Icons / September 2017

Bill and Babe Paley: The Royalty Of Revelry

Media mogul William S. Paley and his socialite wife Barbara ‘Babe’ Cushing Mortimer Paley were more than just a complex ‘It’ couple — their famous New York soirées took American style and glamour to dizzying new heights.

William 'Bill' and Barbara 'Babe' Paley outside La Cote Basque in Manhattan, New York, 1965. Photo by Condé Nast Archive/Corbis.

In the early evening of November 28, 1966 — the Monday after Thanksgiving — a select group of people gathered in a select apartment for an early supper soirée that would act as a curtain-raiser for the storied bash that became known as the Party of the Century. Lauren Bacall, Prince Stanislas and Princess Lee Radziwill, Philip Johnson, Katharine Graham and Truman Capote were among the guests, with the latter about to slip out to the nearby Plaza Hotel and inaugurate the masked extravaganza he’d christened the Black & White Ball.

As he took leave of his hosts — William S. Paley, the founder of C.B.S., and his wife, Barbara ‘Babe’ Cushing Mortimer Paley, the quintessential mid-century American socialite — Capote surely reflected that inhaling the Paley aura was as good as nitrous oxide when it came to experiencing a giddy kind of high-society fit of the vapours. For their 20-plus-room apartment, at 820 Fifth Avenue, they had employed three teams of decorators (Sister Parish and Albert Hadley; the French design firm Jansen, who’d recently transformed the Kennedy White House; and celebrity favourite Billy Baldwin) to create interiors that combined old-world charm with bright colour and pattern, sturdy antiques and modernist masterpieces. 

Capote would have left the elegant dining room, with its walls of printed cotton fabric and its complexion-flattering pink and salmon scheme, and headed across the gallery, with its 18th-century Italian parquet floors, perhaps pausing by Picasso’s seven-foot Rose Period masterpiece Boy Leading a Horse hanging in the vestibule, the first objet you encountered as you entered. And he may have taken a last, appraising look at the Paleys themselves: Bill, in his immaculate tuxedo from Huntsman of Savile Row and custom-made evening shoes, carrying the tang of the musky cologne that Givenchy had created especially for him a few years before, cutting a figure so vigorous in his mid-sixties that Capote said of him: “He looks like a man who has just swallowed an entire human being.” And Babe, dressed for the Ball in characteristically simple-but-exquisite fashion, white zibeline mask with false ruby (designed for her by Halston) above a white shell dress and richly bejewelled neckline. “Mrs. P. had only one fault,” Capote famously wrote about Babe. “She was perfect. Otherwise, she was perfect.” If living well is truly the best revenge, the Paleys’ thirst for retribution must have been positively Biblical.

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Stuart Husband