Of all Truman Capote’s beautiful socialite “swans,” Gloria Guinness was the most scandalous. Called “the most elegant woman in the world,” by her admirers, Guinness nonetheless hid immense tragedy, infamy, and bitterness beneath her glittering façade—and dark rumors followed her to her immaculate grave. Pull back the curtain on this high society beauty.
On August 27, 1912, Gloria was born in Guadalajara, Mexico as Gloria Rubio y Alatorre—and even her birth hinted at the fame she would achieve. Her father Jose was a prominent journalist, while her mother Maria Luisa was an aristocratic dona descended from none other than Christopher Columbus.
For all that, though, Gloria was in for heartache at a young age.
As a young girl, Gloria spent her life getting tutored in the cunning ways of polite society, living on her mother’s family haciendas and meeting perfect women and powerful men. But it all unraveled in a brutal way.
Although Guinness’s history is super shady (more on that later), her noble family likely fell into disrepair after the revolution, becoming all but impoverished. Did Gloria sit and cry her pretty little eyes out?
Nah. Instead, she worked in a Mexican nightclub to make ends meet as a teenager. Yet some say there is another, darker version of this story.
According to one reading of events, Gloria’s job in a nightclub opened her up to more unsavory antics, with some even whispering that she once earned money as a teenage escort, clawing her way out of obscurity and into rich clients' beds. Whatever the truth, Gloria obviously knew how to ensnare men…which might explain her next move.
When Gloria was barely 20 years old, she met and married the Dutch sugar factory superintendent Jacob Scholtens.
Yeah, 20 is a pretty young age to do that sort of thing—but it gets even creepier. At the time of the wedding in 1933, Scholtens was almost three decades older than her at 47 years old. Ew. Maybe that’s why it was doomed.
Gloria’s face became famous in the 1950s as a symbol of American power and elegance. She had an incredibly long, thin neck, high cheekbones, and sharp, angular features that showcased big, brown eyes.
Where many were clamoring over blonde bombshells like Marilyn Monroe, Gloria represented a beauty standard for the “old money” set.
Gloria’s marriage to Scholtens started crumbling almost immediately, and two years later, the couple divorced. But she wasn’t done with love, not by a long shot: That very same year, Gloria tied the knot with Franz-Egon, the Count von Furstenberg.
Yep, the young, beautiful Gloria was now German nobility—and she soon got into a scandal to match.
Dark rumors also surround this part of Gloria’s life. With WWII on the horizon and everything in Germany going upside down, some persistent stories claim that Gloria worked as a spy during this time, all while she posted up in the neutral Madrid and waited out the conflict.
Sounds juicy, but I wouldn’t be too hasty to praise her as a “shero”…
If Gloria’s clandestine spy history is true, then we have to grapple with a very ugly possibility: That she did her espionage work for the wrong side. That’s right, the reports that say she was a secret agent also claim the high-class socialite was working for the German Axis powers, not the Allies. Even worse, there are chilling pieces of evidence for these suggestions.
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The chic Countess von Furstenberg apparently had friendships with some of the most vulgar men in modern history, and I’m not talking just WWIII side characters. Among her closest friends, sources say, were Nazi right-hand man Hermann Goring and Adolf Hitler himself. Sure, bad taste in buddies doesn’t mean she was a secret agent…but there’s more.
It is difficult to think of chic little Gloria Guinness doing the devil’s work for the Axis powers—but it kind of holds water. People like Countess Aline Griffith were also deep into espionage at the time, so it wasn’t unprecedented. Moreover, by the 1950s, some said Gloria didn’t even have a valid passport and was officially stateless. And then there were Gloria’s own confessions.
At the height of her fame, Gloria wasn’t exactly known for her candor and honesty. Quite the opposite; she was practically a pathological liar.
She loved making up baseless stories about her past, claiming her father was a revolutionary (nope) and her mother was a humble laundry maid (also no). Honestly, if this woman wasn’t a spy, she should have been.
