‘Sisters are a shield against life’s cruel adversity."
"But sisters are life’s cruel adversity!"
Read about the fascinating Mitford sisters in Mary S. Lovell's The Mitford Girls, The Biography of an Extraordinary Family.
Image Credit: Wait for Me! The Memoirs of the Youngest Mitford Sister
“The fact is women must choose in life what sort of a man it is that they do want—whether what is called a good husband, faithful to his wife but seldom seeing her, going off to the club and so on for relaxation, or one that really loves women, loves his wife, probably, best and longest, but who also and inevitably feels the need for other relationships with other women.”
Nancy Mitford, The Blessing
Image Credit: The Mitfords, Letters Between Six Sisters
“You must realize that to us in Europe, Russia & America seem exactly the same, two enormous countries where you can’t get servants & where everything in the shops is machine-made.”
--Nancy Mitford, The Mitfords, Letters Between Six Sisters
Image Credit: Sotsart
"Cora [Antinori] has had another face lift with such appalling results she has to say it was a motor accident…. Violet [Trefusis] has had hers done with no results which is almost more disappointing.”
--Nancy Mitford, The Mitfords, Letters Between Six Sisters
See also: "Need a Lift?"
“If there was a revolution tomorrow, how would the mob know which one were the nobles?”
--Nancy Mitford, Highland Fling
“History is lived forwards but is written in retrospect. We know the end before we consider the beginning and we can never wholly recapture what it was to know the beginning only.”
The events of the past seem so obvious, so easily predictable when reviewed from the vantage point of the present. To take from the past all the lessons it has to offer, however, means forgetting for a moment its eventual outcome. Retrospective histories do not permit this. One book that avoids this paradox is The Mitfords, Letters Between Six Sisters. This collection of correspondence of the six lively and intelligent Mitford sisters begins in 1925 and does not conclude until the first decade of the 21st Century. All six were gifted writers with distinct points of view. Moreover, they were on intimate terms with Churchill, Kennedy, and a great many others who gave form to the 20th Century. Their letters reveal history as it occurs, in real time, and offer extraordinary perspective on how we might better live our lives today.
I visited Chatsworth House, home of Deborah Mitford (who became the Duchess of Devonshire), in the fall of 2008, when she was still living and remained a powerful presence at the Devonshire family seat. There were a stack of copies of Letters Between Six Sisters in the gift shop, all signed by the then-Dowager Duchess, Deborah Mitford. Having read the book and understanding its significance to the 20th Century, I bought every copy. It is heavy (three pounds), and a dozen of them were more than I could comfortably carry with me on the thirty minute walk back through Chatsworth Park. My arms were aching as I raced to back in time to catch the bus to my hotel in Buxton. Of course, now I am glad I did. One of the few remaining copies from that cache is available for purchase here.
Image Credit: The Mitford Family Album
Babe Paley Talks, Or Does She?
“Style is the ultimate mode of autobiography.”
--Iké Udé, Style File, The World's Most Elegantly Dressed
Given the inherent bias in reporting one’s own life, Iké Udé might be correct in asserting that style is the most authentic form of self-revelation. There is a problem with that, however. Once a person’s public image becomes as legendary as Babe Paley’s, sooner or later someone will invent words to accompany that image. That is what author Melanie Benjamin has done with Babe Paley in the novel The Swans of Fifth Avenue.
She portrays Babe as kindhearted as she is lovely. Beneath the couture wardrobe and the impeccable manners, however, is a desperate and isolated woman: a tragic figure. The Swans of Fifth Avenue version of Babe Paley is a recluse in plain sight whose emotional camouflage is a thin-but-impenetrable veneer of perfection. From Swans, “[Babe] was lonely in her own home, in her own bed—in her own skin—and she couldn’t tell a soul. ‘Don’t air your dirty laundry outside the family,’ Mother had said a million times.”
This interpretation is not without foundation. Friends hinted at it. Vogue editor Babs Simpson described Babe thusly, “Extraordinary skin, beautiful hair, beautiful figure, and dressed better than anybody I have ever seen. She was fun and lively and cozy and I think probably quite a lonely person.” Alas, it would be divine if women of great style like Babe Paley were as perfect in their happiness as they were in everything else. Sadly, the truth is that the road traveled by a perfectionist is often tortuous and lonely, and so it seems to have been for Babe.
