Who Was Babe Paley? Everything You Need to Know About Truman Capote’s Favorite Swan

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Barbara “Babe” Cushing Mortimer Paley was like no other. The epitome of elegance and sophistication, the magazine editor turned socialite was considered by Truman Capote to only have a single flaw — “She was perfect.”

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Portrayed by Noami Watts in FX’s upcoming series “Feud: Capote vs. the Swans,” Paley’s magnetic essence is felt through the television, and Watts oozes glamor as Paley, alongside tastemakers Slim Keith, Lee Radziwill and C. Z. Guest.

Ranked by Time Magazine in 1941 as the second-best dressed woman in the world behind Wallis Simpson, Paley popularized embracing her gray hair and pantsuits and strived for perfection, reportedly often at the detriment of her close personal relationships.

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Related: A Closer Look at the Costumes of ‘Feud: Capote vs. the Swans’

Early Life

Born into a wealthy, well-connected Boston family and raised in Brookline, Massachusetts, Paley and her two older sisters Mary and Betsey were often referred to as “the fabulous Cushing Sisters” after their respective society debuts. As the youngest of five children, her nickname “Babe” stuck. The daughter of renowned brain surgeon Harvey Cushing, Paley spent her formative years (much like her fellow Bostonian Swan, C. Z. Guest), in elite circles, attending boarding school at Westover and finishing high school in Boston. In 1934, at the height of the Great Depression, Paley made her society debut, attracting notable famous figures, including the sons of then-President Franklin Roosevelt.

At the same time, Paley was involved in a car accident that would change things forever. As a result of the accident, she received two false front teeth and after a recovery period, Paley’s facial structure changed, making her even more beautiful than before, according to her contemporaries.

Babe Paley
Babe Paley photographed at New York City’s St. Regis Hotel in July 1963.

Career

In 1938, Paley embarked on her career in fashion, taking a position as a fashion editor at Vogue, a role that she held for almost a decade. During her time at Vogue, Paley began to make waves in fashion and high society, forming close relationships with designers like Oscar de la Renta, and developing a sharp sense of style that was deeply personal and focused on creating looks that were eye-catching and crisp — as exacting as the woman herself. Often, she mixed fine jewelry with costume pieces, and popularized tying scarves around handbags. With her signature red lip and classic, refined features, Paley cut a striking figure wherever she was photographed.

In 1941, Paley married American sportsman and Standard Oil heir Stanley G. Mortimer, Jr. with whom she had two children: Stanley III and Amanda. Through her marriage and position at Vogue, Paley created a circle of other tastemakers, including royalty, celebrities and society fixtures, around her.

American Socialite Barbara "Babe" Paley is photographed wearing a Chanel tweed suit shopping inside Ohrbach's department store in Manhattan
Babe Paley is photographed wearing a Chanel tweed suit shopping inside Ohrbach’s department store in Manhattan in September 1963.

Through these connections, she eventually would meet the celebrated author Truman Capote, who would prove to be her biggest fan and harshest critic. According to Capote, “She was the only person in my whole life that I liked everything about.”

Marriage Two

In 1946, change was afoot for Paley. Now recognized for her style and her place in high society, Paley’s marriage was crumbling. Her husband’s stint in the Navy during World War Two left him angry, embittered, and an alcoholic, leading to their high profile divorce. A hefty settlement from a trust fund allowed Paley to continue to live as she had, but Paley craved stability for herself and her two young children.

Enter William “Pasha” Paley, a CBS executive known for transforming the network from a small radio station to the massive network of today. Among her café society set, there were whispers that before the divorce ink dried, William Paley and Babe Paley were engaging in an affair. Described by his ex-wife, Dorothy Hart Hearst, “as cold as ice,” William Paley had a temper that scared Babe Paley. None of this mattered though, when the money spoke.

William and Babe Paley walking on a Manhattan street, outside of La Cote Basque.
William and Babe Paley walking on a Manhattan street, outside of La Côte Basque restaurant — the namesake of Truman Capote’s Esquire article — in August 1965.