Apparently even super-spy marriages don’t last, because in 1940, Gloria and Count von Furstenberg called it quits and divorced. In classic Gloria fashion, she didn’t wait around long for her Prince Charming—and I mean "Prince" literally. Just two years later, she married Ahmad Fakhry Bey, the grandson of the King of Egypt.
Then, when that marriage fell apart in 1949, Gloria really found her destiny.
In 1951, she caught her biggest fish yet: banking magnate Thomas “Loel” Guinness. Guinness was supremely high society, and Gloria had finally settled into her "socialite" niche. Granted, it did come with drama. Gloria was her husband’s third wife, and inherited an entire brood of moody stepchildren to go with him. Oh, but that was just the beginning.
By the time Gloria married the magnate, Guinness and his family were already notorious for a series of international scandals that followed them around. Most infamously, Loel’s first wife, the beautiful Joan Yarde-Buller, had left him in the 1930s for none other than Prince Aly Khan. Yep, seems like Gloria was definitely Loel Guinness’s type.
Gloria’s golden years were now in full force. As a prominent New York socialite, she even struck up a friendship with writer Truman Capote, who quickly anointed her as one of his “swans”—the group of elegant women he clustered around himself. Fellow swans included legendary beauties like Princess Lee Radziwill and American socialite Babe Paley.
These women seemed to present perfect exteriors…yet the truth was much more complicated.
Gloria was often considered the most elegant of Capote’s swans, but she had some stiff competition in Capote’s own favorite, Babe Paley. The women became frenemies, and their rivalry got ugly fast. For a long stretch of time, an envious Paley couldn’t stop announcing Gloria's past as a Mexican nightclub worker to anyone who would listen. Real classy, Babe.
But don’t worry: Gloria got her back.
During one vacation, the Guinnesses had the Paleys over to their yacht, as you do when you’re a bored, rich family. Gloria told Babe that it would be a no-frills affair and to bring only casual clothes. That was a trick.
The first night, Gloria emerged from her luxury cabin dripping in jewels and glittering fabrics, all while insisting the group go to a formal dinner. Thing is, that wasn't the end of their feud.
The next year that Gloria invited Babe Paley over for a yacht holiday, Paley made sure to pack all of her finest clothes so Gloria couldn't pull another fast one on her.
But Gloria was no dummy: This time, she simply made sure all the soirees were held firmly on the boat, never even giving Paley the chance to show off her gowns in public.
Although Gloria lied about her elite origins, this wasn’t always because she was dishonest—she simply didn’t take herself that seriously. Of her fellow “swans,” Gloria was the most irreverent, and she had a childish sense of humor that often allied her closely with the impish Truman Capote. Well, one day, their antics reached a ridiculous climax.
Gloria lived in a world of late mornings and long lunches, but she still got down and dirty. Once when she was visiting the Fontainebleau Hotel with Capote, she got into some real mischief: The Hotel had a transparent swimming pool overlooking the bar, so Capote and Gloria got a front-row seat just to watch indiscreet swimmers urinating in the pool.
As one friend said, “I couldn’t drag them away”.
As one of the Alpha swans, Gloria attended Truman Capote’s famous “Black and White Ball” in November 1966, even though the masquerade had a notoriously exclusive guest list. She walked in wearing a long, calf-length gown of the purest white, which glittered in the flashing photography lights.
That’s right girl, go grab your spotlight.
All the swans were extremely competitive about their relationship to Capote, and each guarded their friendships with him jealously. Still, Gloria and the others might have put too much faith in him. They each assumed that although Capote would gossip incessantly with them, he would never gossip about them. Soon enough, they all found out how wrong they were.
In 1975, Capote dealt his swans a heartbreaking betrayal. He published “La Cote Basque 1965,” an excerpt from his upcoming novel, in Esquire magazine. In so doing, dropped an absolute bombshell. The piece of “fiction” was actually a thinly veiled account of all the swans’ dirty laundry he’d learned over the years…and it contained one detail that must have secretly pleased the darkest part of Gloria Guinness.
