Shelved Dolls: The Tragedy Of Beautiful Babe Paley

I’m always conflicted – was this terrible advice? My initial reaction is always to jump up and say “Truman, you are a moron-dwarf” in this specific instance but, well, it was the 1950′s, she did have four children and no particular skills, and she loved being on best dressed lists.

Which she was on, all the time. She first appeared in Vogue in 1937, and in 1941 Time Magazine claimed she was 2nd best dressed woman in the world (the first was Wallis Simpson.)

Here is Babe with Wallis Simpson (I think she looks better dressed than Wallis)

While she bought very few new pieces – perhaps three or four a year – she had the ability to style them so that, in the words of Oscar de La Renta “Whatever she wore, she wore in a way you would never forget.”

Famously, at one point, she tied a scarf around her bag, and it became an instant trend, and one that you still sometimes see fashionable women sporting today. When she wore a pantsuit, middle America knew they were suddenly acceptable. And when she refused to dye her greying hair, it became a kind of power symbol.

It helped that she was so. damn. beautiful. Look at her!

babe paley

So beautiful and so sad.

The photographer, Edwin Blumfeld who took that blue-hat picture of her for Vogue in 1947 claimed “The shape of her face is as attenuated as an El Greco. She has the most luminous skin imaginable and only Velasquez could paint her coloring on canvas.” She does, doesn’t she? It’s one of those perfectly boned Garbo faces that look terrific from every angle, and then there’s that coloring! God, no wonder the society decorator Billy Baldwin, who designed her apartment at the St. Regis, said that “so great is her beauty that no matter how often I see her, each time is the first time.”

She still had a husband who threw furniture at her.

Though perhaps the greatest tragedy, for Babe was when Truman Capote revealed her secrets in Answered Prayers. His thinly disguised tell-all about New York society featured a character who was clearly, unmistakably Babe Paley (he described her down to her favorite pair of shoes) sitting with her husband and helping him pick out an appropriate mistress. There was also a story about Bill in which he desperately tried to clean the menstrual blood of one of his mistresses out of the sheets before his wife got home.

Truman claimed that he wrote the stories – in part – so that everyone could see what a brute Bill Paley was, and Babe would be free to divorce him. Babe never did divorce him, and she spoke to Truman only once again. He’d been frozen out by most of the other socialites of the time (they would not speak to him ever again after Answered Prayers). Babe ran into him in a restaurant accompanied by some of the other socialites of the period, and Truman said “hello, there!” All the other socialites kept walking – as you might when passing a crazy homeless person, and Babe turned back and said “well, hello, Truman”. When they got to their table all the other women asked why Babe had spoken to him, and Babe replied “well, it just would have been so rude. It would have been so rude not to.” To my mind, this is Babe’s most tragic moment.

More tragic then when she ultimately died of lung cancer in 1978 at 63. When she was diagnosed, she planned her funeral, right down to the wines that would be served at the luncheon.

Truman Capote – who reportedly died whispering her name – claimed that her life was a great tragedy, though few people would agree with him on that. It’s just hard to notice that sometime because – I mean, again – look at that hat.

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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