Throughout this month I’ve been exploring 1950’s style icons–those women my mother’s generation admired for their personal style and graciousness. Those who epitomized ladylike grace. Today’s icon, Babe Paley, goes on to be a style icon in the 60s as well, but she herself is a woman of the old school–the school that saw the “Mrs.” as a much higher degree than even a Ph.d. She was, as the saying went, “raised right.” Aim high meant marry well and marry well meant look at the bank balance, then make your peace with the man. Babe, and the 50s ladies, knew success when they saw it. Babe first married a Standard Oil heir and second the creator of C.B.S.
Say the name “Babe Paley” to those fifties gals I’ve been writing about and you’ll hear one reply: Style. As in the phrase, Babe is style. The kind of style one is either born with or without. Unless you were born Barbara Cushing and subsequently given the life-long nickname “Babe,” you were born without it.
Babe and her circle of similarly-monied wives of influential men were christened the “Swans,” by Truman Capote author of Breakfast at Tiffany’s, In Cold Blood and, later, as savage little number called La Côte Basque, 1965.
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Babe is the centerpiece of this marvelous novel re-imagining the lives of Truman and his Swans. It was Babe who loved Truman and whom Truman loved after all. Babe who had it all, who was “it all,” was unbelievably lonely. Her homes were beautiful, her face was perfect, her husband was powerful, but she was lonely.
Throughout the story I was constantly reminded of another young wife who “had it all and was ‘it all'”–Princess Diana. Their stories are so eerily similar, though Diana did spend time with her children when they were home from boarding school. She, too, could well have described herself as a “glamorous concierge” for her husband.”
Babe saw herself in that light–as a “museum curator of her homes, her life.” She was also the guardian, curator and creator of Babe is style. An accident as a teenager and a controlling mother left her so insecure that she never allowed her husband to see her without makeup or with her hair in curlers or with her false teeth out. Never. And, never mind the pain those teeth kept her in–they stayed in unless she was totally alone in her own room. This, too, reminds me of Diana–supposedly her bulimia started (or was it returned?) after Charles’ made a harmless remark that she took to mean he thought her “fat.” Sad.
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But just like Diana, the more desperate she was to attract Bill’s attention, the less likely he was to give it. So, more and more, she turned to Truman, just as Diana turned to man after man. Babe was of the generation that put the husband ahead of children–always. So much so that the children were left at their estate during the week, while Bill and Babe were in the City, exactly the way Prince Charles was treated as an infant. The parallels go on and on. The saddest one is that neither woman was ever given much credit for brains–brains of the sort needed for a so-called “real” career yet both had them and used them. But both were alone in life–and lonely.
“I don’t want to know how to live the rest of my life knowing my husband doesn’t want me,” was Babe’s heart-wrenching confession. You see the similarity now with Diana, I’m sure. But Babe was of a different time and different generation. She had had one affair and it is implied in the story that the affair was why she was so lonely. Her husband lived for the chase, the conquest–he bedded any woman he wanted. Babe, possibly to avoid scandal, turned to Truman Capote, a homosexual for a platonic, but emotional love affair. She and Truman were a couple within a marriage. Babe, Bill and Truman were a threesome–not a sexual one–and entertained as such. Bill was eventually as drawn to Truman as Babe was. Surely it would be this way always? “There were three in this marriage,” Diana famously said. “So?” Babe might have answered….until that story was published.
But are they just the parallels between one society woman and another? Today we understand that Diana’s parents had laser-like self-focus and put the children last after their own desires. Nannys remarked that Diana couldn’t tell the truth–as did School Headmistresses. She could manipulate with the best of them–finally making it into an art form. Sadly, Babe was a parent right out of Lord and Lady Spencer’s book.You must search long and hard for a photo of her with any of her four children–two of whom were hers with Bill. Diana was well-known for alerting the press to outings with her children so that photos could be taken.
Sisters, click photo for credit
But Babe didn’t share Diana’s manipulative and dishonest traits. Babe was remembered as too kind, too polite–traits the general public saw, and later revered, in Diana. The public knew of Diana’s many affairs, of her manipulation of the story of her marriage, even of her using her children to look good and make her husband look bad–but they adored her nonetheless. “She’s like us–flawed.” No one ever saw Babe as flawed. Even though she knew of Bill’s affairs and knew she’d never get his attention, she still went on day after day making herself lovely for him, keeping their homes perfect for him, seeing to every detail–right down to the onion for his salami sandwiches he made himself in his CBS office. She could have been “Waity-Katy” Middleton’s Granny. She was there “in case” he needed her. In case she could ease something in his life. In case he needed a candlelight dinner before turning on his own network to watch t.v. and zone-out. But, never did he turn to her in the night and want her the way a husband should. How well Diana knew that pain, too.
