Monday, November 30, 2015

Nonfiction fiction

Truman Capote is sometimes credited with inventing the "nonfiction novel" with In Cold Blood, published in 1966. It was a novel, yet one that described actual events and the roles played by real people in those events. Now, almost 50 years later, Capote is himself the subject of a nonfiction novel, The Swans of Fifth Avenue by Melanie Benjamin.

The swans of the title are elegant socialites like Babe Paley, Gloria Guinness, Slim Keith and Pamela Churchill Harriman, whose photos graced newspaper society pages back in the 1950s and '60s. Capote, a young, homosexual writer, somehow became a part of their circle, one of the girls. He became especially close to Babe, wife of CBS exec Bill Paley, whom Benjamin paints as a man who craves sex with beautiful women, including the other swans, but not his own wife, the most beautiful of them all. Although Capote has no sexual interest in Babe either, he does admire her beauty and grace. She admires his wit and his willingness to listen to her and to try to understand her.

Both Babe and Truman are haunted by their mothers. Her mother taught her that her only worth would be as the beautiful wife of a very rich man. She has followed the script written by her mother, but without finding happiness. She wears a wig, has false teeth and is never seen by anyone without her makeup, that is until she reveals herself to Truman. As for Capote, his mother abandoned him in a small Southern town while she pursued dreams that did not include him. He has never gotten over this feeling of abandonment.

Success spoils Truman Capote. After the In Cold Blood becomes a smash, he is virtually finished as an important writer. He is much more interested in parties, alcohol and drugs. As for Babe Paley, she is spoiled by time. Benjamin describes the swans as "women with a shelf life." Age is cruel to all of us, but perhaps especially to beautiful women and athletes because it comes so soon.

Yet Babe and the other swans are ultimately destroyed by Truman himself when he sells a story about their lives to Esquire magazine. Again, this is nonfiction fiction, and even with the names changed, the swans can spot themselves in the story, which reveals the shallowness of their lives. One of them even commits suicide.

Benjamin, like Capote before her, beautifully blends what we know about real people with what we, or at least she, can only imagine. She has Capote say at one point, "I think that's the epitome of living, to be able to create art out of your life. It's what we do, in a way, isn't it? In writing?" Capote himself made a mess out of his life, but now Melanie Benjamin has turned it into art.

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