Moreover, Babe lacked the hard shell that is as useful in Manhattan society as an armored tank in battle. Cattiness is a shield of sorts, but Babe’s only criticisms were reserved for herself. By all accounts, she rarely, if ever, spoke an unkind word about anyone. Instead, her main defense in the world was a vigorous offense—a strenuous (and ultimately exhausting) commitment to beauty and perfection. Truman Capote quipped, “Mrs. P. had only one fault. She was perfect; otherwise, she was perfect.” If Babe’s meticulousness was indeed her only fault, it is an intriguing one, nearly as beguiling as the half-smile of the Mona Lisa.
The Truman character in Swans is the absurd knight in shining armor that rescues Babe from the prison she created for herself. This Truman is so intelligent, so audacious that he effortlessly shatters her defense mechanisms. Only with him, Babe sheds her dignity and becomes the giddy schoolgirl her domineering mother Gogsie never permitted her to be. The book dares to imagine what Babe was thinking: “Truman is a real friend, the only one who has ever talked to you like this. The only one who cares enough to tell you the truth. The only one who wants to see the past surface. This moment is important. It is the template for the rest of your life. Don’t run away from it.”
Swans even speculates that Babe desired a sexual relationship with her new friend. That sounds ridiculous, but this was early Truman Capote, years before he was bloated by alcoholism and drug addiction. In those days, he was odd-looking but also strangely beautiful. It was as if Truman was an alien and represented the height of attractiveness on a faraway planet.
Also, his effeminate voice contradicted how strong he actually was. Yes, he famously bested Humphrey Bogart at arm-wrestling. It was more than that, though. He was mentally tough. Truman would stand up to anyone, but he was also confident enough to understand when it was expedient to yield. It was a powerful combination, and it was part of his charm. He could be cheeky and subservient all in the same breath. Society A-Listers like Babe and Bill Paley found it irresistible.
It is unclear Babe had as deep of an emotional bond with Truman as Swans of Fifth Avenue suggests. They were certainly close, and he had the nerve to broach subjects no one else would dare. Yet even with him, there might have been conversations that would not have come easily to someone as reserved as Babe Paley. Moreover, the actual Babe had other confidants, including a school chum who lived in upstate New York. That friend, removed from society’s glare, might have been the sort of person whom Babe felt she could trust just as much, if not more, than the court jester of her social set.
Thus far, the best reference source for what Babe Paley actually said and thought is Sally Bedell Smith’s In All His Glory, The Life of William S. Paley. Though Bill is the main subject, the book covers Babe in considerable detail. It includes interviews with friends like Irene Mayer Selznick, Slim Keith, Marietta Tree, Susan Mary Alsop, and Diana Vreeland. Babe’s daughter Amanda Burden and sister Betsey Whitney were also interviewed. From this and a few other sources, a less forlorn portrait of Babe Paley emerges.
In Swans, the fictional Babe despairs over Truman’s betrayal, which she regards as, “The loss of trust, the loss of joy; the loss of herself.” The book has Babe essentially retreat from the world and into her deathbed, where she succumbs to terminal cancer while lamenting the loss of her only true friend. It makes for a poignant scene in a novel, but as is usually the case, actual life is more nuanced.
Babe maintained an active social life until nearly the end. In the summer of 1977, Andy Warhol spotted her at a star-studded soiree at the Dakota attended by everyone from Jacqueline Onassis to Sue Mengers. And, when she was too ill to leave her apartment, café society visited her there. According to Bedell Smith, “A stream of friends came to see her.” Well-wishers included not only intimates like Slim Keith but also such remote acquaintances as Robert Rauschenberg and Joan Didion.
Just as importantly, Babe’s children stepped in to fill the vacuum in her life created by Truman’s departure. Babe had always been close with her eldest son Tony Mortimer, but prior to her illness, a jealous Bill curtailed their time together. When she became bedridden, Tony would visit twice per day, presumably without objection from a distraught Bill who at last took his wife’s feelings into account.
Babe also reconciled with Amanda, the eldest daughter that was in some ways like her. But for a roll of the dice, they could have been lifelong allies. Yet Babe’s full-time job as the wife of Mrs. William S. Paley long overshadowed her ability to be a nurturing mother. Matters were not helped when, upon Amanda’s marriage to Carter Burden, Amanda became the toast of New York and Babe’s social rival. [See “Mr. and Mrs. Carter Burden, Jr.: A Young Couple in New York,” Vogue’s Book of Houses, Gardens, People].
