's as simple as that.” Slim's hands shook as she spilled a packet of menthols all over her plate. “Truman killed her. And I'd like to know who the hell it was who befriended that little midget in the first place.”
“It wasn't I,” Pamela insisted. “I never did like the bugger.”
“Oh, no, it wasn't meâI warned you about him, didn't I?” Gloria asked rhetorically, those Latin eyes flashing so dangerously, it was a good thing there were only butter knives on the table.
“I don't believe it was me,” Marella murmured. “No, no, it was not.”
“It sure as hell wasn't me.” Slim spat it out. “And if he's not convicted for murder, I'm going to sue him for libel, at the very least.”
The table went silent; this was almost as much of a bombshell as the reason they were gathered in haste, eyes hidden behind dark glasses, as though that could disguise their famous faces. Odd, Slim thought, how they'd all had the same idea: to hide, as if they were the ones at fault when, really, it was Truman who should hide his face. Now and forever.
But defiantly, they had agreed to meet at the scene of the crime: the restaurant that had spawned the literary scandal of the century, as it was already being called. Slim Hawks Hayward Keith, Marella Agnelli, Gloria Guinness, and Pamela Churchill Hayward Harrimanânot a shrinking violet in the bunchâhad descended upon La CÃ´te Basque, always the place to see and be seen, especially today.
“Where's C.Z.?” Gloria asked suddenly. “The honorable Mrs. Guest should be here, too. It only seems right. After all, she was here when it all began. Like it or not, she's one of us.”
“C.Z.'s probably off digging a hole somewhere. Do you know what she did when I called and asked her if she'd read it? She laughed. She laughed! âOh, Slim,' she said. âIf you didn't know by now that Truman Capote couldn't keep a secret, then you're a much bigger fool than I am!' Of course, he didn't say a thing about
“But what aboutâ?” Pamela asked, and they all glanced at the empty chair at the end of the table. “Wasn't C.Z. outraged on
behalf, at least?”
Slim finally lit the blessed, blessed cigarette and took a long draw. She leaned back in her chair and exhaled, narrowing her eyes at Pamela. Strange, how Truman could bring them together, how he'd made allies out of enemies with his pen. “She wasn't, not that I could tell.”
“But Dillon, that odious man in Truman's storyâit
Bill, isn't it? It's supposed to be Bill Paley?”
Slim took a big breath, but couldn't meet her friends' collective, searching gaze. “Yes. It is, I know it is. Don't ask me how; I just do.”
Pamela, Gloria, and Marella gasped. So did the other tables nearby; when the four women entered the restaurant together, all heads had turned their way. Some in astonishment, some in outright glee. Others in admiration. But all in curiosity.
Marcel, their favorite waiter, cautiously approached the table with the customary bottle of Cristal. He showed it to them, and Gloria wearily waved her hand in assent; he popped the cork, but without the usual flourish. He knew.
The latest issue of
had hit the stands that morning, the cover a profile picture of a fat and pasty-looking Truman Capote, the headline trumpeting the acclaimed author of
In Cold Blood
's newest, hotly anticipated short story. “La CÃ´te Basque 1965,” it was called. It was now one
. Liz Smith was probably already on the phone, frantically asking their maids if Madam was in or out.
Well, this madam is out,
Slim thought to herself. And she might very well stay out, for the rest of the day. Hell, the rest of the night. Where was Papa when she needed him? For she would have hopped the next plane to Cuba, if that were still permissible. And if Hemingway were still alive, daiquiri in one hand, rifle or fly reel in the other, his big, virile, lecherous grin on his face at the sight of her, wondering when the hell he was going to get around to writing a book about her, the most fascinating woman he'd ever met.
Ah, but that was another story, from a different time. A different life.
Today, the story was different. And it wasn't really her story at all, Slim realized; she had been used, yes. But in the end, her secrets, mainly, remained intact. Still, that did not dampen her sense of betrayal, her bitterness at what her True Heartâher stomach soured at the memory of that pet name!âhad done.
The murder Truman Capote had committed, plain as day, by telling the stories he had told. Stories that he did not have a right to tell.
Stories they never should have told him in the first place.
“No one will return his calls now. No one will invite him anywhere. He's finished in society. Deadâas dead asâ” Pam dabbed ostentatiously at her blue eyes, which, Slim couldn't help but observe, remained resolutely dry.
There was a lull in the conversation, a cloud that dropped over their table, dulling the brilliant light, throwing shadows on the gleaming cutlery, the sparkling crystal.
“Does anyone really remember when they first met him? Or did he just appear, like the plague?” Slim was in a reflective mood; one she did not allow herself often, and one that did not sit well with her companions, generally. Lunch at La CÃ´te Basque was not for soul-searching.
But today was different. Today, they'd opened the pages of
magazine and seen themselvesânot merely themselves, but their kind, their tribe, their exclusive, privileged, envied setâeviscerated, skin flayed open, souls laid bare, ugliness acknowledged. Secrets betrayed and lives destroyed. By the viper in their nest; the storyteller in their midst.
But Truman Capote wasn't the only one who could tell tales, they decided over another glass of Cristal.
“So tell me,” Slim cooed, her tongue comfortably loose, her throat deliciously numb. “How the hell did that southern-fried bastard get here in the first place?”
The four inclined their still-gorgeous necks, put their perfectly coiffed heads together in consultation. Beads and feathers quivered on gesticulating arms. Jewels and gold flashed on punctuating hands as they tried to piece it all together. From the very beginning. The story of how Truman Capote came to betray all his swansâbut one especially. The one they all loved the most. Even Truman.
The problem with this particular story, however, was that Truman was the one who had told it to them in the first place.