--Mary Tyler Moore as Mary Richards, The Mary Tyler Moore Show
“I'm an experienced woman. I've been around… Well, all right, I might not've been around, but I've been … nearby.”
--Mary Tyler Moore as Mary Richards, The Mary Tyler Moore Show
"A spouse is not a destination but a fellow traveler."
As most of us eventually learn (sometimes unhappily), an excellent test of a friendship or romance is to travel with that person. Based upon their many journeys together, Bill and Babe Paley easily passed this test. He was an avid photographer, and their travels are well documented in photographs, most of which have never been published. They frequently took photographs of each other, and the below photo of Bill suggests Babe was as comfortable behind the camera as she was in front of it.
After they married in July 1947, the Paleys boarded the Queen Mary and sailed to Europe (Cary Grant was a fellow passenger and frequent dining companion). They visited England, France, Italy, and Switzerland on an extended honeymoon, which set the template for a lifetime of glamorous travel. In subsequent trips, they typically journeyed with friends like Leland and Slim Hayward, Loel and Gloria Guinness, or Michael and Lady Anne Tree. [Michael Tree was the stepson of Babe's friend Marietta Tree, and Lady Anne was sister-in-law to both Deborah, Duchess of Devonshire (née Mitford) and Kick Kennedy, John F. Kennedy's favorite sister.]
In 1952, Babe's sister Minnie and Minnie's then-husband Vincent Astor accompanied the Paleys on a visit to a French chateau that Babe's friend Susan Mary Patten (later Alsop) had rented. Vincent and Minnie would divorce the following year, but in the photograph below, they appear relaxed and happy.
A copy of As It Happened signed by William S. Paley is currently available via the Nick Harvill Libraries kiosk at the Sunset Tower Hotel in West Hollywood. Paley was one of the 20th Century's great tech entrepreneurs, first in radio and then television. As such, his autobiography just might resonate with his 21st Century counterparts.
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.
Meet the Devil: Truman Capote and the William S. Paleys
“Whether Truman spoke the truth or not, I haven’t a clue and I didn’t care. He was a very good conversationalist.”
--Loel Guinness, Truman Capote in which Various Friends, Enemies, Acquaintances, and Detractors Recall His Turbulent Career
Melanie Benjamin’s recently released novel The Swans of Fifth Avenue opens with the oft-told but unreliable account of how Truman Capote met his best friends Bill and Babe Paley in January 1955.
Truman Streckfus Persons Capote … showed up one day on William S. and Babe Paley’s private plane, a tagalong guest of their good friends Jennifer Jones and David O. Selznick. Bill Paley, the chairman and found of CBS, had gaped at the slender young fawn with the big blue eyes and funny voice; ‘I thought you meant President Truman,’ he’d hissed to David.
It is a marvelous tale, and if factual, a hilarious case of mistaken identity. But, is it true? The Swans of Fifth Avenue is, after all, a novel with limited obligation to fact. The book is a story of friendship gone awry: how Truman Capote met and charmed the Beautiful People and then betrayed them nearly as badly as he betrayed himself. Truman’s friendship with Babe and Bill Paley is the emotional center of the novel, but on its perimeter are others in their circle, including most notably Slim Keith but also Pamela Harriman, Gloria Guinness, Marella Agnelli, and C.Z. Guest. It is a delicious treat and under the cloak of fictionalization, it delves into the psychology of its subjects in a way that biography rarely does. However, as it is fiction, there was not need to authenticate Truman’s meet-cute story with the Paleys.
Yet, this tale regarding Truman’s identity exists in nonfiction as well. Gerald Clarke’s well-regarded biography, Capote, relates much the same story. Truman becomes acquainted with producer David Selznick and his actress wife Jennifer Jones through film work, including John Huston’s Beat the Devil for which Capote wrote the screenplay. In January 1955, the Selznicks are invited to fly on the Paleys’ private plane with them to their vacation home in Jamaica. David Selznick inquires whether Truman might come along. Bill Paley replies, “It would be an honor.” Then, when Truman boards the plane, Paley whispers to Selznick, “I assumed you meant Harry Truman. Who is this?
Is it plausible the Paleys assumed it would be former president Harry S. Truman, two years out of office, who would be boarding the plane? We think not. Let’s examine the evidence.
The Credibility of the Source
Truman Capote was a great stylist and raconteur. Effect mattered far more to him than the actual truth. That he said or wrote something makes it no more or less likely that it was true. To friends he once wrote, “not that I mind inventing details, as you will see,” which might be the most honest statement he ever made.
The Improbability of the Supposed Invitee
In 1955, President Truman was not only outside of café society, he could barely afford a cup of coffee. He was certainly not the prototype for presidents who came after him, all too willing to hitch a ride on the private plane of any affable billionaire who makes the offer. President Truman rejected all corporate proposals, believing it would besmirch the office of the presidency. Instead, he returned to Missouri to live in reduced circumstances. His only regular income was a $112.56 per month army pension (presidential pensions had not yet been approved by Congress). Alas, Harry Truman was so outside of the Paley’s social world that he would have made an awkward and unlikely guest, and both of the Paleys would have known it.
