Shelved Dolls: The Tragedy Of Beautiful Babe Paley

babe paley

Some women are renowned fashion icons in their own time, only to be largely forgotten after their deaths. Through the Shelved Dolls feature, we hope to bring a little bit of information about them to a new generation.

Sometimes, if you’re depressed about being single, it’s fun to think of famous movie stars from past ages and see if you can identify how many of them were married. The answer regarding you is “you have no idea if any of them were married or not. It’s wonderfully irrelevant.” Barbara Stanwyck – marital status? No one knows. (Actually, now that I’ve googled it, she was married to Frank Fay, and their relationship was supposedly the inspiration for A Star is Born so this was a terrible example, but only about five of you knew that).

This game doesn’t work with Babe Paley, because the only thing she’s remembered for is “being CBS tycoon Bill Paley’s wife.” And for being beautiful, and impeccably dressed. But those three went sort of hand in hand. Well – those, and having the good or bad taste to trust Truman Capote.

She was born Barbara Cushing in 1915, and her father continually referred to her as “the beautiful darling!” which seemed to be an accurate descriptor of her for the rest of her life. She worked briefly as an editor at Vogue before marrying Stanley Mortimer. However, they divorced in 1946, and she went on to marry CBS head Billy Paley.

Oh, and how she loved him. And how she hated him. Babe was an Audrey Hepburn type married to a man who wanted to sleep with Marilyn Monroes pretty much exclusively. And he soon stopped sleeping with Babe altogether, and began having a string of extramarital affairs. She confessed this only to her closest friend, and only real confidante, Truman Capote, who, in a way you should kind of expect from Capote, told absolutely everyone.

“Babe made a mistake in trusting him,” said one of her friends in Garald’s Clark biography Capote, “my husband and I had lunch with him in the early 60′s, just after he had spent some time with her. He told us that Bill would no longer sleep with her and that she was greatly bothered by it. We were both horrified by his indiscretion.”

Readers: do not tell Truman Capote a secret ever. Oh. He is dead now. Still don’t! Don’t anyway!

Bill was also prone to jealous rages which terrified Babe. There’s one report of a time he trashed a hotel room hurling furniture at her because he was convinced she was having an affair with an Italian aristocrat (she almost certainly was not, but furniture throwing still would have been the wrong response).

Suffice to say, none of this really worked well for Babe, who tried to kill herself twice, once by taking pills, and then again by slitting her wrists. At one point, Babe thought of leaving Bill and Capote told her “look, you don’t have any money and you have four children. Think of them. Bill bought you. It’s as if he went down to Central Casting. You’re a perfect type for him. Look upon being Mrs. William Paley as a job, the best job in the world.”

Babe told him she would think about it, took a nap, and when she woke up agreed he was right.

This is the only time she ever considered leaving Bill.

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    • madame_dakar

      My grandmother’s best friend was Babe Paley’s personal assistant. She liked to tell how, when she picked up the phone, Truman Capote would ask in his distinctive high-pitched croak, “Is she there?”
      When she responded, “No, Mr. Capote,” he would say, “How clever! You recognized my voice.”

      Apparently, my petite and usually pack-ratty grandma would receive some of Ms. Paley’s cast-offs. I shrieked with disappointment when I found out she had given them to the Salvation Army — I probably wouldn’t be able to wear them anymore but they would have made my teenage years a lot more fashionable.

    • MM

      She was lovely. This is a great feature.

    • Amanda Chatel

      I’d like you to plan my funeral as well, Jennifer. Thanks in advance.

    • kitty

      1. I LOVE this feature. My mother worshiped Babe Paley as a style icon and thought she was “heroic” for putting up with her cheating SOB husband. Sigh. To this day, she will occasionally tie a scarf around the handles of her purse.

      2. Barbara Stanwyck was also married to Robert Taylor for a number of years. I am a fan of her early 30′s work.

    • H.

      Why would anyone be depressed about being single?
      Regretting not being married to the one you love – that’s a feeling I could understand (although not really share).
      But feeling depressed about being single?

    • Phyllis Blair

      Is shelved dolls: tragedy of beautiful babe paley by Jennifer wright a book and if so where can I purchase it? 202-265-0060