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Babe Paley - The Ultimate Icon of Glamour, Style and Grace

I’m irritated as I piece together this essay on Babe Paley, because, try hard as I might, I am just not finding her as interesting as other women who were considered style icons of their time. Women like Diana Vreeland, Elsie De Wolfe, and Coco Chanel were fascinating to me because of their unique ability to transform the vulgarity of existence into a living work of art on a daily basis and along the way still ensuring that others in society were well aware of their opinions, resourcefulness and inner struggles.

Oh don’t misunderstand. Babe Paley did have opinions, and struggles, but like the image of perfection that she was, in her cool, calm demeanor, with grace and thoughtfulness for others, she rarely let it show.  It appears only now that while Babe was busy making everything perfect for everyone else around her, husbands, friends, even society, she suffered in a tomb of utter misery and silence until the end.

So, I guess I’m a little angry with her, (even though I shouldn't  be, because her choices were limited given her era and upbringing)  but I do acknowledge that she is fascinating in her own way, and is no doubt a style icon, exhibiting grace, style and beauty, which qualifies her for inclusion in our segment on Legendary Women.

Babe Paley. The name evokes an image of a superbly stylish and gracious goddess. A vision of perfection. A high priestess of the social arts, beauty, fashion and entertaining.

Barbara Cushing Mortimer Paley was one of a member of a loosely assembled group of four stylish and beautiful women that Truman Copote referred to as his “swans”. The others included Slim Keith, Gloria Guinness, and C.Z. Guest. Of all four, Babe was the most exalted, and without a doubt, the most beautiful.

Babe’s grooming, her “finishing school” if you like, began when she was born. One of three sisters, (Babe being the most beautiful and therefore the one that showed the most promise), was the daughter of an eminent but not extraordinarily wealthy Boston brain surgeon. Her socially ambitious mother was determined to steer all three of her daughters into a prominent life by marrying them off to wealthy and powerful men.

Aside from her stunning looks, luminescent skin, superb bone structure, dark eyes and swanlike neck, Babe developed a unique ability to socialize with others. She had a keen and lively interest in people and a manner that can only be described as thoughtful and gracious. If her future was to be an American Super Goddess, then Babe definitely had the right stuff. In the glamorous era of the 1940’s Barbara Cushing became the perfect marriage companion. 

Her first marriage was to old money, waspish, blue blood Stanley Mortimer. She married him while working as a fashion editor for Vogue magazine in 1940. Babe’s mother was not entirely content with the union preferring that Babe marry a powerful and wealthy man with a title. However, at the time, it did appear that this could be the “right” match.

With gentleness, dignity and poise, Babe took her place in New York society as Mrs. Stanley Mortimer, adored by the fashion press and named to the best-dressed list in 1945. Unfortunately her marriage to Mortimer was short lived and ended by 1946. At this time she was mother of two children, living on limited funds but maintaining her place as a fashion and style icon. She was named to the best-dressed list in 1946 because she had fortunately joined the ranks of women who were given clothes by design houses in exchange for their high profile and glamorous images.

Babe now set out to make a second  high profile marriage but this time avoided traditional blue blood names like Vanderbilt and Phipps. The settlement she received from Mortimer was based on a trust fund and barely provided her with enough money for herself and her two children.
It was then that she met William Paley. Now here was a modern American success story. Paley was a pioneer in radio and television as the founder of CBS, phenomenally wealthy, with a newly developed interest in the arts and a desire to be a part of traditional New York café society.  The only snag, was that Paley, although rich and high profile was Jewish, new moneyed and primarily self made. For William Paley, Babe was the perfect match. With her connections, beauty and style he stood a greater chance of being granted entrée into a society which had barred him before. For Babe, Paley offered phenomenal wealth, power and a kind of worldliness. They married in 1947.

Now, Babe set about with the task she was born to cultivate, the creation of a picture perfect social world. No one could criticize Babe’s talents or presentations. The couple took an elegant apartment at the St. Regis and Babe hired Billy Baldwin to help her redecorate. It is here that she and Paley would live during the week, while weekends were spent at their farm, Kiluna, a sprawling estate on Long Island.
But even with Babe’s reputation and Paley’s incredible wealth they could not seem to overcome that nasty little problem of his “Jewish ness”.  As a result they were excluded from a number of important social functions and exclusive clubs.
None of this seemed to trouble Babe, however. She set about creating her own exclusive social enclave, excluding all powers that had excluded herself and her husband, choosing to socialize with Paley’s high powered business associates, celebrities and a select group of wealthy and successful Europeans.

No one could entertain with the grace of Babe Paley. Guests who were invited to join the exclusive "Paley" club were treated with the luxuries only offered in the grandest of hotels in Europe. Servants were bountiful; food was spectacular, and the surroundings breathtaking. It is this legendary entertaining that made the Paleys the most sought after couple in New York. 

In addition to this lavish entertaining, Babe maintained her position on the best-dressed list fourteen times before being inducted into the Fashion Hall of Fame in 1958.  Her personal style was inspirational to thousands of women who tried to copy her, but as Bill Blass once observed, “I never saw her not grab anyone’s attention, the hair, the makeup, the crispness. You were never conscious of what she was wearing; you noticed Babe and nothing else.”  
But alas, the one man that she had tried so desperately to please, her husband, William Paley, was the one man that she could never seem to satisfy. Time and time again he pushed her to greater and greater heights of perfection, in the way she presented herself , their image as a couple, and their homes to others. Of course Paley made sure, (for his own ego no doubt), that Babe was wrapped in sable and completely bejeweled at all times. His lavish gifts, however, were not offered as tokens of affection but rather to demonstrate his enormous wealth and power to business associates and society.   As a result Babe became a lonely and frustrated woman. Early on in their marriage, Paley completely rejected her sexually, choosing a chain of extramarital affairs and extraordinary social ambitions. This psychological battering took its toll on Babe and her family. She was constantly under the scrutiny of society and the media who pressed her to maintain the unrealistic image of a social and fashion goddess. A combination of  these external pressures, infidelities on the part of her husband, and a two package a day habit of smoking cigarettes finally wore her health and spirit down. In 1974 she was diagnosed with lung cancer. It was only then that Paley declared his love for her and tried for the remaining four years of her life to save her. Too late.  She would not be saved. However, it was finally at this time that she  stood up for herself and released decades of pent up anger at him. Bitter words ensued that represented the loneliness and humiliation spent living as an unhappy Barbie doll icon.

But Babe remained gracious to friends, family and society  even though she was ill, frustrated, and in a great deal of pain. She planned her own funeral right down to the food  and wine selections that would be served at the funeral luncheon. She very carefully allocated her precious jewels and personal belongings to friends and family and even wrapped them up in pretty and colorful paper along with a complete file system with directions as to how they would be distributed after her death.

Babe Paley finally succumbed to lung cancer in 1978. She remains an icon in the world of fashion and style. An elegant and gracious hostess, a leader in the world of fashion and style. “ Babe Paley had only one fault,” commented her one time good friend Truman Copote, “She was perfect. Otherwise, she was perfect.”
© Katherine Webster

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