Unlike Diana, Babe knew her marriage was a job–a career–the ultimate career goal, just as her mother had taught her. And it was a very high-profile career with much expected of her to whom much was given. She, like Diana, had been well prepared–a proper finishing school from which Babe, but not Diana, graduated. The millions raised for charity, the oft-profiled homes, the “discovering” of new designers, the signature Babe Paley perfection–Babe is style, it was all part of that career. Bill’s career depended on her as well. Bill depended upon having the perfect wife for social events, for gracious entertaining and for keeping him glued together and flying at the highest levels of business. Charles, it seems, relied on his staff and the woman who is now his second wife. Neediness in a woman can be so off-putting, so suffocating to a man.
By contrast Diana, of a new generation, wouldn’t play that game. She wanted the one thing that wasn’t offered–love. Babe, too, wanted this–make no mistake–the difference was she understood the contract when she signed on the line. Diana didn’t. Diana gave her name and her time generously to charities and is rightly remembered for her outstanding work in this area. She devoted as much time to her children as any modern, wealthy mother with two nannies and boarding schools wishes to give. But while Babe kept putting others–namely Bill–first, Diana’s mistake was expecting to be appreciated, noticed, LOVED, for what she did. She expect to “change” the game plan. That wasn’t in the compensation package. Windsor men, until her own sons’ generation–in no small part due to her influence–are not givers. So Diana complained and in very un-Babe and unladylike ways she made it known that she wasn’t happy, that her Prince wasn’t charming. She aired the dirty laundry. She threw-out the contract.
Bill Paley created C.B.S., had the ear of presidents and enjoyed every luxury, every “trapping” that power and wealth bestow. But he couldn’t be bothered to care about his lovely wife–she was a “trapping,” after all. His children, troubled as they were by parental neglect and and other problems, did not merit much thought, either. Would he have noticed if the housekeeper had simply put the lovely dinner before him? Would he have cared if someone on his payroll found cashmere socks of the softest kind or picked the season’s best looking ties instead of Babe?
Moot point–Babe was at the top of his payroll. She understood the bargain. Charles had a valet to buy the socks, a staff to plan his life by the minute and DID make time for his children–a lot of time for a man raised in an Edwardian nursery and plenty of time for a modern, wealthy father whose children are raised by nanny and sent to boarding school at age eight.
Sadly, the comparisons don’t end there. As we’ve all seen, almost daily since the last days of August 1997, just about every friend, lover, acquaintance, servant or service provider has sold their Diana story to a publisher or other media outlet. Babe had Truman for this. Truman, whom she loved, adored, petted, protected. Truman was the one who betrayed her. And then her friend Slim, who had betrayed her all along and so on and so on. And on and on.
And the men? Did they get their just rewards? Bill Paley, like many entrepreneurs, may have tried to hold on to his empire a bit too long, but that didn’t stop him being named one New York’s most eligible bachelors when he was in his 80’s. Money is attractive. When Babe was dying of cancer, guilt caused Bill to be devoted to her–an action she likely took for what it was, “too little, too late” and simply guilt. As for Prince Charles. Well, he got all that he wanted. He got the other woman, and he got to keep his status as heir to the throne. Diana was killed by not wearing a seatbelt. She died young enough to stay beautiful. Charles suffered such remorse from her death that he wore his wedding ring again and he became a more visible parent–not that he was ever absent from his sons’ lives, he just didn’t get in the press for his actions. He did not go on to devote himself to her memory though any more than Bill did. He got on with the life instead.
Melanie Benjamin’s Swans of Fifth Avenue does a great job of taking the reader inside the life and world of Babe Paley. It will make a tremendous movie or, better yet, (my favorite) Masterpiece series on PBS. Some day, a future author will write a book like this about Diana–once all the history is known and the personal papers are available. I hope that book will be the Capstone of Ms Benjamin’s career.
When I looked her up for this blog post I found that Melanie Benjamin and I share more than the desire to write fiction that brings real people to life–we were born the same year and attended the same University, albeit I attended Indiana University in Bloomington and she in Indianapolis. I liked learning that. It gives me hope. Now, I don’t know about you, but I’m anxiously awaiting her next book!