Capote’s story takes place in the prestigious La Cote Basque restaurant, and the most famous section of the chapter has a semi-fictional socialite regaling Capote with an obvious confession about fellow swan Babe Paley’s private life—namely, that Babe’s husband cheated on her constantly. Yeah, Gloria got to watch her rival get taken down in real time.
Sadly, though, the consequences were devastating.
After the publication of “La Cote Basque, 1965,” few swans would ever go out of their way to help Truman Capote again, least of all Gloria Guinness. Rival or no, airing Babe Paley’s bedroom life was the biggest high society faux-pas Capote could have made, and the women closed ranks, with most of them never talking to him again. Still, Guinness had problems of her own…
Gloria may have looked like the perfect lady—but she hid a scandalous side. She took multiple lovers, many of them married themselves.
She also had a type: Powerful and confident. Among her conquests were David Beatty, the 2nd Earl of Beatty, and the carousing British ambassador Duff Cooper. And while high society never kissed and told on Gloria, these lovers definitely did.
Duff Cooper was infamous on both sides of the Atlantic for his drinking, gambling, and womanizing, but apparently Gloria could more than match him in the bedroom.
Cooper later reminisced about how much of a wildcat Gloria was in the sack, saying, "I have never loved anybody physically so much or been so supremely satisfied”. Now that is a glowing recommendation.
Even among her jet-set, well-educated group, people knew Gloria was the wittiest. Need proof?
One day, everyone was gathered around a dinner table and the men were talking tiresomely about going fishing. Smirking, Gloria simply held up her thin wrist, which was encased in an enormous pearl bracelet, and purred, “I’ve already caught my fish”.
While Gloria was causing scandal on the international stage, her home life was equally outrageous.
Gloria had two children with her former husband Count von Furstenberg: Franz-Egon, Jr. and Dolores. Well, we all want our kids to be happy, but Dolores took that to the limit—in 1955, she married her own stepbrother, Gloria's stepson Patrick Guinness. And the scandal continued...
In 1965, tragedy ravaged Gloria’s picture-perfect life. That year, her stepson Patrick Guinness was driving around in Switzerland when he got into a horrific car accident, perishing in the wreck.
The senseless event was doubly painful for Gloria and her family, since her daughter Dolores was now also a grieving widow, all in one fell swoop.
Gloria knew how to travel in style. Sure, she had three private jets for various uses, but it was about how she used them. She once confessed that she kept all her houses filled with clothes so that she’d never have to pack and unpack. As she twittered, “You don’t have to waste time in customs, and you don’t have to declare anything. It’s wonderful”! Yeah, I bet it is.
At the height of her wealth and power, Gloria and her husband Loel Guinness maintained multiple homes in glamorous locales like Acapulco, Normandy, and Paris. They even owned a landmark home designed by famed architect Marion Syms Wyeth, which sat right in the middle of a highway; Wyeth had ingeniously connected the two sides of the house with a sound-proof living room.
Guinness had friends in the highest of places, and she never wasted an opportunity to throw a soiree with them at her massive architectural wonder. During these nights, people like the Duke and Duchess of Windsor—formerly King Edward VIII and his illicit lover Wallis Simpson—walked through her exquisitely decorated halls.
Gloria quickly rose up the ranks of high society, particularly for her innate sense of style.
Eleanor Lambert, who founded the International Best Dressed List and New York Fashion Week, once called her the “most elegant woman of all time”. In fact, Lambert was so obsessed with Gloria, she even had a framed picture of the socialite on her bedside table.
If there was one thing Gloria knew how to do, it was start a craze.
She was one of Emilio Pucci’s favorite models, and the chic socialite was actually one of the first women to ever wear his new stylish form of Capri pants, causing a sensation. Better—and braver—yet, Gloria liked wearing them in white. I guess when you’re rich, you don’t get stains.
