An interview with The Swans of Fifth Avenue author Melanie Benjamin about the events that led to Truman Capote’s celebrity downfall.
Truman Capote’s legendary Black and White Ball was held November 28, 1966, at the Plaza Hotel in New York City. After six grueling years of working on In Cold Blood, his masterpiece was finally out on shelves and Capote was ready to celebrate. In her book The Swans of Fifth Avenue—now out in paperback—Melanie Benjamin wraps the events both before and after the ball into a fictional story about the friendship between Capote and socialite Babe Paley.
Originally published in January, Swans struck a note with readers interested in both New York high society and the celebrity of Truman Capote. Benjamin’s tale of glitz, glamour, friendship and betrayal continues to gain new readers and keep the fascination with Capote alive.
A larger-than-life literary figure, Capote enters the lives of Babe and her society friends, gaining their trust and their access to gossip and scandal. As he and Babe share their deepest, darkest secrets with each other, Capote struggles to write another novel after In Cold Blood. Always a storyteller, he decides to publish stories that aren’t his own to tell—ones that will ignite a literary scandal and cause him to lose his best friend who knew him as her “True Heart.”
As we celebrate 50 years of In Cold Blood and Truman Capote’s life and work through November, we asked Benjamin about how her perception of Capote changed as she researched this book, the events that led up to his downfall and why he remains such a fascinating, yet tragic, literary figure today.
EZB: You say in your author’s note that you read about the people Truman Capote hung out with in Vanity Fair and The New Yorker. Did you have preconceived notions of Capote and his friends before you started researching this book?
MB: When I was growing up, it was the celebrity Truman, the one who appeared on “The Tonight Show.” I absolutely remember loving that horrible movie he was in, “Murder by Death.” It was terrible, but that was my vision of Truman Capote. Not as an author, not at all. Just as a kind of notorious celebrity I guess you could call him. I hadn’t read anything written by him. I certainly knew that he was the author of In Cold Blood, because my mother had that book, but she wouldn’t let me read it because it was too scary when I was growing up. Prior to writing the book, I had read some of his books. Answered Prayers was a book I had of his and I didn’t like it very much. I had read Other Voices, Other Rooms prior to researching this book too, but that was it.
That’s the story I wanted to tell: What happened to Truman Capote. What happened to his swans. What happened to elegance. What truly was the price they paid, for the lives they lived. For there is always a price. Especially in fairy tales.” – Author’s Note
EZB: You also say the only work of Capote’s you didn’t admire was Answered Prayers. Why is that?
MB: It’s a distasteful collection of bitchy gossip. It’s not writing, and I think that’s a puzzling thing about him and about that book, because he was such a brilliant writer when he was younger up until In Cold Blood. And after that it’s pretty hard to find that kind of quality of writing again. I think the short story “Mojave” is very good, but beyond that the other things that were collected in Answered Prayers, it’s not good. Even “La Cote Basque.” It wasn’t a generous book. It was very catty and it just didn’t sit well with me.
I of course loved the other things. I loved Breakfast at Tiffany’s even though like a lot of people, I had the image of the movie in mind when I read it and the story is very, very different, but I loved it. I love that novella. I like it better than the movie. Then when I did finally read In Cold Blood, he’s a master storyteller. And I’ve read several of his short stories— “Miriam”—and he was just a brilliant, dedicated hardworking author up until a point and then he wasn’t. I think that’s the tragedy of him.
EZB: What was it about Truman and Babe’s friendship that fascinated you? How did your perception of them change as you got into the book?
MB: I think my only perception of Babe Paley was just this beautiful woman who was in the pages of fashion magazines. That was all I knew of any of the women, just their images. I didn’t know anything about their lives. When I researched her, I was really touched. If you read any of the books about Truman, that relationship with Babe seems to be the one true, honest relationship of his life. Maybe his relationship with Jack Dunphy too, obviously. The fact that hers was almost the last word he spoke before he died, I just think that she was probably the only person he came close to loving in his life. I’m not sure if he was capable of loving anyone but himself, but she may have come close. I really felt that they both had scars internally and she had them externally, but I think internally they both had scars that I think they probably only showed to each other. I was just very touched by the genuine closeness of that relationship in everything that I read about them both.
Two souls, exposed like raw wounds. Visible only to each other, they firmly believed.” – Chapter 2
EZB: As a writer, can you at all relate to what he did in terms of thinking their stories were fair game for his work?
