Babe Paley

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Babe Paley
Babe Paley photo.jpg
Barbara Cushing

(1915-07-05)July 5, 1915
Boston, Massachusetts, U.S.
DiedJuly 6, 1978(1978-07-06) (aged 63)
New York City, U.S.
Resting placeMemorial Cemetery, St. John's Church, Cold Spring Harbor, New York
EducationWestover School
Winsor School
OccupationMagazine editor, socialite
Years active1938–1978
(m. 1940; div. 1946)

(m. 1947)
Children4, including Amanda Burden
Parent(s)Harvey Cushing
Katharine Stone Crowell
RelativesMary Benedict Cushing (sister)
Betsey Cushing (sister)

Barbara "Babe" Cushing Mortimer Paley (July 5, 1915 – July 6, 1978) was an American socialite, whose second husband was the founder of CBS, William S. Paley. She was known by the nickname "Babe" for most of her life. She was named to the International Best Dressed List Hall of Fame in 1958.[1]

Early life[edit]

Born Barbara Cushing in Boston, Massachusetts, she was the daughter of brain surgeon Harvey Cushing, professor of surgery at Johns Hopkins, Harvard and Yale, and Katharine Stone (née Crowell). Barbara grew up in Brookline, Massachusetts.[2] Her older sisters Mary and Betsey both married into money and prestige:[3] Mary Cushing was the second wife of Vincent Astor, and Betsey Cushing married James Roosevelt, the son of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, and then later John Hay Whitney.[4] Together, they were known by the public as by the media as the "fabulous Cushing sisters."[3]

As a student at the Westover School in Middlebury, Connecticut, Paley was presented as a debutante in October 1934 in Boston, with Roosevelt's sons in attendance.[5] Her debut drew attention during the Great Depression, and marked the beginning of her social career. She graduated from Winsor School in Boston in 1934.[6]


In 1938, Paley began working as a fashion editor for Vogue in New York City. Her position at Vogue gave her access to designer clothes, often given in exchange for Paley's high profile image. In 1941, Time magazine voted her the world's second best dressed woman after Wallis Simpson and before Aimée de Heeren.[7] She was also named to the best-dressed list in 1945 and 1946.[8]

Upon her second marriage in 1947, Paley left her job at Vogue.[9]


Paley set about to curate an ideal social world for herself. The couple had an apartment at the St. Regis and hired interior designer Billy Baldwin to decorate. She and Paley lived there during the week, while weekends were spent at Kiluna Farm, on 80 acres (32 ha) in Manhasset, Long Island, where a succession of landscape architects and garden designers beautified the grounds.[10] The more distant retreat, Kiluna North, on Squam Lake in New Hampshire, was purchased in 1957; there they entertained celebrities who welcomed the privacy;[11]

Though the antisemitic prejudices of society excluded the Paleys from a number of important social functions and exclusive clubs, the Paleys, nevertheless, kept a circle of high-society friends that included author Truman Capote and fellow socialite Slim Keith. Capote included Paley and Keith in his group of "swans" (a group of New York socialites) along with Gloria Guinness, Marella Agnelli, and C.Z. Guest.[12] Paley famously dropped Capote as a friend when he published excerpts of his much-touted work in progress, Answered Prayers, a tell-all of New York's elite.

In addition to entertaining, Paley maintained her position on the best-dressed list fourteen times before being inducted into the Fashion Hall of Fame in 1958. She regularly bought entire haute couture collections from famed fashion houses like Givenchy and Valentino SpA. Her style influenced many women, 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."

Her personal, unconventional style was enormously influential. A photograph of Paley with a scarf tied to her handbag, for example, created a trendy tidal wave that millions of women emulated. She often mixed extravagant jewelry by Fulco di Verdura and Jean Schlumberger with costume pieces, and embraced letting her hair go gray instead of using dye.

Personal life[edit]

While working at Vogue, she met and married oil heir Stanley Grafton Mortimer Jr. (1913–1999),[13] the brother of Katharine Mortimer and both of an old and prominent New York family, at St. Luke's Episcopal Church in East Hampton, New York, in 1940.[14][15] Before their marriage ended by 1946, she and Mortimer had two children:[13]

Several retrospectives have claimed that Babe neglected her children while in pursuit of social status and depended upon the wealth of her husbands to support her lavish lifestyle. Her daughter Amanda has admitted that their relationship was "virtually nonexistent" and that the distance "was her choice, not mine".[16]

After her divorce from Mortimer, she received a settlement based on a trust fund. In 1946, she met William "Pasha" Paley (1901–1990), who was estranged from his wife Dorothy Hart Hearst (1908–1998), herself the former wife of John Randolph Hearst. Paley was wealthy, with an interest in the arts and a desire to be a part of New York's café society. With Babe's social connections, Paley stood a greater chance of being granted entrée into a society which, until that time, had effectively shut him out. For Babe, Paley offered wealth, security, and worldliness. Following Paley's divorce on July 24, 1947, Babe and Paley were married (the following year, her ex-husband also remarried to Kathleen Harriman, the daughter of W. Averell Harriman). Together, Babe and Bill had two additional children:[8]

  • William C. "Bill" Paley (born 1948),[17] who relaunched La Palina, a cigar company originated by grandfather Sam Paley in 1896.[8] He married Alison Van Metre, daughter of Albert Van Metre, founder of Van Metre Homes.[8]
  • Kate Cushing Paley (born 1950),[18] who made her "nondebut" in 1968, shortly after the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy.[6]

By many biographers' accounts, Paley was lonely and frustrated as William Paley carried on a chain of extramarital affairs. This psychological battering took its toll on her 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. These external pressures, as well as a two-pack-a-day cigarette habit, finally affected her health.

