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Tragic Facts About Babe Paley, The Queen Of New York

Dancy Mason

From the time she was in the cradle, Babe Paley’s parents wanted great things for their little girl. Well, she certainly got them—but it came at a heartbreakingly high price. A debutante at 18 years old and a high-society wife at 25, Babe had New York City in the palm of her hand. Yet the bigger they are, they hard they fall. Put on your best face for these facts about Babe Paley, The Queen Of New York.


Babe Paley Facts

1. She Was A Spoiled Brat

“Babe” was born Barbara Cushing on July 5, 1915, to prominent brain surgeon Harvey Cushing and his well-heeled socialite wife Katharine. The little girl became iconic early on: As the youngest of five children, she was the spoiled, favorite baby of the family, leading to her lifelong nickname, “Babe.” But her parents expected far more than that of their little girl…

2. She Had Big Shoes To Fill

Babe’s big sisters Minnie and Betsey soon married into the fabulously wealthy Astor and Roosevelt families, and Babe herself was turning out to be quite the high-class looker. The sibling trio were quickly the talk of the town, and society dubbed them “The Fabulous Cushing Sisters.” Of the three, Babe would be the most famous—and the most tragic.

3. She Was A Debutante

Like many self-respecting socialites, Babe had a debutante “coming out” ball in 1934, when she was just 18 years old. It cemented her as one of the most stylish women of her day; as one admirer later commented, “So great is her beauty that no matter how often I see her, each time is the first time.” But Babe’s time in the sun soon came to an abrupt end.

4. She Had A Gruesome Accident

Early in 1934, Babe was driving home from a society party on Long Island with her beau when disaster struck. She got into a horrific car accident, and she didn’t walk away unscathed. The force of the impact knocked her front teeth out, and she had to suffer through extensive dental surgery on both her mouth and her jaw. The results of the procedures, however, were surprising.

5. She Hid Her Face

The immediate aftermath of the surgery was intense and unsettling, with Babe covering the ghastly bruises on the lower half of her face with a chiffon handkerchief whenever company came over. Yet when she healed, people were astonished and envious to find that her false teeth made her smile even more beautiful. And rest assured, Babe was about to make her mark.

6. She Met The Man Of Her Dreams

In 1935, shortly after her debutante ball, Babe moved to New York City to be with her sisters, taking up a series of jobs in the glamorous world of high fashion before ending up at Vogue as an editor in 1939. It was a date with destiny. Everyone adored Babe for her style, her smarts, and her exquisite beauty, but she only had eyes for one man. While working at the magazine, she met Stanley Grafton Mortimer, Jr.

7. She Had An Exquisite Wedding

On the surface, Stanley Mortimer was everything Babe could have asked for in a suitor. Well-connected and “high-Wasp aristocracy,” Mortimer was also as physically perfect as Babe herself, with boy-next-door good looks and the body of a Greek god. They married on September 21, 1940 in East Hampton in a tasteful, understated ceremony. Babe had finally made it—or so people thought.

8. Her Marriage Crumbled

Stanley and Babe’s marriage seemed picture-perfect. After all, the “happy” high society couple quickly had two children, a son named Tony and a daughter named Amanda. But behind closed doors, they were hiding a dark secret. In 1943, Stanley had gone off to fight for the Navy, and when he returned, he was sullen, angry, and drinking heavily. Yet Babe wasn’t much better.

9. She Was A Bad Mother

During this time, some chilling stories give an eerie insight into Babe’s inner life. Many sources close to Babe claim that, especially at this stage in her society career, she utterly neglected her children to focus on climbing the social ladder. As her own daughter Amanda put it, their relationship was “virtually non-existent” and that this was “her choice, not mine.” As we’ll see, this only got worse as time went on.

10. She Had A Scandalous Divorce

Eventually, Babe had enough of Stanley and his disgraceful ways, and she officially divorced him on May 29, 1946 after just six years of marriage. She got a comfortable $40,000 in the settlement to take care of the children, and the dramatic split became a huge source of gossip for café society. Before the divorce went through, though, Babe caused a scandal all by herself.

11. She Two-Timed Her Husband

While the divorce paperwork was still in limbo, Babe started seeing CBS media mogul William Paley—and his back-story was even more sordid than her own. Paley had also just recently separated from his wife, the powerful Dorothy Hart Hearst, because he found her too much of a handful. For her part, Dorothy later called Bill “cold as ice.” Spoiler: This love triangle doesn’t end well for anyone.

12. Her Lover Was Notorious

Although Bill Paley was unfairly ostracized because of his Jewish background, even his friends had harsh things to say about the man. One Paley acquaintance, the socialite Fleur Cowles, said that Bill was like, “one of the cats of the jungle. He prowled around in search of money-making.” Meanwhile, other friends noted his raging temper, which terrified Babe. But that didn’t stop her from taking the plunge.

