Who was the real Babe Paley? Meet Truman Capote’s ‘favorite’ swan

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

Truman Capote used his charm to befriend the leading ladies of his day, but not all of his friends earned the title of “swan," as the new season of "Feud" shows.

That term was reserved for only six women who he deemed sophisticated enough, stylish enough and interesting enough. Chief among them? Barbara “Babe” Paley.

“She was often called the most beautiful woman in the world, and Truman just liked looking at her, admiring her incredible panache," Lawrence Leamer wrote in his book "Capote's Women," the inspiration for the show.

But what exactly earned Barbara “Babe” Paley and the other women "swan status"?

Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott spent over a decade researching the author and his socialite friends for her novel "Swan Song," narrated by the women whose secrets Capote revealed in a thinly fictionalized short story.

“What she really had to have was an almost fictional self-creation story. These were his real life heroines,” Greenberg-Jephcott says. To put it simply, these were “women with a story,” she says.

The story of Capote’s betrayal of those swans has been reimagined for "Feud: Capote vs. The Swans," out Jan. 31. The season centers around the author's closest socialite friends-turned-enemies, including Paley, portrayed by actor Naomi Watts,

"Babe finds herself falling into this man in ways that she’s never allowed herself to in any other relationship and kind of gives herself over to this wonderful friendship that goes horribly wrong," actor Naomi Watts told TODAY.com at a press junket.

Read on to find out more about the real Babe Paley.

What was Babe Paley’s “self-creation” story?

Barbara "Babe" Paley was the youngest child of neurosurgeon surgeon Dr. Harvey Cushing and socialite Katharine Crowell Cushing.

Her mother, according to Leamer's book, wished for one thing for her three daughters: That they "marry well." (They ended up marrying members of the Astor, Whitney, Mortimer and Roosevelt families, as well as Bill Paley, founder of CBS.)

In 1934, Babe Paley was in a devastating car accident that "left her a mass of bruises, blemishes, and scars," per Leamer's book, and permanently knocked out her front teeth. Plastic surgery brought her beauty back, "unblemished and perhaps even more heightened," Leamer wrote.

In this transformation, Truman Capote found a “real life heroine,” as Greenberg-Jephcott puts it. Shortly after her debutante ball, she moved to New York and began working as an editor for Vogue before meeting her first husband.

Who was Babe Paley married to?

Babe "was raised to find a rich and powerful husband and she did exactly that," Watts says of her character.

She first married advertising executive Stanley G. Mortimer Jr., grandson of one of the founders of Standard Oil, in 1940. They had two children, Stanley Grafton Mortimer III and Amanda Jay Mortimer, before divorcing in 1946.

She married her second husband, William S. Paley, a year later in 1947. Bill Paley, often referred to as the father of broadcasting, was the chief executive of CBS. Babe and Bill had two more children together, William C. Paley and Kate Cushing Paley. The two remained married for the duration of their lives before Babe Paley died in 1978.

"Babe was living in a time where women were not really working. The greatest thing that a woman could be was a wife and know how to serve her husband and create fantastic dinner parties," Watts says.

Leamer characterized their marriage as a "business deal" in "Capote's Women."

"Babe gave Bill entry to a measure of haute société and elevated taste, and Bill gave Babe money so she could live the way she and her mother believed she was born to live," he wrote. "His largesse toward her was not generosity but a shrewd investment so she would pay the role married her to play."

What was Truman Capote and Babe Paley's friendship like?

Leamer wrote that Babe Paley "did not have friends" in the conventional sense, because it was "too big a risk to trust people," since her confidences could be used against her or her husband.

Capote was the exception. "Truman was the sort of friend a teenager might have," Leamer said of their intense bond, which lasted for decades.

Capote was the only person Babe Paley confided in about her husband's infidelities. According to Leamer, Capote never kept his friend's secrets. "As dear as Babe was to Truman, her confidences were not as precious," he wrote.

Knowing what he knew, Capote urged Babe Paley to stay in her marriage, despite her unhappiness. Leamer wrote that Capote said something along the lines of, "'Look upon being Mrs. William S. Paley as a job, the best job in the world. Accept it and be happy with it."

How did Truman Capote betray Babe Paley?

While Capote was friends with Babe Paley and his swans, he was working on a book called "Answered Prayers," a followup to his novella "Breakfast at Tiffany's" and true crime epic "In Cold Blood" set in New York high society.

"La Côte Basque 1965" was an excerpt from the novel published in Esquire in 1975. Leamer described it as a "string of gossipy vignettes, repeating the kind of ugly stories that were whispered at dinner parties."

These also happened to be inspired by real stories, including Bill Paley's infidelity.

“The stories get more and more salacious as they go, and the last two that he gets to — one is a very graphic story about a couple of fictional people who are obviously the Paleys,” Greenberg-Jephcott says.

The character Socialite Lady Ina Coolbirth, based on Slim Keith, exposes Sidney Dillon, based on Bill Paley, for having an affair with a politician’s wife.

How did Babe Paley react to ‘La Cote Basque’?

After reading the story, Babe Paley was devastated and in a state of disbelief, Greenberg-Jephcott says.

“From Babe’s perspective, it was an absolute disbelief that someone that she had trusted more than her husband, more than her children, more than her sisters, more than her female friends, that this person that she had given everything to, she just couldn’t conceive of of him ever doing that,” Greenberg-Jephcott says.

What happened to their friendship?

Babe Paley never reconciled with Truman Capote. None of the swans did.

"These women were profoundly hurt. As they saw it, he had abused their friendship and betrayed them in a display of appallingly bad manners," she said.

She died of lung cancer on July 6, 1978, just one day after turning 63.

This article was originally published on TODAY.com