Internet Rabbit Hole: The Cushing Sisters

After I finished Melanie Benjamin’s The Swans of Fifth Avenue, I found myself down an internet rabbit hole. I started by looking for pictures of Babe Paley and friends, and ended up smack dab in the middle of images of the infamous Black and White Ball.

It became clear pretty quickly that I was going to have to read more about Babe and friends.

A quick google pointed me in the direction of David Grafton’s The Sisters: The Lives and Times of the Fabulous Cushing Sisters. This book covers the lives and loves of Minnie Astor Fosburgh, Betsey Roosevelt Whitney and of course, Babe Mortimer Paley. My library pulled it out of storage for me (this book was published in 1992, when Betsey was still alive!) which made me kind of feel like a historian and reminded me, again, of how much I love my awesome library.

(Also, 1992 does NOT feel that long ago but it IS!)


Minnie and Betsey aren’t mentioned that much in Benjamin’s book – it’s definitely more focused on Babe, the most famous of the three, her relationship with Truman Capote and his “Swans.” But Betsey and Minnie were interesting in their own right. At a time when marriage was a woman’s highest ambition, Betsey, Minnie and Babe managed to turn their upper “middle class” origin (their father was a pre-eminent neurosurgeon but whatever) into the kind of lives that most only dream of. Groomed from birth to marry well by their ambitious mother, each ended up marrying into the very highest echelons of American society.

I enjoyed this book, especially once we get to the Truman sections and learn all about how that all went down (honestly, Benjamin pretty well nails it in her book), but it still didn’t feel like the first story. It felt like Grafton himself was a fan, and was scared to dive too deep into the truth for fear of offending his subjects and their friends. For example, there are hints in Benjamin’s book that Babe’s first husband hit her but Grafton only mentions that after the war, Stanley Mortimer came back different and that he drank too much and was prone to dark moods. And then he just kind of fades into the background.

It’s also not a balanced biography. Obviously, one of the sisters was more famous than the others but, while Betsey’s early marriage to President Roosevelt’s son gets early play, Minnie, who married an Astor,  barely gets any page time. Once Truman enters the scene, we rarely hear from the elder Cushing sisters. I would have also liked to read more about how the sisters interacted with each other.

Grafton also as a tendency to be repetitive. I was fairly certain that I was going to scream if I read about “top drawer” American society again. Same with “scions”, “upper echelons”, “society hostess Elsa Maxwell” etc. Again, you get the sense that Grafton is completely blinded by the wealth and prestige of his subject matter to want to paint anything but the most flattering portrait. And it’s really not all good – by all accounts, Babe was a neglectful mother, intent on her persona in society at the expense of time with her kids, Minnie married an “avowed” homosexual and potentially never consummated either of her marriages and Betsey’s relationship with her sisters was fraught, at best.

And yet, my interest has been piqued. I still want more. Someone tell me that J. Randy Taraborrelli is planning a biography of the Cushings! Or someone who is excellent at sister biographies:  Mary S. Lovell? Julia P. Gelardi? Can I interest you in subject matter for a new book?


The Swans of Fifth Avenue

I am always in the mood for a good gossipy read. But it has to be good.

It has to be smart and sharp and funny and interesting and totally engrossing. The Royal We, The Knockoff, Crazy Rich Asian, China Rich Girlfriend, Big Little Lies – it needs to be able to keep up with these favourites.

The Swans of Fifth Avenue by Melanie Benjamin totally does.


It’s the 1950s and Truman Capote meets Babe Paley and manages to become friendly with her and her social group. These women, Gloria Guinness, Slim Keith, C.Z Guest and Pamela Churchill are the very top of New York Society. They do not admit new friends easily but there is something about Capote that captures their imaginations – they treat him as a kind of mascot. He makes himself indispensable to them and with Babe especially he forges a strong friendship. Soon they cannot do without each other.

But Truman is, above all, a writer. And sooner or later he’s going to use his access to his “swans” against one or all of them to his benefit.

I. Loved. This. Book.

I loved the glimpse Benjamin gave us behind closed doors, the luxury that’s casually described on every page. And yet, with all the tremendous trappings of wealth that these women and their kind were surrounded by, somehow Benjamin is able to strip that away enough to show us that they were also people. People with incredible wealth and privilege but people that had their own share of problems.

Ultimately, The Swans of Fifth Avenue is about the friendship between Truman and Babe and how it shaped both their lives. When Truman exploits that friendship it has devastating consequences for each of them. It is sharp and thorough and wonderful. Yes, these people had obscene amounts of money and originally that was a part of this book’s charm. But such is Benjamin’s talent that I was able to see beyond that to the people that they were and the social structures that they were trapped by.

This book sent me down an internet rabbit hole. I googled images of the famous Black and White Ball that Truman Capote hosted in 1966. I fell through pages on Wikipedia to do with these women and their husbands. Mostly, I wanted to know more about who Babe was. I have a biography of Babe and her sisters (one married FDR’s son, another an Astor) out from the library right now for this reason. I want to know everything. And In Cold Blood has moved back to the top of my TBR List.

What was the last book that sent you searching for more information?