July 5, 1915– Barbara “Babe” Cushing Mortimer Paley:
I have seldom known a person who deserted the truth in trifles and then could be trusted in matters of importance.
Last Friday’s #BornThisDay figure was “Babe” Didrikson, maybe I’m on to something with this Babe thing. Babe Ruth (1895 – 1948) and Babe Pig Hogget (1993-2012), watch out!
This Babe was the daughter of a renowned Boston surgeon and she grew-up rich and privileged. In 1934, she was in a serious car accident and underwent re-constructive surgery. Babe Paley had been a bit of an ordinary beauty, but the surgery made her into a striking woman.
A student at the Westover School in Connecticut, she was presented as a debutante in October 1934 in Boston, with Franklin D. and Eleanor Roosevelt‘s sons in attendance. Her debut drew a great deal attention during the Great Depression and marked the beginning of her stunning social career.
She met and married oil heir Stanley Grafton Mortimer, Jr., in 1940. Her mother preferred that she marry a powerful man with a title, yet she generally approved of the union. Six years and two children later, their marriage ended. She neglected her children while pursuing her social status and depended upon the wealth of her husbands to support her lavish lifestyle. Her daughter, Amanda Mortimer Burden (a Principal at Bloomberg Associates and ex-wife of serial abuser Charlie Rose), has stated that their relationship was “virtually nonexistent and that the distance was her choice, not mine”.
In 1938, Paley began working as a fashion editor for Vogue . Her position at the magazine gave her access to designer clothes, often given in exchange for her high profile, glamorous image. In 1941, Time magazine voted her the world’s second Best-Dressed Woman after American socialite Wallis Simpson, Duchess of Windsor. She appeared on the 1945 and 1946 Best-Dressed-list again. In 1947, she married William S. Paley, the chief executive who built the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) from a small radio network into one of the foremost radio and television networks in the world. After the wedding, she left her job at Vogue.
Paley set about to cultivate and create a picture-perfect social world. The couple took an elegant apartment at the St. Regis and hired noted interior designer Billy Baldwin to decorate it. The Paleys lived there during the week, while weekends were spent at Kiluna Farm, on 80 acres on Long Island, where a succession of important landscape architects and garden designers beautified the grounds.
In addition to hosting lavish parties, Paley maintained her position on the Best-Dressed list 14 times before being inducted into the Fashion Hall of Fame in 1958. She regularly bought entire haute couture collections from major fashion houses like Givenchy and Valentino. Her personal style was inspirational to thousands of women who tried to copy her. Designer Bill Blass noted:
I never saw her not grab anyone’s attention, the hair, the makeup, the crispness. You were never conscious of what she was wearing; you noticed Babe and nothing else.
Her personal, unconventional style was enormously influential. A terrific photograph of Paley with a scarf tied to her handbag, for example, created a trendy tidal wave that millions of women emulated. She mixed extravagant jewelry by Fulco di Verdura and Jean Schlumberger with cheap costume pieces and embraced letting her hair go gray. In a stroke of modernism, she made pantsuits chic. With her signature crimson lips and her natural elegance, she inspired many fashion designers. She was photographed by the best photographers like Horst P. Horst and Cecil Beaton.
Her image and status reportedly created a strain on her marriage. Her husband insisted that his wife be wrapped in sable and completely bejeweled at all times.
From what I have read about her, Paley was lonely and frustrated as her husband carried on a series of affairs. The psychological battering took its toll on her and her family. She was constantly under the scrutiny of high society and the media, who pressed her to maintain the unrealistic image of a social and fashion goddess.
Babe Paley had only one fault, she was perfect. Otherwise, she was perfect.
She served as a muse to Capote who included her into his closed circle of “Swans”. Capote was Paley’s closest friend and confidant until he did the unforgivable. In a 1975 Esquire magazine piece that was eventually expanded into his unfinished novel Answered Prayers(published posthumously in 1987) he depicted a character based on her husband in a tryst with someone said to be modeled on Happy Rockefeller, which ended up in a big mess. Literally. When she read the excerpt, Paley dropped Capote and never spoke to him again.
