The Swans of Fifth Avenue
By Melanie Benjamin
341 pages, $28
Under the Influence
By Joyce Maynard
326 pages, $25.99
By Karen Brady
Smoke, mirrors and money – lavishly spent – provide the intrigue for a pair of new novels focusing on faux friendship and its crushing but inevitable fallout.
Melanie Benjamin’s “The Swans of Fifth Avenue” is the more colorful of the two, resurrecting as it does the heady years when the author Truman Capote was all the rage, an ostentatious but charming little man appearing everywhere under the wings of New York’s high society “swans.”
Joyce Maynard’s “Under the Influence,” by contrast, brings us the purely fictional “Helen,” a single mother who has recently lost custody of her small son, and the conspicuously wealthy Havillands who become Helen’s improbable rescuers.
Both books are cautionary tales – Benjamin’s well known but worth repeating, Maynard’s with an engrossing plot. Both also deal in facades, “The Swans of Fifth Avenue” in particular.
For the “swans” are six of New York high society’s finest, women who – from the “Fifties through the Seventies” – lived in “a world of quiet elegance, artifice, presentation.” Benjamin’s version of the most admired among them, Barbara “Babe” Cushing Mortimer Paley, describes their carefully choreographed lives thusly:
“… luncheon was the highlight of the day, the reason for getting up in the morning and going to the hairdresser, buying the latest Givenchy or Balenciaga; the reward for managing the perfect house, the perfect children, the perfect husband. And for maintaining the perfect body. After all, one generally dined at home or at a dinner party; why else employ a personal chef or two? But one went out for luncheon … especially (at) Le Pavillon, where the owner, Henri Soulé, displayed his society ladies like the objets of fine art that they were …”
For 20 years, Capote was a frequent guest at these and other elite gatherings – a “tiny effeminate creature,” in Benjamin’s words, “dressed in velvet suits, red socks, an absurdly long scarf usually wrapped around his throat, trailing after him like a coronation robe …”
Babe Paley, the spouse of the celebrated CBS founder William S. Paley, was the closest to him among the swans in the fold, the others being socialites C.Z. Guest, Slim Hawks, Hayward Keith, Pamela Churchill Hayward Harriman, Marella Agnelli and Gloria Guinness.
They all, of course, came to rue the day and Benjamin, cleverly, opens the novel at this excruciating point in time – Oct. 17, 1975 – the date Esquire published Capote’s famous short story, “La Côte Basque 1965,” a thinly veiled expose of the swans’ deepest secrets and shallow if moneyed lives.
“Today,” Benjamin writes, “they’d opened the pages of Esquire magazine and seen themselves – not merely themselves, but their kind, their tribe, their exclusive, privileged, envied set – eviscerated, skin flayed open, souls laid bare, ugliness acknowledged. Secrets betrayed and lives destroyed. By the viper in their nest; the storyteller in their midst.”
In defiance, several of the swans agree “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, less tainted by the story than the others, asks coolly: “So tell me … How the hell did that southern-fried bastard get here in the first place?”
What follows is a completely frivolous if compelling book tracing the arc of Capote’s rise in literary circles (chiefly with “Other Voices, Other Rooms,” “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” and his nonfiction novel “In Cold Blood”) right along with his dizzying ascent in social circles.
At his apex in both worlds, he throws his still-legendary Black and White Ball – an event he is only able to pull off with the connections and social expertise of his close friend and confidante, Babe Paley. Yet, it is Babe and her husband, Bill, who are the most defamed in “La Côte Basque 1965,” the short story now known as Capote’s “social suicide,” the start of the downward spiral in both his literary and personal lives that only ended in his death at the early age of 60.
Sadly, Capote’s swans of Fifth Avenue are vilified all over again in Benjamin’s new novel – with the exception of Babe, who emerges a somewhat sympathetic character. But Capote gets his too – and we readers are rewarded with the remembrance of a long-ago time when all that glittered could have fooled us.
Deception is also at the heart of Joyce Maynard’s new novel, a book whose title, “Under the Influence,” has little to do with substance abuse and a great deal to do with the spell the Havillands, Ava and Swift, cast upon the susceptible Helen.
“Ava always fed me …” Helen recalls, “and I always devoured what she offered me. Somewhere along the line, over the years – without noticing it, even – I’d lost the taste for food. Lost the taste for life, or close to it. That’s what the Havillands gave back to me.”
Young, alone and desperately missing her 5-year-old “Ollie” (the boy is taken from her after she is caught driving drunk with Ollie in the car), Helen is easy prey for the wealthy but generous Havillands – particularly the beautiful and uber-busy Ava, who is confined to a wheelchair and needs someone like Helen around to do her bidding.
“I could tell that if she were able to stand she’d be very tall,” Helen thinks when she meets Ava. “But even seated, you knew this was a powerful woman. That chair of hers was more like a throne.”
Helen soon finds herself under the sway of this “magic couple” and when, in time, she is granted weekends with Ollie, she brings him as well into the Havilland house of cards. And when a love interest says, “the exciting people aren’t always the ones you can count on,” Helen can’t hear him.
Maynard, as always, gives us a fine-tuned page-turner here. Her terse, trademark descriptions and easy dialogue are in fine form – and, when betrayal rears its ugly head, it is in an unforgettable and shocking manner.
But, to this reader, “Under the Influence” is an opportunity missed. What is an absorbing but plot-driven and one-dimensional book could have been a profoundly layered read: Maynard presents Helen as an alcoholic who now only drinks sparkling water and professes regular attendance at meetings of AA – yet her mantra is that (except for the Havillands) she is friendless, with no support and no place to turn.
This represents a strange disconnect – when anyone with a passing knowledge of AA knows that it is a fellowship and a way of life that goes far beyond abstinence and includes not only deep and abiding friendships but unlimited support in all of one’s endeavors.
Maynard touches on this, in a topsy-turvy way, when Helen observes at an AA meeting: “This was the dark side of my life – my real life, probably, though not the one I would have preferred. With Ava and Swift, I got to pretend that none of this went on.”
“Under the Influence,” for all of its strengths, cries out for the profundity of that “real life,” the one that is found, not in fairy tale endings, but in genuine recovery.
Karen Brady is a former News columnist.