Babe Paley was a socialite, Vogue fashion editor, the most famous of Truman Capote’s “Swans”, and has cemented her place in fashion iconography by one of the sartorial greats on the International Best Dressed Hall of Fame.
Born Barbara Cushing in 1915, Paley was the daughter of Harvey Cushing, both a renowned neurosurgeon and Pulitzer Prize winning author. Her mother had social ambitions and encouraged and groomed her three daughters to marry wealthy men. One sister became an Astor and the other married James Roosevelt, the son of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Paley’s first husband was Stanley Mortimer, of the Standard Oil family, after their divorce, she fell in love with William S. Paley, chairman of CBS television in America.
Paley was a trailblazer, marrying a Jewish man despite the anti- Semitic prejudices of New York society. While excluded from a number of important social functions and exclusive clubs- the Paley’s nonetheless kept a close-knit circle of high- society friends. Included in this circle was her confidante Truman Capote, who once remarked "Babe Paley had only one flaw: she was perfect. Other than that, she was perfect".
After publishing excerpts of his work-in-progress, Answered Prayers, that shared thinly- veiled accounts of her husband’s infidelities, Paley ended their friendship. Capote was crushed by this ostracism from her circle and it is considered one of the causes for his severe alcoholism.
For most of the 50s, 60s and 70s, Paley was a fixture on the Best Dressed List. The fashion decisions she made, such as modern pantsuits and allowing the gray in her hair to show, were copied by women all over America, and continue to influence the way we dress today.
Once, in a hurry to leave her house, she wrapped a scarf around the handle of her purse. The image was captured by photographers and used by the nation’s fashion magazines, starting a trend that even today is emulated by modern fashionistas such as Nicole Richie. She often mixed designer and discount pieces and cultivated a look so effortless that Oscar de la Renta once remarked that of one of his collections was "Paley chic, that says, ‘I’m rich, but I don’t have to flaunt it’.”
Tragically, Paley’s two-pack-a-day habit led to lung cancer and she passed away in 1978. However, her glamour and grace live on in the amazing images that capture the fashion legacy she has left behind. Fashionable women today would be wise to look to her for style inspiration.
Photos courtesy of the Fashion Spot forums.