While Babe Paley was looking for stability both financially and romantically, William Paley was looking for an entree into New York Society. Often the target of anti-semetic prejudices, William Paley’s society foothold was precarious, and Babe Paley, with her silver spoon upbringing and connections, was an answered prayer. William Paley was wealthy and interested in art and longed for a place in the circles Babe Paley moved in.

The two married in 1947, and Babe Paley traded her position as fashion editor to wife, leaving her Vogue position. After a wedding four days following William Paley’s divorce, Babe Paley got exactly what she wanted: money. Despite the assurance of a cleared check and money at her disposal, William Paley would prove he was the wrong choice and was often unfaithful to Babe Paley. She and William Paley took up residence in the St. Regis Hotel, in a luxurious apartment decorated by Billy Baldwin, a gilded cage Babe Paley would eventually see as a hell.

The Swan

Despite an embarrassing mix-up during their first meeting (Babe thought she was being introduced to the former President), Babe Paley and Truman became fast friends. Alongside friends Lee Radziwill, Slim Keith, C. Z. Guest, and Happy Rockefeller, Babe Paley was dubbed a “swan” by Capote. Capote felt a swan was so beautiful, it hurt. He noted that beyond her beauty, Babe Paley’s quest for and achievement of near-perfection made her stand out among her fellow swans. Despite their glamorous exteriors, each swan had personal trials and tribulations that would later come to the surface in the form of public humiliation. Capote considered her his top swan, enamored by her elegance and style. In Capote, Babe Paley thought she found a confidant and often confided in Capote her marital and mental health issues.

American Socialite Barbara "Babe" Paley Hosted a dinner party in her Upper East Side Manhattan apartment to celebrate a book reading event given by Author Truman Capote at the Town Hall Theater.
Babe Paley leaving her Upper East Side apartment to attend a book reading by Truman Capote at the Town Hall Theater in May 1966.

With pressures from her husband and the media to maintain a perfect appearance, Babe Paley became increasingly more and more dependent on her own various medications, at one point, allegedly smoking two packs of cigarettes a day. In her marriage, William Paley was merciless and as exacting as his wife, criticizing her to the point where she kept a gold notebook by her side at all times. William Paley also deemed her unattractive and cared little of how long it took her to look as perfect as possible. To add insult to injury, he preferred a Monroe, Mansfield type — the antithesis of Babe Paley’s refined looks. Babe Paley confided all of this in Capote, as well as her suicide attempts in an effort to leave her marriage. Capote, in turn, encouraged her self-medicating behavior and provided a shoulder for her to cry on.

Socialite Babe Paley and Jean Tailer photographed leaving Gertrude Restaurant on New York's Upper East Side, April 8, 1974 in New York.
Babe Paley is photographed for WWD’s They Are Wearing column on April 8, 1974 in New York City.

In 1975, Capote’s article, “La Côte Basque, 1965” was published in Esquire, revealing the sordid details of the swans’ lives and exploiting every intimate conversation and wine-laden heart-to-heart between Capote and the swans for the sake of art. A thinly veiled account of the women in his social circle, “La Côte Basque” explored the dysfunctional lives of his swans behind the veil of “inspired characters” and effectively ended Capote’s relationship to high society and the women, with the exception of C. Z. Guest, who was notably spared. From depicting Gloria Vanderbilt as insufferably dim and spotlighting socialite Ann Woodward (through a near identical character, Ann Hopkins) as a murderer, Capote’s excerpt sent shockwaves through the high society set. The Paleys ended their relationship with Capote, vowing never to speak to him again.

Capote wasn’t the only one Babe Paley had a fractured relationship with, notably her daughter Amanda contented that their strained, emotionally distant relationship was of her mother’s choice.

Babe Paley attending Max Reinhardt art opening
Babe Paley attending Max Reinhardt art opening in June 1974.

After her 1974 diagnosis with terminal lung cancer, Babe Paley focused on her impending death, planning her funeral down to the selection of food and wine. She spent time methodically wrapping her extension jewelry collection, which was to be gifted to friends and family. Eventually, Babe Paley passed away in 1978 a day after her 64th birthday, leaving behind a legacy of taste and style.

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Meet the Author

Fernando Snellings is a freelance contributing writer for Women’s Wear Daily and Footwear News.

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