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.

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.