On the day the story, La Côte Basque 1965, was published Paley called her friend Slim Keith:
Have you seen Esquire?! Call me as soon as you’re finished!
Keith, born Mary Raye Gross on July 15, 1917 in Salinas, California, had been married to film director Howard Hawks, super-agent Leland Hayward and Kenneth Keith, Baron Keith of Castleacre, making her “Lady Keith”.
Keith, then living at the Pierre Hotel, sent the maid downstairs for a copy. Keith:
I read it, and I was absolutely horrified. The story about the sheets, the story about Ann Woodward. There was no question in anybody’s mind who it was about.
Woodward (1915-1975) was an American socialite now famous as a murder suspect in the death of her husband who had planned to divorce her. She was never convicted of the crime.
La Côte Basque 1965 wasn’t so much a short story as an atomic bomb that Capote built all by himself in his U.N. Plaza apartment and at his beach house in Sagaponack. It was the first installment of Answered Prayers, which Capote believed would be his masterpiece.
Capote had boasted to his swan Marella Agnelli, wife of Gianni Agnelli, chairman of Fiat, that the novel was “going to do to America what Marcel Proust did to France”. He couldn’t stop talking about his roman à clef. He said that he was constructing his book like a gun:
There’s the handle, the trigger, the barrel, and, finally, the bullet. And when that bullet is fired from the gun, it’s going to come out with a speed and power like you’ve never seen—wham!
Answered Prayers refers to a quote by Saint Teresa of Ávila:
More tears are shed over answered prayers than unanswered ones.
Capote signed the initial contract for the novel in January 1966 with Random House. This agreement provided a $25,000 advance with a stipulated delivery date of January 1, 1968.
Distracted by the unprecedented success of his “nonfiction novel” In Cold Blood and his famed Black And White Ball, a party thrown by Capote in honor of Katharine Graham at the Plaza Hotel in November 1966, plus increasing personal demons, Capote missed his 1968 deadline. In July 1969, the contract was renegotiated, granting a $750,000 advance in exchange for a trilogy to be delivered in January 1973. The delivery date was delayed to January 1974 and then September 1977. A final agreement in early 1980 would have brought Capote $1 million to have been paid only if he submitted the manuscript by March 1, 1981. This final deadline was not kept.
In May 1971, on The Dick Cavett Show, Capote said of the project:
Either I’m going to kill it, or it’s going to kill me.
By 1975, Capote’s increasingly outrageous public behavior, fueled by alcohol and drugs led many to believe that he had no intention of ever publishing Answered Prayers and had essentially given up writing to follow in the footsteps of his fabulous friends as a professional socialite. To prove that he was still a viable and productive writer, Capote sold four chapters to Esquire. With the publication of La Côte Basque 1965 there was an uproar of shock and anger among Capote’s friends who recognized thinly veiled characters based on themselves. Including the Paleys, Gloria Vanderbilt, depicted as being insufferably vacuous, Keith, Rockefeller, and Woodward.
With a longtime, two-packs a day cigarette habit, plus the pressure from her lifestyle, Paley was diagnosed with lung cancer in 1974. She planned her own funeral, right down to the food and wine selections that would be served at the funeral luncheon. She carefully allocated her jewelry collection and personal belongings to friends and family, wrapped them in colorful paper, and created a complete file system with directions as to how they would be distributed after her death. Cancer finally got her on July 6, 1978, the day after her 63rd birthday.
Fashion designers and interior designers continue to reference Babe Paley’s style in their own creations.
Paley is portrayed by Joan Severance in the film Life Of The Party: The Pamela Harriman Story (1998); in Capote (2005) Michelle Harrison, plays her and she is portayed by Sigourney Weaver in the other Capote biopic Infamous (2006).
In Jacqueline Susann‘s novel, The Love Machine (1969), the characters of socialite Judith Austin and Gregory Austin, CEO of a television network, are obvious stand-ins based on the Paleys. Dyan Cannon plays Judith in the 1971 film version.
Paley is the main character in one of my favorite books of 2016, The Swans Of Fifth Avenue by Melanie Benjamin, a novel about Capote and his real-life circle of female friends. It is a slim, elegant book, of course.