Around this time, Gloria started to really lock in her style.
At her most famous, she was renowned for her interest in clean, elegant lines and bold, simple colors. But it was also about what she didn’t wear. She disdained “trendy” clothes and often went for solid hues rather than prints, particularly preferring black, white, and red to set off her dark hair.
In her heyday, Guinness was so easily identifiable that someone could “recognize her from sketch”. Her friend Kenneth Jay Lane once attributed this to her diminutive size—she was tinier than tiny—which she somehow overcame to make herself memorable. As Lane said, “for a small woman it’s not easy to attain that kind of elegance”.
If Gloria Guinness's signature style wasn’t flashy or trendy, this was actually an ingenious move on her part. Even when she was down on her luck and running low on money while living in Europe as a young woman, she became famous for simply wearing a budget-friendly black sweater and black flats, then calling it a chic day.
Truman Capote once said Gloria was one of the “three greatest beauties in the world”. The other two women on his illustrious shortlist? Babe Paley and Greta Garbo.
This probably comes as no surprise to anyone who’s ever seen a photo of Gloria Guinness, but the socialite was a regular on Best Dressed lists at the height of her fame. In fact, she appeared on the International Best Dressed List from 1959 for five years straight, and in 1964 they just plunked her right down into the Hall of Fame.
Today, one of Gloria’s biggest claims to fame didn’t have to do with her visual style but with her written prowess. Starting in 1963, she wrote for the fashion Bible Harper’s Bazaar, and soon proved she had a talent for it. She had a knack for pithy fashion advice, once writing that, "Elegance is in the brain as well as the body and in the soul”.
Let it not be said that Gloria Guinness wasn’t generous—she even stooped so low as to donate some of her precious clothing. And believe me, this isn’t the same as you or me dropping off a bag to Goodwill. One of Gloria’s donations, a 1950s evening gown designed by Jeanne Lafaurie, is now at the famous Victoria & Albert Museum in England.
After a life in the spotlight, Gloria earned herself some pretty legendary nicknames, including “The Queen of Chic” and “The Ultimate”.
Money can’t buy happiness, and Gloria often suffered from the boredom and insecurity that comes with a life of immense privilege. This went double for her love life.
Capote once incisively said that rich women “marry the way another person travels in a foreign country. You stay there until you tire of it”. With her four marriages, this described Gloria to a tee—and she also had darker tendencies.
Gloria could never sit still. Telling on herself, she once said, “So many people think it is difficult keeping all these homes, but I believe it is easier to keep five than one. You can’t possibly spend twelve months at any one place”. If Gloria was never satisfied and always seeking out distraction, perhaps this illuminates her unsettling end.
On November 9, 1980, the Guinness family experienced yet another tragedy. That day, Gloria collapsed from a heart attack and passed in Switzerland, sending shockwaves through polite society around the world. Yet that wasn’t the only tragedy. At 68 years old, she was disturbingly young for her fate—and rumors still abound about the true nature of her end.
When someone beautiful meets an ugly, untimely end, there are often suspicions of foul play.
Gloria’s death was no exception. Many of her friends believed that Gloria, bored of her glamorous life and feeling the emptiness of her gilded existence, may have killed herself in a fit of disillusionment. Whatever the truth, she did get a fitting burial.
Gloria Guinness lived a scandalous, enviable life, tearing through no fewer than four husbands before she even turned 40 years old—but in the end, her love with Loel Guinness lasted beyond the grave. When he passed eight years after Gloria, he requested to be buried next to her at Bois de Vaux Cemetery in Lausanne, Switzerland.
For all that he loved Gloria, Loel Guinness apparently didn’t trust her one whit, because one story claims that just before they married, he paid an investigator a million dollars to produce a dossier about his fiancee's nefarious activities during WWII. No word on if he found what he was looking for, but I can only imagine the contents of that file.
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