MB: I find it ironic that I am doing the same thing with his story in a way, yet there’s a difference. He’s no longer alive, and also he’s not my close friend. I do understand the temptation as a writer. You’re always looking for stories, you’re always are finding stories, but to me, there’s a reason why I write about people no longer living, people in the past. I would never ever write about the people in my life. I’m very protective of them so, no, I can’t imagine doing what he did, but I do know that there are authors today who do. Nora Ephron said that “everything is copy,” and that’s true to a point, but then you just have to decide whether or not you’re going to use that. And I have decided, no I won’t in my real life.
EZB: Do you think In Cold Blood is ultimately responsible for Capote’s downfall?
MB: It has to be. Here’s where it’s open to interpretation. Whether or not it was the grueling wait before that book could be published, all those years he had to wait for the two killers to have all their trials and get all their stays of execution, those years before he could actually publish this book that he knew was brilliant. He knew it was really going to be the pinnacle of his career. I don’t know if it was the wait or the success that followed. Personally, I think it was the success that followed. Like a little boy with his first paycheck, he just kind of went crazy celebrating his own celebrity. I think he got distracted, certainly by the drugs and the alcohol that came too. That definitely had a role in the whole thing, but I tend to believe that it was the celebrity, the fame that happened afterwards that just really derailed him.
EZB: Truman’s Southern roots come from Alabama, where his mother abandoned him to be raised by her sisters. Do you think this childhood trauma caused him to always be searching for a mother figure among his women friends?
MB: That’s a terrible, horrible childhood he had and I think some people have a very difficult time finding any sympathy for Truman Capote and I understand that to a point, but I think every character in my book that I’ve written, even Bill Paley, I always try to find the thing that allows me at least as a writer to find the sympathy for their actions and the motivation and to understand why they did the things they did. Perhaps they couldn’t help it. In this case, it was Truman’s childhood. You can’t emerge from that and not be scarred. You just can’t. The stories he would tell of his mother locking him in the hotel room when she would go out for a date and telling the staff not to open the door no matter how hard and how loud he cried and yelled. That’s just terrible. This is a man who was not wanted from his birth and he had to have known that and he compensated in a lot of ways by becoming larger than life, by becoming a person you couldn’t ignore. Obviously that abandonment stayed with him and made him just unable to trust and unable to love truly, and that’s understandable.
EZB: Why do you think people are still interested in Truman Capote?
MB: I don’t know. If I had the answer to that, every book I write would be an enormous bestseller. We are in a very voyeuristic time in our society with the Kardashians and Instagram and everybody is constantly recording their lives. I think these women were pre-Instagram obviously, but what we thought were their lives was very much recorded and written about and photographed. It’s different because it was carefully staged. They would never have let us see the mess behind it all, but yet that kind of fascination we have with celebrity is I think even 10 times bigger now than it was in their era. We always want to know that they’re probably not as happy as we think they are, that money doesn’t buy happiness. The envy that goes into that makes us want to know that it wasn’t all glitter and glamour.
But Truman wasn’t a man. He wasn’t a woman. He was an unearthly creature, a genius—or so those who weren’t inclined to read had been told by those who were.” – Chapter 2
I think the resurgence also has a lot to do with his relationship with Harper Lee too with her death recently and Go Set A Watchman being published. I think that fed into the fascination with him again this past year. If I had to guess, I’d say In Cold Blood will be the one that remains. I don’t think Breakfast at Tiffany’s or his stories will be ignored or lost, but I think In Cold Blood is the best book and it really did kind of usher in—he always called it a nonfiction novel–but still a narrative nonfiction. I think he was one of the first people to do that in that book and that kind of narrative is very popular today, so I will guess that will be the one to stand the test of time. As you pointed out, here we are still talking about him so I don’t think he’s going away any time soon.
See Melanie Benjamin in Monroeville, Alabama, on November 17, when Truman Capote’s childhood home hosts its own Black & White Masked Celebration at the Monroe County Library. The party starts at 6 p.m., and black and white masks are preferred. Tickets are $35 and may be purchased through Monroeville Main Street. On the following day, at 10 a.m. the Old Courthouse Museum will celebrate “Capote’s Rise from Monroeville to Manhattan” with Southern fiction scholar Dr. John Hafner, who will present Benjamin for a discussion about Capote, his “Swans” and the Black and White Ball.
This story is part of our celebration of Truman Capote’s life and work in conjunction with his birthday September 30 and the 50th anniversary of the publication of In Cold Blood this year. Click here for more Capote stories and interviews.