13. She Was A Trophy Wife

Babe married Bill Paley in July, 1947. Their lavish wedding was the talk of the town, but for all the wrong reasons. The ceremony occurred a mere four days after Bill Paley’s divorce became official, and high society didn’t fail to notice the age gap between the newlyweds. Babe was just 32 years old, while Bill was over a decade her senior at 45. However, these weren’t even the biggest shadows that hung over the marriage…

14. She Had A Sugar Daddy

Babe and Bill’s courtship had yet another disturbing facet: They were shamelessly using each other. Sure, they might have been in love, but Bill Paley was also a shrewd man who wanted a high society WASP to legitimize his empire. Meanwhile, Babe was looking for a sugar daddy who could take care of her. Their marriage certainly ticked these boxes, but when it came to happiness? Not so much.

15. She Was Exclusive

Although everyone wanted the Paleys at their dinner parties, they kept themselves deliberately scarce. Unless you were an extremely close friend of the family, you didn’t have a hope in heck of getting them on the phone. Your only chance, bizarre as it was, was to send them a formal letter, and then Babe might reply. But if you could actually get into their inner circle, well, hold onto your hat.

16. She Had A Mortifying Mix-Up

Babe and Bill famously hobnobbed with the writer Truman Capotebut their first meeting was the definition of embarrassing. One day, a friend asked the Paleys if he could bring along “Truman” to a vacation. The Paleys said yes, but only because they were expecting President Harry Truman. After they cleared up that little misunderstanding, though, Babe became fast friends with Capote—and with him came infamy.

17. She Became A Famous “Swan”

Before long, Capote had dubbed Paley one of his beautiful “swans,” adding her to his inner circle of glamorous socialites like Slim Keith and Gloria Guinness. Indeed, Babe soon became Capote’s favorite, and he once confessed, “I was madly in love with her.” Capote’s anointment cemented Babe’s position as the Queen of New York, but as anyone will tell you, it’s tough at the top.

18. She Had A Bitter Rival

Babe pretended she was above all the fame-mongering of her socialite life, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. She was often jealous of her fellow swans, in particular Gloria Guinness, who was almost her equal in style and influence. To one-up her rival, Paley liked to remind people that Guinness started out as a Mexican nightclub worker. Real classy, Babe. Oh, but Gloria got her back.

19. She Was A Frenemy

One holiday, Gloria invited Babe over to her private yacht, but assured her frenemy that it was going to be a low-key, casual affair, and that Babe needn’t bring her best clothes. This was actually an ingenious ploy. The first night on the yacht, Gloria emerged from her cabin, dripping in diamonds, and insisted they have a formal dinner ashore. Babe made sure to always pack her Sunday best after that.

20. She Looked Perfect On The Outside

Babe Paley was the consummate hostess, and she went to painful lengths to satisfy her guests. Precisely organized, she made sure no one had to unpack and that every bedroom was stocked with food, flowers, and newspapers. As their friend Lady Mary Dunn once recounted, “You could hardly get into the bedroom for the flowers.” We know now, though, that this perfection masked great tragedy.

21. Her Husband Was Painfully Demanding

For all the opulent dinner parties and the jet-setting yacht vacations, there was a rot at the heart of Babe Paley’s marriage. Oh, it started out small enough: Bill Paley expected Babe to be perfect. But then wasn’t she always? Except he was also incredibly exacting in his demands, so much so that Babe started keeping a little gold notebook at every dinner party, writing down flaws so she could do better. And that wasn’t all.

22. Her Husband Controlled Her

Even though Bill wanted Babe to look like his trophy wherever he went, he also had little patience or empathy for the amount of time and effort it took for her to maintain her looks. Early in their marriage, Babe confessed that she stopped setting her hair before bed because, “he didn’t want her doing her hair at night.” Within a few years, Bill’s finicky demands turned Babe’s life into a waking nightmare.

23. She Was Afraid Of Her Marriage

By the time the Paleys were the toast of New York, their marriage had developed some dark habits. One day, a lamp got damaged just as they were leaving for Europe, and it was still broken when they came back. Terrified of what her husband would say, Babe called her sister and begged her to, “Run over…and get it out of the house. I don’t care what you do with it. Just get it out of his sight.” Sadly, their problems in the bedroom were still worse.