Amanda told Sally Bedell Smith that in Babe’s final months, all the years of benign neglect and social rivalry melted away. Babe and Amanda at last connected. Swans ignores this cathartic event, preferring its more tragic version of Babe. This Babe suffered in silence, dwelling upon the lost friendship with Truman.
One reason Truman’s betrayal might not have affected Babe as deeply as Swans of Fifth Avenue imagines is that her friendship with Truman was likely already in decline. “La Côte Basque, 1965” might have been merely the point of no return in a relationship past its prime. By 1975, Truman was a decade into self-immolation by drugs and drink. Babe might well have concluded her friendship with Truman had “jumped the shark,” if 1) that idiom had then been coined; and 2) the 1970s sitcom that inspired the expression had aired on Bill’s CBS rather than a rival network.
Truman had begun to disturb Babe and his other Swans by bringing along rough trade as dates to their elegant soirees and yachting excursions. Moreover, his very public feuds were an embarrassment—they went against everything for which the Paleys stood. There is a telling episode in Swans in which Babe grimaces as she watches Truman on national television telling Johnny Carson that his nemesis Jacqueline Susann resembles a truck driver in drag. Could it be that even camouflaged by Babe’s perfect manners, Truman sensed that she was beginning to pull away from him?
Also, Babe had already been diagnosed with the lung cancer that would ultimately cause her death. Truman had been repeatedly abandoned in childhood by the mother whom he had adored and who committed suicide when he was a young man. This psychological baggage might have driven Truman to end the friendship with Babe before she or her death could. In early drafts of “La Côte Basque,” it was a character based upon Averell Harriman that frantically scrubbed sex-stained sheets prior to his wife’s return home. Only later did Truman graft the story onto Bill Paley, to whom, by many accounts, the episode actually happened. What precipitated the change? Was it Truman’s realization that his friendship with the Paleys would soon unravel?
After the scandal of “La Côte Basque” broke, Truman explained that his purpose was not to hurt Babe but to protect her. Such a protestation is lunacy from the friend who claimed he knew her better than anyone else. He must have must have realized how deeply she, of all his Swans, valued her privacy. Babe obviously had no choice but to end their friendship. Not only did Bill demand it, but the ghost of her mother as well.
Even so, might not Truman have inadvertently done Babe a favor by unshackling her from the myth she and Bill created? If self-awareness is one of life’s purposes, then it was a necessary step for her. Intimates report that in Babe’s last days, she no longer treated Bill with the cheerful subservience that had so long characterized their marriage. Might Truman’s public revelation of Bill’s infidelity have at long last set Babe free?
In her final years, Babe began to consider what else she might have done with her life, which, though painful, might also have been healing. Her mother raised her to be a trophy wife to a rich man, and in that, she was a tremendous success. She seems to have finally realized that the creativity and perfectionism required to become Mrs. William S. Paley would have served her just as well had she pursued a career. Might this too have been an epiphany that Truman's betrayal helped along?
On many levels Swans of Fifth Avenue is a success. Its flaw is the occasionally mawkish portrayal of Babe Paley. Yet it is also sympathetic to her. In today’s more liberated environment, it is easy to disregard how different things were for women from Babe’s generation whose ambitions were domesticated at an early age by parents like Babe’s mother Gogsie. Books like Swans serve to remind us. Moreover, the book sheds light upon a glamorous but hard-edged time in New York society, and how challenging it must have been for a kind and sensitive person like Babe Paley to scale its heights.
Epilogue: If Babe Paley Talks, Where?
AUTOBIOGRAPHY AND CORRESPONDENCE
Unlike many of her counterparts in English society, Babe left behind minimal paper trail. Consider Lady Diana Cooper, for example. She penned three volumes of memoirs. Moreover, just as many collections of her letters have been published.
Babe Paley left no memoir, but she was a letter writer. Her correspondents included Truman, of course, but also friends such as Marietta Tree and Irene Mayer Selznick. Her letters to Marietta are part of the Marietta Tree archive at Harvard University’s Schlesinger Library. The letters to Capote have never surfaced. The location of his to her is also a mystery. No such correspondence was included in Too Brief a Treat: The Letters of Truman Capote. However, his missives to others in that book confirm that such letters were written. If sufficient correspondence still exists, perhaps one day it will be published or find its way into an archive?
