"...the ultimate symbol of taste and perfectionist chic...." @ Women's Wear Daily photo.
"...the ultimate symbol of taste and perfectionist chic...." @ Women's Wear Daily photo.

A First Class Babe

 

Ask someone who has studied, with the intensity of a tropical botanist, the world of fashion, beauty and decor, to name the one woman who most personified the elements of understated chic and elegance in the last half of the 20th century, and the answer would be simple: Babe Paley.

Barbara Cushing Mortimer Paley.

The day after her death on July 6, 1978, Enid Nemy wrote in The New York Times:

"She was to many the ultimate symbol of taste and perfectionist chic, the inspiration for mannequins that line the windows of Lord & Taylor and for countless sketches, photographs and articles in magazines and newspapers throughout the country. Her appearance at a public event was a signal for the kind of attention accorded such women as the Duchess of Windsor and Jacqueline Onassis."

What was the spell this woman cast on so many people that would propel her to the legend of "taste and perfectionist chic?" It began at birth.

Babe Paley in her cherished dell garden at Kiluna, the Paleys' Manhasset, Long Island estate. @ Horst Studio.
Babe Paley in her cherished dell garden at Kiluna, the Paleys' Manhasset, Long Island estate. @ Horst Studio.

Barbara Cushing was born on July 5, 1915, the youngest of three daughters of Dr. and Mrs. Harvey J. Cushing of Boston. Dr. Cushing was an internationally renowned brain specialist. It was her mother, Katherine "Kate" Crowell Cushing, who started Babe in finishing school as a child.

Babe and her two sisters, Betsey and Minnie, were taken to museums, theater, opera and other cultural events. Kate Cushing raised her daughters to a plateau where they could converse easily on topics with the men to whom their beauty and intellect would be advantageous.

In 1939, Babe went to work at Vogue as a fashion editor and on Sept. 21, 1940, married Standard Oil heir Stanley Mortimer. During their marriage, she achieved the top spot on the Best Dressed List and had two children, Tony and Amanda.

Barbara Cushing weds Stanley Mortimer, Jr., St. Luke's Episcopal Church, East Hampton, N.Y., September 21, 1940.
Barbara Cushing weds Stanley Mortimer, Jr., St. Luke's Episcopal Church, East Hampton, N.Y., September 21, 1940.
At the wedding of her daughter in 1964: Bill Paley, Amanda Mortimer (Mrs. Carter Burden, Jr.), Carter Burden, Jr., and Babe Paley. @ Ben Martin/ Time magazine archive.
At the wedding of her daughter in 1964: Bill Paley, Amanda Mortimer (Mrs. Carter Burden, Jr.), Carter Burden, Jr., and Babe Paley. @ Ben Martin/ Time magazine archive.

But their union proved acrimonious and they divorced in 1946.

The following year, she married William Paley, the magnetic broadcasting tycoon, and with him set about to create a world of almost unimaginable luxury. Their residences―Kiluna Farm in Manhasset, a house in Jamaica and a 21-room duplex on Fifth Avenue―were run with a precision found only in the grandest houses in Europe.

It was through her fashion sense that she set a standard of elegance for style-conscious women across America.

The noted Vogue photographer Erwin Blumenfeld once described Babe Paley as one who "has the gentleness, poise and the dignity of one of those grande dames whom Balzac describes in his Comedie Humaine. As for her clothes, instead of merely wearing them, she carries them."

Babe Paley was never identified with one designer. Instead, she mixed Valentino with Chanel, Givenchy with Mainbocher, Norman Norell with Charles James. She could be egalitarian.

Once, at a Bergdorf Goodman fashion show, she told reporters that the coat she was wearing came from Ohrbach's, a department store well known to society women who flocked to it in search of anonymous merchandise from leading manufacturers at bargain prices. Babe's style was in its effortlessness.

The key to dressing well, she told Women's Wear Daily in 1963: "Neatness definitely (is) the important requirement." Even members of her family never saw her looking less than perfect. Her niece, Kate Whitney, once said, "She was immaculate in blue jeans and loafers."