24. Her Marriage Bed Was Barren

Babe once confessed to Truman Capote that she and Bill hadn’t had intimate relations for years. Eventually, it got so bad that they hadn’t slept with each other for an entire decade—and to add insult to injury, it was Bill who spurned Babe. As one confidant admitted, “It wasn’t that she denied him. He just lost interest.” Instead, his interest lay somewhere else entirely…

25. Her Husband Cheated On Her Mercilessly

In the dry desert of their marriage, Babe Paley’s husband found an oasis in a bevy of other women—women who could not have been more different than Babe. Bill trawled bars and clubs to pick up models and upcoming starlets, and went to Hollywood on “business” trips that were really for pleasure. And his type? Busty blondes in the vein of Marilyn Monroe. AKA definitely not Babe. The consequences were tragic.

26. She Didn’t Think She Was Attractive

Bill’s infidelities deeply wounded Babe, who started to believe that she wasn’t attractive to men, or attractive, period. She all but resigned herself to celibacy and a barren marriage bed, with some of her friends even claiming that the style icon was actually asexual. Even so, her unhappiness came to a disturbing climax.

27. She Tried To End It All

Truman Capote once claimed that while in the throes of her agonizing and unhappy marriage, Babe tried to kill herself multiple times, once by cutting her wrists and the other by taking a handful of pills. Neither attempt succeeded, and Babe woke up still married, and still miserable. If she was so desperately unhappy, why not just divorce Bill? Well…

28. She Stayed With Her Husband For A Disturbing Reason

Babe was desperate enough to try divorce—until Capote talked her out of it with some harsh words. He told her: “Look, you don’t have any money and you’ve got four children. Think of them. Bill bought you.” Babe apparently took a nap, thought it over, and never mentioned divorce again. Instead, she got her revenge on Bill in other ways.

29. She Had A Group Of Admirers

Completely neglected by her husband, Paley started taking up more and more with a coterie of male friends she dubbed her “laughing men.” Like Truman Capote, the companions were witty, urbane, and mostly platonic, though Babe liked to sharpen her charm school skills with them. Then again, she also had more passionate relationships, too.

30. She Had A Passionate Fling

According to rumors, Babe gave Bill as good as he got in the 1960s. She fired up a fling with an American Ambassador for a couple of months, then moved onto a banker. Apparently, this affair got under Babe’s skin. The banker may have been the one who spurred Babe into seriously considering divorcing Bill for that first and only time. These flings all ended eventually, however, and Babe just grew more unhappy in her loveless marriage.

31. She Suffered In Silence

While Babe Paley’s life was falling apart in her trendy apartment, the rest of the world had almost no idea. Except for her closest confidants—Truman Capote among them—she almost never uttered a cross word against her husband, not even to her children. As her daughter Amanda remembered, “She never criticized Bill.” Well, as we’ll see, her misery had to come out somehow.

32. She Was Jealous Of Her Own Daughter

In her later years, Babe Paley had to deal with another problem entirely: Jealousy over her own daughter Amanda. Now fully grown, Amanda had turned into a great beauty—and Babe’s response was chilling. She started to view her own daughter as her competition, which drove an even bigger wedge into their already strained relationship.

33. She Went Gray

When Babe’s hair started to go grey, she naturally panicked about what Bill would think. Yet somehow, she still managed to turn her mid-life crisis into a fashion moment. After determining to accept her coif’s natural shift from dark brunette to shining silver, Babe started an instant trend, as all the other socialites clamored to grow the dye out of their own hair.

34. She Had A Debilitating Illness

Throughout her life, Babe suffered from horrific migraines that astounded even her closest friends. Though she only experienced an attack two to three times a year, the pain would last for days, forcing her into dark rooms with tip-toeing housekeepers. To help her cope with her searing headaches, Paley even started taking a strong dose of tranquilizers. Nope, that wasn’t healthy.

35. She Had A Bad Habit

With the stresses of Bill’s infidelities, Babe started taking up some very bad coping mechanisms to get her through her gilded days. Although she regularly met with a therapist for a range of mental issues, she also self-medicated her problems with two packs of cigarettes a day. Eventually, it all caught up to her with a vengeance.

36. She Got A Dark Diagnosis

In 1974, before the beautiful Babe Paley had even turned 60, doctors diagnosed her with lung cancer, a direct result of her nervous habit. At first, Babe handled it like the doctor’s daughter she was: She was unflinching about the likelihood of her survival, and when chemotherapy made her hair fall out, she simply tied a chic turban around her forehead. But darker days were ahead.

37. Her Best Friend Used Her

In 1975, with Babe’s still dwindling, Truman Capote made a cruel and fatal error against his favorite “swan.” That year, he published an excerpt from his novel-in-progress in Esquire, titling it “Cote Basque, 1965” after the chic establishment many socialites frequented. But rather than fiction, it was a gaudy tell-all—about Babe’s biggest secret.