The Absence of Follow-Up Questions
After David Selznick inquires whether Truman might accompany them, it is difficult to imagine that Paley would have simply left it at that without further comment or question. For starters, he might have queried, “Will Mrs. Truman be coming along as well?” And, if the answer was affirmative, imagine the très chic Babe lounging poolside for a week with Truman’s salt-of-the-earth wife Bess. Of course, kind and well-mannered Babe would have worked tirelessly to make it all seem perfectly natural should she have found herself in that position (Slim Keith or Gloria Guinness, not so much).
Bill Paley Already Knew President Truman
As Sally Bedell Smith details in her biography In All His Glory, The Life of William S. Paley, Paley’s lieutenant at CBS Frank Stanton arranged a meeting between President Truman and Bill Paley five years earlier in 1950. It resulted in Paley’s appointment to head the President’s Materials Policy Commission in which he took a six-month leave of absence from CBS that ultimately stretched into eighteen. President Truman would not have been a stranger to him. Moreover, Bedell Smith evidently did not believe the story to be credible. In her biography of Paley, she omits the mistaken identity tangent, noting only that Capote “befriended the Paleys in a January 1955 trip to Jamaica.”
Truman Capote Was Already in the Paleys' Circle
Babe Paley’s closest friend Slim Keith writes in her memoir Slim, Memories of a Rich and Imperfect Life that she first met Capote in the early 1950s at a party hosted by Diana Vreeland. It is possible that Babe met Truman at the same party, or if not then most likely shortly thereafter. This aligns with the recollections of Truman’s publisher Bennett Cerf who says that Truman met Mrs. Paley through friends. “Babe immediately invited him somewhere they were going. When Bill Paley met Truman for the first time, he reacted like a lot of men do. He was rather startled by this strange little fellow, but it took Truman about three hours to make Bill Paley his life-long friend and admirer.” [Note: Cerf’s comments were recorded prior to Capote’s famous falling out with the Paleys after the 1975 publication of “La Côte Basque”.]
Mistaken Identity with the Former President Was a Recurring Theme for Capote
The Jamaican holiday was not the only case in which Capote claimed he was mistaken for the former president. If Capote is to be believed, even the newly elected John F. Kennedy experienced difficulty distinguishing the two. In a November 24, 1960 letter to Alvin and Marie Dewey (friends Capote made in Kansas while working on In Cold Blood), he writes, “Sent a congratulatory telegram to the Kennedys, and recvd. a reply from Jackie who said that at first they thought it was from Harry Truman until they realized a) Harry wasn’t in Switzerland, and B) wouldn’t have signed it ‘love and hugs.’ Ha!” It seems as if the mistaken identity gambit was a set piece to be edited and re-edited as Capote saw fit. Via Too Brief a Treat, The Letters of Truman Capote.
Capote’s Own Contemporaneous Account Omits the Anecdote
In a February 7, 1955 letter to his frenemy Cecil Beaton, Truman writes simply, “I went to Jamaica with the [William] Paleys for a holiday, which was pleasant but did not last long enough.” Via Too Brief a Treat, The Letters of Truman Capote.
Based upon all the above evidence, it seems as though the Paleys knew exactly the Truman who would be boarding their private plane that January day in 1955. Of course, after the publication of “La Côte Basque” in 1975, they might have regretted it had not been the former president.
Gogsie Cushing’s great ambition was to see her three beautiful daughters successfully married into wealthy families. On July 23, 1947, it appeared as she succeeded beyond her wildest expectations. On that day her youngest daughter Babe wed CBS mogul William S. Paley, thereby joining her sisters in the multimillionaire club. Sister Betsey was in a love match with John Hay Whitney, as rich as he was gentlemanly. Eldest sister Minnie was married to the even wealthier, if more troubled, Vincent Astor.
Gogsie died in 1949, not knowing that her dream would soon unravel. Her death gave Minnie license to plan a future more suitable to her personality. It took several years, but Minnie convinced Vincent to agree to a divorce by setting him up with his next wife, Brooke Marshall. Minnie remarried not for money but for compatibility—to the artist Jim Fosburgh.
Babe’s marriage survived but had its difficulties. Bill was an amateur photographer, and from his many portraits of her, it is obvious he loved and admired her even when his behavior failed to show it. Babe and Bill’s daughter Kate privately published a collection of those photographs in The Original Bill Paley, a book that rarely hits the resale market, a copy of which is presently available on the Nick Harvill Libraries website. [Postscript: it has since sold.]
Photo Credit, Jerome Zerbe, Happy Times