The Ninotchka Hat Blog

Babe Paley and American Chic
December 8, 2010, 10:00 am
Filed under: Uncategorized

What is style? Is it revelation or disguise? I’ve often wondered, especially in the case of Babe Paley, fashion icon and socialite, wife of powerful CBS founder William S Paley. She came from that bygone era where socialites existed like reigning queens on high, adulated and emulated — but never imitated. There was no “Housewives of New York” back then. A power wife existed to provide style, charm, beauty, and social grace. To achieve this was considered an end — almost a career in and of itself. Mrs. Paley was trained all of life by her socially ambitious mother to become one of these wives. Her father was not a Park Avenue millionaire, but the pioneering neurosurgeon, Dr Harvey Cushing. Despite the odds, not just Babe (real name Barbara), but both her sisters, Minnie and Betsy, all made society marriages.

Mrs Paley had a model’s figure — tall and lean, and had an attractive but not exactly beauteous face. Her chin was too large and her face too long and thin, but people flocked to her. She was charming, she easily accrued social collateral, first as the wife of socialite Stanley Mortimer and then as the feted wife of Bill Paley, one of the powerful men in America, and though not a towering intellect, she possessed an everyday kind of cleverness. Then again, Edith Wharton probably would have said that a towering intellect was not a requirement for entry into New York society. She had fashion sense. She worked briefly for Vogue in between her two marriages, and continued to take a healthy interest in fashion for the rest of her life.

Paley was never an ostentatious or fussy dresser. She prefered clean lines, and simplicity in her dress, though she was known to go for the occasional daring piece. Like Chanel, she championed the tasteful use of costume jewelry, sometimes mixing it with genuine pieces. She famously took off her scarf one day and tied it around her handbag sparking a fashion trend that can still be seen today. When her hair started going grey, rather than dyeing it, she let it go grey, sparking yet another fashion trend. Whatever she did, however, she always made it look effortless (“You never noticed the clothes. You only noticed Babe”). Her rivals and her friends (Mrs Paley didn’t seem to have any enemies) always remarked upon her perfection. Truman Capote famously remarked that “Babe’s only fault was that she was perfect. Other than that, she was perfect”

Mrs Paley in Vogue by Horst, 1946

However, few know that price that Paley herself paid for perfection. Sally Bedell Smith wrote a well researched and generally unflattering biography of Bill Paley called “In All His Glory” where she describes, in almost fetishistic detail, a catalogue of Mrs. Paley’s wardrobe, from day stockings to evening stockings, to slips, to trousers, to blouses to scarves and on and on –probably 30 different catagories of garments. All fanatically organized. The rest of Mrs Paley’s existence was devoted to pleasing her finicky, demanding, and doggedly unfaithful husband, who believed that his wife’s stylishness was a reflection of his own social prestige. Coming from the school of thought that a wife’s duty was catering to needs of her husband, Mrs Paley put terrible pressure on herself to live up his expectations. Every few months she would be debilitated by painful migraine headaches. Overall, she bore the pressure of her position far better than most women would have. She was not neurotic by nature. However, she did not live very long. She died at the age of 63 after a long battle with lung cancer (Mrs Paley was an inveterate smoker).

So, back to the original question. In “The Age of Innocence”: Edith Wharton speculated of one of her characters: “What if ‘niceness’ carried to that supreme degree were only a negation, the curtain dropped before an emptiness?” Perhaps, Mrs Paley’s breeding engineered her so thoroughly that her soul ossified in the process. A friend remarked when Mrs Paley died that she didn’t have a glimmer of a soul, a two pronged statement. Mrs Paley was a doctor’s daughter and was deeply practical and clinical about death but it also indicates that Babe herself, all duty and kindness, died an empty woman. For her, style was style for its own sake but it was moreover, the life to which to which she had been bred. What was her inner life? Did she have one? How could someone so innovative and expressive in her style be be oppressed in her daily life. The funny thing is, Babe got the last word on Bill. As she was dying, and when she had nothing to lose, she took to berating and insulting him — often in public. Mr Paley, wracked with guilt and suddenly afraid of her, would sit silently and take her abuse

Still, Babe Paley will still be remembered as one of the most American of fashion icons, generous and genteel, and stylish to the end

Mrs Paley, aged 43, still sporting a girlish figure at her suite at the St Regis

Babe during her time as a Vogue model and editor c. 1945


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