Barbara Cushing Mortimer Paley in 1949, voted one of the world's ten best-dressed women.
Barbara Cushing Mortimer Paley in 1949, voted one of the world's ten best-dressed women.
Babe in her St. Regis living room designed by Billy Baldwin. On the walls of shirred brown and beige chintz were Picasso's "The Pink Lady," and Matisse's "Odalisque."
Babe in her St. Regis living room designed by Billy Baldwin. On the walls of shirred brown and beige chintz were Picasso's "The Pink Lady," and Matisse's "Odalisque."

As a child, I was intrigued by the idea that I had a glamorous distant cousin named Babe. Distant? My Aunt Leila used to joke, "The distance between the Statue of Liberty and the Golden Gate Bridge."

My mother liked to tease my Grandmother Cushing whenever she saw a mention or photograph of Babe Paley in a magazine or newspaper.

"I saw a wonderful story about Babe Paley in the New York Herald Tribune."

Grandma Cushing detested publicity. "Oh, that's a newspaper name," she'd sniff.

People often ask me if I ever met Babe Paley. I did, only once.

I was 14 in August, 1964. My mother and I were in New York, walking down Madison Avenue. We were crossing 63rd Street when she saw a familiar figure coming up the avenue towards us. I heard her say, almost to herself, "Here comes Babe Paley." As I was introduced to her, Mrs. Paley extended a white-gloved hand to me. I remember that she was tall and elegantly dressed, but instead of looking at her face as she spoke, I became mesmerized by her handbag and shoes. They were made of woodland green-dyed crocodile and had matching gold clasps. I don't remember her voice or even how long we stood in the afternoon sun, but I will always remember staring at her exquisite accessories.

With Truman Capote, " a rich man's Pekingese," on a Parisian holiday in the 1950s.
With Truman Capote, " a rich man's Pekingese," on a Parisian holiday in the 1950s.
At Truman Capote's masked ball, Bill Paley beams between Gloria Guiness and his wife, Babe. @ Vogue.
At Truman Capote's masked ball, Bill Paley beams between Gloria Guiness and his wife, Babe. @ Vogue.

There was another side of this seemingly cool, calm and detached woman that people who knew her never forgot to mention: her sense of humor, enthusiasm, manners and thoughtfulness.

A friend of mine, once a captain at La Côte Basque, an international watering hole and restaurant of the '70s jet set, told me, "Mrs. Paley was so friendly to everyone who worked there. She never forgot to ask about my family, and always said 'thank you' to the waiters when she left."

I think that is how this ultra-chic woman, who Women's Wear Daily once christened "one of the greatest American Beauties of all time," would like to be remembered.

Manners and thoughtfulness.

Perhaps the most chic "accessories" of all.

 

BC-February, 2011

The Cushing sisters in 1937, from left: Babe, Betsey, and Minnie.  From debutante days they were known for their beauty and charm, and later renowned for marrying into some of the country's most prominent families.
The Cushing sisters in 1937, from left: Babe, Betsey, and Minnie. From debutante days they were known for their beauty and charm, and later renowned for marrying into some of the country's most prominent families.

Barbara Cushing and Betsey Cushing Roosevelt, bonded in spirit and style. 1937. @ Franklin D. Roosevelt Library.
Barbara Cushing and Betsey Cushing Roosevelt, bonded in spirit and style. 1937. @ Franklin D. Roosevelt Library.

Bill Paley and Babe in a playful moment at Round Hill, their estate in the Caribbean, 1960s.
Bill Paley and Babe in a playful moment at Round Hill, their estate in the Caribbean, 1960s.

Babe and Bill Paley in front of the restaurant immortalized in Truman Capote's roman à clef that scandalized Manhattan high society. @ Women's Wear Daily photo
Babe and Bill Paley in front of the restaurant immortalized in Truman Capote's roman à clef that scandalized Manhattan high society. @ Women's Wear Daily photo
Babe and Bill Paley attending a premiere in 1954. @ UPI/Bettmann.
Babe and Bill Paley attending a premiere in 1954. @ UPI/Bettmann.

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