Babe Paley – Truman’s favourite Swan.
Babe Paley, born Barbara ‘Babe’ Cushing, was, by all accounts, Capote’s favourite Swan – the one of whom he said her only imperfection was that she was perfect (which just sounds so Truman) – and the one whose cold shoulder, casting him out of her life, affected him the most.
Babe Paley was born on 5th July 1915 (9 years before Capote), the youngest of three sisters: Minnie, Betsey and then Babe. Her father was a famous neurosurgeon and Pulitzer Prize-Winning biographer and her mother was Katherine Stone, nee Crowell. Her mother (perhaps her father too) was ambitious for Babe and her sisters. Each Cushing girl married well, Betsey and Minnie snaring a Roosevelt and an Astor respectively. Through her family (and later, through her friends), Babe was one of the best connected Swans.
Like most of Truman’s coterie of beautiful women, Babe married more than once – her first husband being Stanley Mortimer, a sportsman and advertising executive, with whom she had two children, Stanley Mortimer III and Amanda (who later became Amanda Burden and a staple of the American social scene in her own right). According to Wikipedia there are allegations that she neglected her children. A brilliant article on the Nick Harville Libraries blog, (see also this post) which explores the Babe Paley enigma – considers these a little more. There’s also an interesting NYT 1999 article on her sister, Betsey Cushing-Whitney, which indicates that, in contrast to Babe, the middle Cushing sister was the most family oriented, the happiest and the most ‘fun’ (although this could purely be because the received wisdom is that spending time with one’s husband and children brings happiness).
In 1945 Babe met William S Paley, the man who was to be the love of her life but also perhaps the person who may have destroyed Babe’s chance of living a fulfilled existence. Though the Paley’s were wealthy, though Babe bore two more children (Sam and Kate Paley), though they travelled extensively and were incredibly well connected (as Babe’s friendship with the bevy of Swans indicates), Bill was controlling, absorbed by work and perennially unfaithful. It is suggested that Bill, the son of Jewish immigrants (though he inherited considerable wealth from his father), married all-American Babe because she gave him credibility. Though it was not entirely successful – Bill’s Jewishness meant that they were always shut out of certain clubs.
Throughout her life, Babe was voted best dressed person and most beautiful person – and in photographs she’s astonishingly good looking, in the same sort of cut-glass way as Grace Kelly and Tippi Hedren. According to this and other websites, Babe suffered a terrible car accident when she was 19 which left her disfigured. However, her face was reconstructed by a cosmetic surgeon who left her with a far more beautiful appearance, one without which perhaps she might not have been so lauded. Who knows what that kind of change does to a person?
Regardless of how Babe felt about her looks, depictions of her, particularly those in Swan Song and The Swans of Fifth Avenue, indicate that her veneer of perfection acted as a lamina, a membrane between her and the rest of the world, keeping her slightly removed, emotionally isolated.
Perhaps this worked for her – perhaps she loved being adored, being the passive recipient of adulation, the object of others’ desire. But it seems universally understood that it did not, that the strain of perfection, of keeping to the ‘never explain, never complain’ mantra, told on Babe (some have even speculated that this contributed to the lung cancer that killed her).
Truman wormed his way behind the front Babe presented to the world. He allowed Babe to be ‘herself’ (whatever that means – we’re all so many different things to so many different people), to lower the shield of her perfection, albeit temporarily. Ultimately, though, the relationship was unsustainable, particularly when Truman began to slide into addiction and unpredictability. I suspect that, to someone for whom social standing was so important, regardless of his charm and ‘genius’, Babe could only tolerate Truman’s as long as his beauty was intact, as long as his social standing was in the ascendancy. No-one can sustain their place amongst the elite once their social cache has begun to show signs of deterioriation. Also, according to Swan Song, Truman also became a close friend of Bill’s, collaborating with Bill on (one of?) his affairs. Infidelity feels like such a sharp betrayal that I doubt anyone could stomach a GBF colluding with one’s unfaithful husband. So when Babe finally severed all ties with Truman, after ‘La Cote Basque 1965’, perhaps she was already on her way to rupturing their friendship.
Of course, it’s possible that it was Bill, not Babe, who wanted to break away from Truman. He may have always been uncomfortable about the intimacy between Truman and Babe, feeling excluded (three’s always a crowd), but also, as head of a powerful company, with a reputation to consider, worried about the tales each might share. Truman’s flinging out so many society secrets in ‘La Cote Basque 1965’ may have made Bill feel his concern was vindicated – Truman proving himself to be the snake Bill always suspected him to be. Bill may have encouraged, perhaps ordered the separation of the two friends.
Anyway, although Babe may have been the most beautiful and enigmatic of the Swans, she appears as a slightly tragic figure – though I’m still not sure why. Perhaps it’s because of the slightly haughty, distant, sometimes wistful, sometimes melancholy, gaze that stares out of her photographs. Perhaps it’s because of the iciness of her beauty with those fine cheekbones and that aquiline nose, the brittleness she exudes. Or perhaps she really was unhappy, imprisoned inside her husk of perfection. I’m reading Jekyll and Hyde at the moment, and I think that Babe could have done with a nightly dose of Jekyll’s potion, letting her alter ego go on the prowl with Capote, through the dark and glittering places where he really got his kicks.
Though maybe she wouldn’t have wanted to. Maybe, for Babe, it was enough to be beautiful and stylish and rich. As Madonna said of Rita Hayworth, she ‘gave good face’. So, too, did Babe Paley.