Reading Swans on the Beach
We’re back in San Diego , our oasis and we are being revived: the weather of 70 plus the blue skies have mitigated the greys of Toronto and its sudden spark of unbearable heat. Although referred to as” May greys “ here, we are greeted with California brightness.
Back to our routines almost immediately, we walk up to Bristol’s for lunch and then traverse the mall to see what new shops have been brought by construction promised to be finished by October. Well, maybe. Supper at Tender Greens reveals the harvest salad with the sunflower seeds, citrus and local offerings has been removed.☹️Still the falafel is still good, but I am disappointed. Yesterday at Solana Beach the tide is far out and the sand is perfect for walking as minuscule red crab limbs are washed up along with tiny opalescent shells. This time we can meander almost to Dog Beach but I decide I’ld rather spend my time finishing up The Swans of Fifth Avenue, the fictionalized description of Truman Capote and his fascination with Babe Paley, wife of Bill Paley, founder and magnate of CBS, in years that preceded Andy Warhol in New York. So I hurry back to my chair to read on the beach, crashing waves my backdrop to the lurid tale.
It is a mesmerizing narrative of Capote’s magnetizing force on the societal elite. In the afterward, author Melanie Benjamin reflects on her own growing up in a place far from New York.She peruses the pages of Vogue and The New Yorker, and all the celebrities pictured in an extreme unimaginable lavish lifestyle. Writing her book, her search back into Capote is very different to the image she had previously held in her head: the short pudgy myopic lisping one- that I admit I also carried with me. The creature who captured and held Babe’s attention was lithe, handsome, charming and witty – before his plummet that coincided with the publication of his In Cold Blood and The Black and White masquerade Ball he designed to out- ball all New York Balls ostensively to honour Washington Post’s Editor Kay Graham, but really to showcase his connections to the richest and most famous that selectively included Sinatra, Bacall, the Kennedys, along with the detritus of Cold Blood.
The focus of the neurotic Capote is the pursuit of beauty and recognition. Winning the trust of Babe and her famous friends, the Swans, he betrays their confidences. When unable to produce good copy, he reverts to revealing their secrets. Although foreshadowed by his irreverent game of gossip into the lives of high society others as diversion at lunch at the Ritz, he nonetheless is trusted. But Capote succumbing to alcoholism and drugs and his inability to follow up In Cold Blood, rationalizes that he is a storyteller. So what did the Swans expect him to do with their stories?
Worse he hurts Babe, the person Capote loves best. She is surface upon surface, never allowing herself to be seen without makeup, even waking before Bill to arduously apply layer upon layer of moisturizer, coverup and false teeth. Also the product of a driven mother, Babe is enchanted by Capote, opening herself to him as to no one else. She angel- like even understands and forgives Capote’s open revelations of Bill’s discretions in Capote’s piece La Cote Basque while the others openly reject him. However, she too will never speak with him again.
The relationship between Babe and Capote is the stuff of fairytales, her even sleeping chastely beside him and willing to confide her fears. While Capote values her as perfect, he also has gained entry into Bill’s inner circle as friend. Originally repelled that Bill asks him to set him up with a blonde woman he spies, Capote later decides he will procure an arrangement , afraid he will be ousted from the inner circle, rationalizing his betrayal of the one he apparently adores the most in the world. Constantly in search of his mother’s praise and acceptance, Capote can never satisfy his desire for not being accepted or as an insider to the wealthy and famous.
Like the worm that burrows deeply into the apple, Capote destroys the paradise he has been privileged to breach:
“Truman leapt into their midst and suddenly the gossip was more delicious, the amusements were more diverse. He had sat on the beds of everyone of his swans and whispered how beautiful they were. How precious. They all knew he was saying the same thing to each one of them. They didn’t mind. Because beneath the beauty, they were all so … lonely.”
The world Benjamin reveals is of course a façade for loneliness and true commitment to love; however, it is postwar fabulous , a gem of extravagance , polished manners, excess and air kisses. Just as Capote, we are drawn in and fascinated by the players photographed as living the existence of princesses, the illusion of an exclusive life. The Swans, carefully coiffed wearing gems as big as eggs, swathed in furs, dining and drinking and laughing at 21, are eventually rendered as human as the rest of us: hung over, stringy hair, set upon by the ravages of not just age, but as Babe, set upon by a fatal illness. For one brief shining moment for Capote and the Swans it was Camelot, unmindful that eventually facades crumble, and behind it all: only the fable of the gloriousness endures.Benjamin keeps us riveted and exhumes the names that marked the days of rosebuds.