Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Swans, Bombs and Conservatism In extremis

Happier days — Babe Paley with Truman Capote in Capri, circa 1960s.
by Liz Smith

A Weekend of Books, Books, Books — Swans, Bombs and Conservatism In extremis.

"A MAN only learns in two ways, one by reading, and the other by association with smarter people," said Will Rogers.

Brother, do I agree with Will! Even when I was reading above my complete understanding (can any 11-year-old really understand Emma Bovary?) I knew I was onto something. And I always kept a dictionary nearby, to look up words I didn't understand. As for association with smarter people, as a young person, I assumed almost everyone was smarter than I, and made strenuous efforts to listen and learn — quietly. I still try to listen and learn, but I am no longer so quiet.
Madame Bovary, illustration by Charles Léandre.
ON THE subject of reading, I spent the weekend with three wildly disparate books, all of which I finished before 9:00 PM Sunday. (I remain faithful to "Downton Abbey" as it winds down its final season.)

First, I put on my political wonk hat and dove into E.J. Dionne Jr.'s "Why The Right Went Wrong ”Conservatism From Goldwater to the Tea Party and Beyond." The book comes right up to the summer and autumn following Donald Trump's ascent, so it is most timely. I don't know that I necessarily learned more than I knew before, but author E.J. is adept at pulling together the more or less recent history of conservatism, the rise of the radical right, why they are so radical and furious and disgusted with their own party. They were led to the promised land so often and, in their mind, always abandoned at a seemingly impenetrable border. The book lays out the groundwork for social, along with fiscal,conservatism, and sadly pinpoints why Barack Obama's dream — "there is not a liberal America or a conservative America, just one America," was truly a dream.

Read this and you'll get why we are agog at the rise of Trump, and why his followers seem certain he can "take us back" to those better times. (Not really better, if you know your history, or lived in those times, but whiter, for sure.)
THEN I dove into Richard Engel's "And Then All Hell Broke Loose: Two Decades In The Middle East." Engel — who is NBC's Chief Foreign Correspondent — offers a brisk, concise, often-hair-raising saga beginning with his early, fondly remembered years in Cairo, to the increasing bloodshed and intransigent policies, wars and terrorism of Jerusalem, Lebanon, Libya, Syria and Afghanistan. He watched al-Qaeda splinter and morph into the even more deadly and fanatical ISIS. He has few kind words for Presidents Bush or Obama in their handling of the Middle East. (W. acted too impulsively and without a plan. O. has been too cautious, inconsistent, and without a plan.)

The book often reads like a thriller, and one is occasionally quite annoyed by Engel's risk-taking and obsessive interest in this land awash with centuries of blood and misunderstandings. But, it's his job, his passion. Putting himself in harm's way, to get that story, to make a connection and to foster some sense of what is right and wrong and inevitable way over there, doesn't seem heroic, nor does Engel present himself that way. He needs to know, to learn, to help if he can. He'd like us, in our much less danger-fraught living rooms, watching it on TV, to know and learn and help a bit, too. I'd not read Engel's two previous books, so this gives me a better, more personal sense of the man, who I always tend to worry about, when I see his live reports.
Richard Engel reporting In The Middle East.
Click to order "The Swans of Fifth Avenue."
THE THIRD book I settled into was very different indeed — "The Swans of Fifth Avenue" by Melanie Benjamin. This is a historical novel, a delicious semi-fiction, about Truman Capote's friendship with his socialite "swans" — Slim Keith, Gloria Guinness, Pamela Churchill, C.Z. Guest, and the swan deluxe, Truman's best friend, Babe Paley, the most beautiful, stylish and famous of the fabulous Cushing sisters, the wife of CBS titan Bill Paley.

Ms. Benjamin's novel travels back and forth in time, beginning with some of the swans gathering to peck and complain over Capote's "La Cote Basque" article in Esquire magazine. This was the piece that Truman — paralyzed with writer's block and enveloped in his frantic celebrity after the great success of "In Cold Blood" — promised was the "real" beginning of a novel, which would never materialize. What it was, really, was a gossip piece, in which he dissected and revealed much of what he had learned in his years as the "amusement" for society. And of course, he was a compulsive liar, too — about himself and others. It was too boring to tell — or write — anything just as it really happened.
"La Côte Basque 1965," shocked New York society when it appeared in Esquire's November 1975 issue.
"The Swans of Fifth Avenue" offers succulent studies on all the swans, but the raison d'etre is to delve into the obsessive love and friendship between Truman and Babe, two incomplete people seeking love, wondering if they can love, desperate for acceptance, loathing in so many ways, the manner in which they are accepted.

The Duchess of Windsor and C. Z. Guest leaving La Côte Basque, 1962.
Lee Radziwill and Truman Capote outside the Colony, 1968. By Tony Palmieri/Conde Nast archive; Digital Colorization by Lorna Clark.
Author Benjamin takes pains to point out that except for "the well-known actual people, events and locales that figure in the narrative" the rest are products of her own imagination or are used fictitiously. She adds: "I have to say, this book has been the most fun to write, since all of the characters were incurable liars in life. This gave me quite a lot of lee-way." (My boss, Liz Smith, is mentioned, in a conversation that is half-fact/half-fiction but true to the moment. Liz knew Truman well — before, during and after "La Cote Basque.")

Well, all I can say is that Ms. Benjamin has a stunning imagination. In the first place, I have rarely read such a sumptuously written book. It is almost too much to take in. I actually had to put the book down several times, to catch my breath, much as Babe Paley did, though for less grim reasons. There is an almost suffocating beauty in Benjamin's prose; at times I felt I was falling down a satin-lined rabbit role, emerging finally on the Paley's yacht, or the 21 Club at its peak, or at Truman's lavish Black and White Ball in 1966, or in the exquisite confines of Babe Paley's bedroom, where she meticulously applied her cosmetics, planned her day, worried over her humanity and confided in Truman.

The sense of reality is stunning. Clearly, Melanie Benjamin did her research on all the swans, the way they lived, on Truman, on the good old days when ladies still wore gloves and "had lunch." But she took what she knew, threw it into a juicer, added ice, heart and luscious imaginings and poured out this ravishing work.

There's not a page in this novel that doesn't deeply move, irreverently amuse or cast a heady, fragrant spell of longing. Perhaps not so much for those irretrievably-dead days of hypocritical propriety, but as with so much that is legend, the feeling that if this wasn't the way it was, it was the way it should have been.

Which, in effect, was the basis of Truman Capote's art. He would have adored "The Swans of Fifth Avenue."
Truman and Babe at the "Black and White Ball" in 1966. Truman would be Iced out by Babe and fellow swans following the publicaiton of "La Côte Basque 1965."

Contact Liz Smith here.