Home > The Swans of Fifth Avenue

The Swans of Fifth Avenue
Melanie Benjamin


—Diana Vreeland

Languid, 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 enough—enough. 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 dragonfly—a sprite, landing among the swans with a burst of delighted laughter. They laughed, as well, all of them—except 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.

And his swan, now—that 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 choosing—held 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.

La Côte Basque, October 17, 1975

“He 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 me—I 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 Harriman—not a shrinking violet in the bunch—had descended upon La Côte 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! ‘Oh, Slim,’ she said. ‘If 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 her.”

“But what about—?” Pamela asked, and they all glanced at the empty chair at the end of the table. “Wasn’t C.Z. outraged on her 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 story—it is 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.

Everyone knew.

The latest issue of Esquire 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 Côte Basque 1965,” it was called. It was now one P.M. Liz Smith was probably already on the phone, frantically asking their maids if Madam was in or out.

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