As we have noted in previous posts, Truman should not be considered a reliable witness. On a good day, his accounts were marred by exaggeration. On a bad one, they were complete lies. One exception to this rule is the scandal he called “Topic A” in café society: the breakup of Leland and Slim Hayward’s marriage as result of Leland’s love affair with Pamela Churchill. From Truman’s letters in Too Brief a Treat, we know that loyal Babe took her friend Slim’s side, rupturing the united front long maintained by the three Cushing sisters. According to Truman, middle sister Betsey was firmly in Pamela’s camp, “so grateful is she that the threat to her own happy home has been removed.” [Betsey feared her husband Jock and Pamela might rekindle their wartime love affair.]
IN SLIM’S MEMOIR
In her book, Slim, Memories of a Rich and Imperfect Life, Slim Keith chose to ignore that Babe inexplicably snubbed her in her will. [Though supposedly Babe’s closest friend, Slim received a relatively minor bauble.] Slim focuses on the positive. She writes, “Babe became the best woman friend I’ve ever had. She possessed all the qualities that one looks for in a female friend—totally trustworthy, kind, thoughtful, funny. I admired her more than any woman I’ve known, on every level. And I learned a tremendous amount from her about character, goodness, kindness, manners—hers were the best of anyone’s—and taste.”
THROUGH THE WILLIAM S. PALEY BIOGRAPHY
Sally Bedell Smith convinced an astonishing number of press-shy individuals to go on record for her book In All His Glory, The Life of William S. Paley. It remains the best source for peeling away the various public and private layers that shroud Babe Paley in mystery. She was a complex character: renowned for her kindness but by all accounts, even her own, a negligent parent. The only source that adequately deconstructs this paradox is the Bedell Smith book.
VIA HER DAUGHTER AMANDA BURDEN
Amanda is one of the most intriguing of those who agreed to be interviewed by Sally Bedell Smith. In many ways, Amanda was much like Babe, even becoming her rival in society when she married Carter Burden (who revered and sought to emulate Bill Paley). Even with much in common, the mother and daughter were distant until the final three months of Babe’s life. In sharp contrast to her own domineering mother, Babe was a remote parent. Might this have ultimately been helpful? Amanda was able to live her own life rather than conform to the blueprint established by her social climbing Cushing grandmother. Like Babe, Amanda had a knack for beauty and perfection, but she ultimately channeled it into a remarkable career, serving as New York City’s Planning Director in the Mayor Bloomberg Administration.
GOOD NIGHT, AND GOOD LUCK: BABE’S PROFILE IN COURAGE
Babe Paley had one moment that just might live on in the history books. In 1954, when CBS’s star anchor Edward R. Morrow courageously eviscerated Senator Joseph McCarthy and his self-serving witch-hunt for Communists, Babe and Bill watched the broadcast with Leland and Slim Hayward in the Paleys’ suite at the St. Regis. At the show’s end, it was Babe, not Bill, who telephoned Murrow and told him “how good the program was.” A cautious Bill held back in case the public happened to take McCarthy’s side over Murrow’s, requiring Bill to disavow his star broadcaster.
OF COURSE, IN STYLE
Babe’s taste in clothes and home decoration transcended any one designer. To be certain that her homes left her imprimatur rather than that of a leading tastemaker, Babe hired multiple design firms for the same project. Parish Hadley, Jansen, and Billy Baldwin all worked on the Paleys’ twenty-room apartment at 820 Fifth Avenue. [Check out Babe and Bill Paley’s 820 Fifth Avenue home in this Wall Street Journal profile.]
Though he dared not show his face at her funeral, the fictional Truman in Swans of Fifth Avenue privately eulogizes Babe. His words best sum up the extraordinary character and discipline without which there would have been no Babe Paley: “For despite her protests, [Babe] had reveled in her image, had worked hard at it, harder than he had ever worked on a book in his life. Every minute of every hour of every day was spent cultivating her style, perpetuating the myth.”