Final years and death[edit]

A heavy smoker, Paley was diagnosed with lung cancer in 1974. In preparation for her impending death, she planned her own funeral, including the food and wine selections that would be served at the funeral luncheon. She allocated her jewelry collection and personal belongings to friends and family, wrapped them in colorful paper, and created a complete file system with directions as to how they would be distributed after her death.

Paley died of lung cancer on July 6, 1978, a day after her 63rd birthday.[19] She was buried in the Memorial Cemetery of St. John's Church, Cold Spring Harbor, New York. On his death in 1990, Bill Paley was buried next to her.


Long after her death, Paley remains iconic in the world of fashion and style. "Babe Paley had only one fault," commented her one-time friend Truman Capote. "She was perfect. Otherwise, she was perfect."[20][8]

Many fashion designers and interior decorators continue to reference Paley's style in their own creations. Paley and her "swans", much like Jacqueline Kennedy during the 1960s, was an example of the young, attractive, and affluent class that many Americans aspired to.

In popular culture[edit]

Babe Paley has been portrayed in the following films and mini-series:

In Jacqueline Susann's 1969 novel, The Love Machine, the characters of socialite Judith Austin and her husband Gregory Austin, CEO of a television network, were said to be based on Babe and William Paley. Dyan Cannon portrayed Judith in the 1971 film version.

In the book The Swans of Fifth Avenue by Melanie Benjamin, Paley is referred to as the muse of Truman Capote with whom she was a close friend in real life.


  1. ^ Vanity Fair
  2. ^ 1920 United States Federal Census
  3. ^ a b Bumiller, Elisabeth (January 3, 1999). "THE LIVES THEY LIVED: Betsey Cushing Whitney; The Last Princess". The New York Times. Retrieved 15 February 2018.
  4. ^ Nemy, Enid (26 March 1998). "Betsey Cushing Whitney Is Dead at 89". The New York Times. Retrieved 15 February 2018.
  5. ^ New York Times, October 24, 1934
  6. ^ a b "Kate Paley Has Small Nondebut". The New York Times. 15 June 1968. Retrieved 15 February 2018.
  7. ^ Babe Paley / Mrs Stanley Mortimer Jr 2nd best dressed woman in the World according to Times 1941 Archived 2015-01-10 at the Wayback Machine
  8. ^ a b c d e Guinto, Joseph (13 February 2013). "His Father's Son | Bill Paley's father was a titan, his mother a goddess, and he—a dropout and addict—"a source of dismay," some said. Now in his sixties, Paley has revived his family's cigar business and wants to rewrite his personal legacy. He hopes his father would be proud". Washingtonian. Retrieved 15 February 2018.
  9. ^ "Babe Paley". Retrieved March 24, 2013.
  10. ^ They included Alice Recknagel Ireys, Russell Page, Thomas D. Church and the connoisseur and collector Henry Francis du Pont: Valentine Lawford, "The Gardens of Mrs. William S. Paley: Landscape Architecture by Russell Page", Architectural Record
  11. ^ In 1970 the house was given to Dartmouth College and serves as Minary Conference Center Archived 2007-10-17 at the Wayback Machine.
  12. ^ "The Top Twenty Socialites of All Time". New York Magazine. 2007-05-07. Archived from the original on 1 February 2009. Retrieved 2009-03-05.
  13. ^ a b Nemy, Enid (14 August 1999). "Stanley G. Mortimer Jr., 86, Sportsman and Ad Executive". The New York Times. Retrieved 15 February 2018.
  14. ^ "BARBARA CUSHING TO BE WED SEPT. 21; Daughter of Surgeon to Become Bride of S.G. Mortimer Jr. in East Hampton NIECES TO ATTEND HER They Are Misses Sara and Kate Roosevelt, Granddaughters of President and Wife". The New York Times. 13 September 1940. Retrieved 15 February 2018.
  15. ^ "Miss Cushing Wed in Church; Sara and Kate Roosevelt Are Attendants at Marriage of Aunt to S.G. Mortimer Jr". The New York Times. 22 September 1940. Retrieved 15 February 2018.
  16. ^ "Social Planner - Nymag". New York Magazine. Retrieved 2020-04-22.
  17. ^ "Son Born to William S. Paleys". The New York Times. 31 March 1948. Retrieved 15 February 2018.
  18. ^ "Child to Mrs. William S. Paley". The New York Times. 17 February 1950. Retrieved 15 February 2018.
  19. ^ Nemy, Enid (July 7, 1978). "Barbara Cushing Paley Dies at 63; Style Pace-Setter in Three Decades; Symbol of Taste". The New York Times. Retrieved 2010-03-21. Barbara Cushing Paley, the wife of William S. Paley, the chairman of the board of the Columbia Broadcasting System, died of cancer at their apartment in New York City yesterday after a long illness. She was 63 years old.
  20. ^ Nowell, Iris (2004). Generation Deluxe: Consumerism and Philanthropy of the New Super-rich. Dundurn Press Ltd. pp. 141. ISBN 1-55002-503-1.

Further reading[edit]

  • Smith, Sally Bedell (1948- ). In all his glory: the life and times of William S. Paley and the birth of modern broadcasting. New York, Simon and Schuster, 1990.
  • Grafton, David. The Sisters: Babe Mortimer Paley, Betsey Roosevelt Whitney, Minnie Astor Fosburgh - The Lives and Times of the Fabulous Cushing Sisters. Villard (1992).
  • Tapert, Annette & Edkins, Diana, The Power of Style - The Women Who Defined The Art of Living Well, Crown Publishers, New York, 1994.
  • Prisant, Carol. Babe & I. Town & Country, December, 2010, pp. 152–156.

External links[edit]