38. Her Dirty Laundry Came Out

Throughout “Cote Basque,” Capote had a thinly-veiled caricature of himself talking to another socialite, who reveals everything about the indiscretions of a society husband and his prim and proper wife. Everyone in the Upper East Side saw it for what it was: A publication of Babe Paley’s miserable marriage. And unfortunately for Capote, Babe’s response was swift and brutal.

39. She Banished Her Beloved Friend

Today, many people believe Capote intended the excerpt as a final, valiant defense of Babe and an exposé of Bill’s sins. In reality, though, it had the exact opposite effect. Babe was mortified by the story, and she not only rushed to close ranks around her husband, she completely expelled Capote from her circle, never speaking to him again. But as we’ll see, the final betrayals of her life hit much closer to home.

40. She Had A Priceless Collection

Babe may have been consummately tasteful, but her tastes were still expensive. The socialite had so many near-priceless jewels, she kept them in a bank vault and would drive down and unlock them whenever she wanted to wear them. Besides this lush living, she reportedly also bought up entire collections from couture brands like Valentino and Givenchy for her personal closet.

41. Her Family Was Twisted

Sadly, Babe’s tense relationship with her daughter Amanda might have been the healthiest one in her family. With Bill Paley, she had a girl, Kate, and a boy, Billie, but both heirs all but exiled themselves from the clan. Babe’s only other close relationship was with her oldest son Tony, who she drew in as a confidant—much to her husband’s jealousy. In short, dysfunction ran in the family.

42. Her Daughter Hated Her

When it comes to Babe’s children, no one had a worse time than her daughter Kate. Though her mother was known as one of the world’s most beautiful women, Kate had alopecia and lost all her hair when she was five years old. In the judgmental world of New York’s upper crust, little Kate’s life was hellish. She abandoned her family and refused to see her mother, even on her deathbed. Instead, Kate agreed to say goodbye, but only at the “final moment”—and no sooner.

43. She Was Incredibly Exacting

To get some sense of just how much pressure Babe put herself under while she was married to Bill, get a load of this: Whenever she sent out invitations to dinner parties or other soirees, she always made sure that her secretaries snipped off the stamp edges by hand, just because she thought they looked more elegant that way. Now that’s detail-oriented.

44. She Started An Iconic Trend

Sometimes Babe started a new trend completely by accident. One sunny day, she was on her way to lunch, scarf around her neck, when she realized it was much too warm for the accessory. Instead, she took it off and tied it to her purse—sparking yet another instant sensation that women all over the world began to copycat.

45. She Cracked Under Pressure

A person can only take so much, and even perfect Babe Paley began to buckle under the pressures of her horrible marriage at the very end. As she grew weaker, she began to become less and less cordial to Bill at crucial moments. At one point, she even called up CBS and asked them, “What’s the old S.O.B. doing today?” in reference to her husband. And Babe’s new devil-may-care streak was just getting started.

46. She Had A Furious Outburst

As Babe’s health declined, she finally got her bitter revenge on Bill. In front of her husband and a room of people, Babe finally dropped the polite façade and unleashed a slew of insults on her spouse. “She complained…that she had done too many things that he wanted her to do,” one source recalled. “She knew she was dying. She didn’t have anything to lose.” As it turned out, though, Bill was about to deal her two final insults.

47. Her Husband Betrayed Her

Even with Babe on her deathbed, Bill was still philandering. Apparently unable to keep his decency in his pants, Bill took up with yet another mistress, Joan, around this time. Even worse, he met his 30-year-old paramour at his granddaughter’s school play, which was a low blow even for Bill. Only, Bill waited to really twist the knife in until the very, very end.

48. She Passed At The Perfect Time

On July 6, just one day after her 63rd birthday, the end finally came for Babe Paley. Despite the tragedies and betrayals that had preceded it, it was an end fitting for the woman who had (almost) everything. Even during her last breaths, the socialite reportedly found the energy to put on a full face of makeup to stare down death. But her real triumph came after.

49. She Planned Her Own Funeral

When Babe passed at last, she did it exactly how she wanted it—and I really meant that. Besides extensively cataloguing her jewelry collection in her will, she planned her own funeral down to the very last glimmering detail, and made sure her family carried out her exact wishes. For all this planning, though, her memorial was still steeped in scandal.

50. Her Rivals Tried To Steal Her Man

On the day Babe Paley was buried, Bill Paley seemed to be up to his old tricks again. While Babe’s old friends stood in awe of her floral arrangements and thoughtful touches, the photographer overheard a salacious detail. Multiple women at the tables were eyeing up Bill and saying, “I’m going to marry him.” Well, rest in peace, Babe.

Babe Paley FactsGetty Images

Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6


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