Image Credits: the Cecil Beaton photograph of Babe Paley is from The Fifties in Vogue; the photograph of Truman Capote and Babe Paley by Gloria Braggiotti Etting is from By the Way: Photographs; the photograph of Carter and Amanda Burden by Horst P. Horst is from Vogue's Book of Houses, Gardens, People; the photograph of Slim and Leland Hayward and the snapshot of Babe Paley just below it are from Slim, Memories of a Rich and Imperfect Life; and the photograph of Babe Paley by John Rawlings is from The World in Vogue.
“Most pleasure comes from illusions, and he who has lost them is seldom happy.”
--Nancy Mitford, Voltaire in Love
Image Credit: Beaton by James Danziger
The Pursuit of Love was the novel that put Nancy Mitford on the literary map. The English edition came first in 1945, and its runaway success prompted Random House to release it in the United States. It was the first work by Mitford to be published stateside.
In spite of Mitford's well-known dislike for the United States, she must have been delighted that her novel reached the American market. She was then living in Paris, and strict British post-World War II currency restrictions made it difficult to access profits from sales in the United Kingdom. The American royalties, however, could easily bypass her home country.
The dust jacket illustration for the English edition was by Mitford's friend Mark Ogilvie-Grant. Its illustration is more conceptual than its American counterpart, featuring a line drawing of Cupid and his arrow.
The more elegant English edition. There is something cloying about the American artwork. The color scheme does not pop. Moreover, the woman in the in the long blue dress and straw hat seems to have stepped off the pages of Little House on the Prairie. We fear that if Random House accurately assessed the taste of the American audience, then perhaps Mitford had some justification in her antipathy for Americans.
An early printing of the English edition is available here.
In spite of our dislike for the American edition cover, we note that it did land in some interesting libraries. We once sold a copy from the collection of Elsa Schiaparelli with a third party gift inscription from Diana Vreeland. Some other books from Schiaparelli's library are available here, including a biography of Oscar Wilde and a first edition of Salvador Dali's only novel, Hidden Faces.
One of the frustrations of bookselling is the challenge of connecting with those who would benefit from one's services. For example, consider the case of the singer Madonna’s 2007 visit to the Deborah, the Dowager Duchess of Devonshire at her dower home, the Old Vicarage. Nick Harvill Libraries had the perfect hostess gift for the occasion: a letter of literary significance written by the Duchess's sister Nancy.
Instead, Madonna gifted the last surviving Mitford sister with a copy of The Year of Magical Thinking, inscribed not by the author but by Madonna herself. Curiously her third party gift inscription does not appear on the flyleaf as one might expect. Rather, it is wedged on either end of page containing a photograph of the author Joan Didion and her family, as if Madonna were part of their clan.
The inscription reads, “For the duchess, I hope this book inspires you as much as it inspired me! Thanks for the hospitality, all the best Madonna.” One wonders if Madonna's sentiment might be a trite sincere for an octogenarian English duchess known for combating life’s challenges with a sharp sense of humor and a stiff upper lip. A more interesting approach with the inscription might have been to note the attenuated Mitford link. The Year of Magical Thinking was the most celebrated book on bereavement since the Duchess’s sister Jessica Mitford’s sardonic exposé The American Way of Death became a runaway bestseller in 1963.
An even better choice would have been to call Nick Harvill Libraries. We then had in our inventory a perfect gift for the Dowager Duchess: a two-page handwritten letter by her eldest sister, the author Nancy Mitford. As Nancy's literary executor, Deborah housed Nancy's papers, along with an impressive archive of Mitford family material, at Chatsworth, the Devonshire family seat. One item missing from that archive was a droll handwritten letter Nancy wrote in response to a factual error in her bestselling book, The Sun King, which we included in a 2007 catalogue (we were not yet online).
The original recipient of the letter was a descendant of the American branch of the Francine family. He complained that Nancy erred when writing that his family died out when the last of the Francines was guillotined during the Terror. She offered a poison-tipped apology in a handwritten two-page letter, archly suggesting that immigrating to America was equivalent to extinction. “One must say that in the eyes of the French the New World counts the same as the Next World,” she wrote. It is a classic Mitford tease and would have delighted the Dowager Duchess who surely would have deposited the letter into Chatsworth's Mitford archive.
The copy of The Year of Magical Thinking inscribed by Madonna to the Duchess of Devonshire is part of the March 2, 2016 Sotheby’s London sale, “The Collection of Deborah, Duchess of Devonshire.” The photographs are from Wait for Me! Memoirs of the Youngest Mitford Sister.