Long before the Kardashians, Hadids, Hiltons and Middletons, there existed a trio of sisters that turned the practice of ‘marrying well’ into an art form. The Cushing sisters – Minnie, Betsey and Babe – captivated the American public during the poverty-stricken Great Depression, a time defined by breadlines and dust bowls.
The women fascinated people with their glamorous lifestyles marked by wealth, privilege, country homes, designer clothes, yachts, palatial apartments and six high-profile marriages to The Social Register’s top tier families.
At the center of it all was their ambitious, social climbing mother, Kate ‘Gogsie’ Cushing, who shrewdly steered her daughters into six high-profile marriages in total. The sisters grew up comfortably in a wealthy suburb of Boston to a father who was a pioneering neurosurgeon and teaching physician at Harvard and a mother who raised her daughters like geishas in the art of pleasing powerful men.
Toast of the town: The Cushing sisters enjoyed a dinner given in their honor by Prince Serge Obolensky at the St. Regis Hotel in New York City. (From left to right: Babe, Betsey and Minnie). The socialite sisters were primed and polished in prep schools and managed by their meddling, ambitious mother who steered them into the highest ranks of American aristocracy
Blushing Bride: Betsey Cushing on her wedding day, June 4, 1930 to James Roosevelt; son of four-term President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his wife Eleanor. Betsey was the middle sister and first to be married. Despite Roosevelt’s prominent social standing, Betsey’s mother was said to be disappointed in the marriage; she expected her daughters to marry into European nobility
The first married was 21-year-old Betsey, the middle sister who ensnared the affection of James Roosevelt II. James, also known as ‘Jimmy’ by his classmates at Harvard was the eldest son of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his hard-nosed wife, Eleanor. 1000 guests that composed of America’s political and social elite gathered on a hot June day in 1930 to witness the wedding between the young bachelor and his bride who forwent tradition and opted to wear a Grecian inspired, silver lame gown.
Despite the groom’s superb social credentials; James Roosevelt fell short of Kate ‘Gogsie’ Cushing’s expectations for her daughter. According to Cushing sisters biographer, David Grafton—Gogsie confided to a New York gossip columnist that she fully expected her girls ‘to marry into the highest level of European nobility or into America’s moneyed aristocracy. While James’ family lineage was impeccable; his prospects for a large inheritance were close to none as his grandmother Sara, the dowager of the Roosevelt family’s $2 million fortune held the purse strings.
The marriage fell apart after 10 years but not before Betsey became the doyenne of Washington DC social circles. While First Lady Eleanor was often away, Betsey became the de-facto White House hostess; entertaining guests was a skill ingrained in her teachings from a young age. Her refined sense of polish, sophistication and social decorum earned Betsey the affections of her father-in-law. The President began to rely on Betsey heavily in social situations most notably during King George and Queen Elizabeth’s historical visit to America in 1939.
Among the seminal photographers that shot Babe Paley (Cecil Beaton, Lord Snowdon) this picture by Horst P. Horst for Vogue Magazine became iconic. In his personal journal Truman Capote wrote, ‘Mrs. P had only one fault: she was perfect’
Belle of the Ball: Franklin D. Roosevelt Jr. escorted Miss. Barbara ‘Babe” Cushing to an inaugural dance for his father in Washington D.C. (pictured left). The same couple enjoyed an evening at a local night spot in New York City (pictured right). After two successful seasons as a debutante; Babe chose to enter the work force as an editor at Vogue Magazine
Betsey’s close relationship to President Roosevelt only elicited jealousy and resentment for both his son, James and his wife, Eleanor. The notorious no-nonsense First Lady never warmed to Betsey—finding her politesse forced and unnatural. The public scrutiny of their relationship did not help the situation. At the time, James and Betsey were America’s version of royalty, and they couldn’t share a kiss, much less have an argument in public without it being headline news. By 1940, the couple officially divorced after James moved to Hollywood with his mistress to become a movie executive.
The Roosevelt marriage was a good start for the Cushing sisters who operated marriage much like a business. The connection eventually paved the way for a Minnie’s own coup. It was through Betsey, that Minnie met Vincent Astor, a long time neighbor of The Roosevelt family’s beloved Hyde Park estate in New York.
Vincent Astor became the richest man in America after his father died in the Titanic; inheriting a fortune of $100 million. Astor, known for his serious personality and famous for his mercurial mood swings was nonetheless instantly taken by Minnie’s excitable and youthful spirit. It wasn’t long before Minnie became his mistress, often joining him for exotic vacations on his luxurious 265 foot yacht that he called the Nourmahal.
Kate ‘Gogsie’ Cushing was hot to lock in a marriage that would secure her position in New York’s renowned ‘400’—the most exclusive and illustrious social circle that was given its nickname from Vincent Astor’s grandmother. 400 was her ballroom’s maximum capacity, which limited her invitations to 400 people.
A family member told Cushing biographer, David Grafton: ‘The Cushing sisters and their mother were very much like a small family owned business, where the decisions concerning each of the sisters were put on the table, discussed, debated, and finally put to a vote…Gogsie Cushing, like her daughters, had a voice, a vote, but unlike the three girls, she held veto power.’
Taken a day after the 1936 election, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt enjoyed time with Betsey and his granddaughter Kate on her christening at his beloved home in Hyde Park, New York. Betsey quickly became the President’s daughter-in-law, and de facto White House hostess while First Lady Eleanor was travelling
Minnie Cushing and Vincent Astor disembark Astor’s yacht, the Nourmahal on their honeymoon in 1940. Vincent Astor became the richest man in America when inherited a $100 million after his father died in the Titanic. Minnie’s shotgun wedding to the real estate scion secured the family’s footing in New York Society
The three glamorous sisters enjoy each other’s company at The Rosenbach Library in Philadelphia. Pictured left to right: Betsey Cushing, Minnie Cushing and Babe Cushing
Worried that her eldest daughter, nearing 35 years of age was getting old and headed toward spinsterhood, Gogsie urged Minnie to marry the 49 year old real estate scion as soon as legally possible. Within three short weeks following Vincent’s divorce to his first wife, Minnie became the second Mrs. Vincent Astor. The new couple quietly committed to each other in a shotgun ceremony held at Gogsie’s East Hampton summer rental.
Minnie quickly took to the pleasures bestowed upon her as an Astor. She delved into daily operations at Vincent Astor’s famed St. Regis Hotel; a lavish property he built on 55th Street and Madison that eventually became the de facto clubhouse for New York’s high society. The notorious gossip columnist Walter Winchell reported about an event in which Wallis Simpson, The Duchess of Windsor descended into anger after her reserved table was unavailable. Impervious to the Duchess’ vitriol, Minnie replied: ‘My good woman, why don’t you act your age?’
Betsey’s time as a Roosevelt in Washington DC was also important for another reason. She arranged for her teenage sister, Babe’s introduction to the debutante circuit by hosting a ball at The White House. Babe (born Barbara) had long been regarded as the most beautiful of the three girls, she was tall, slender, stylish and had aristocratic appeal. But much to her mother’s disappointment, Babe decided to enter the work force after two seasons of smashing success as a debutante.
Vincent Astor and the newly minted Mrs. Astor relax on the ocean liner during their honeymoon in November 1940. Minnie was Vincent’s longtime mistress and quickly adjusted to her new role as lady of the house only three weeks after Vincent divorced his first wife
Babe’s star power grew as a socialite during her career at Vogue Magazine where she became a fashion icon. She was on the best-dressed list 14 times before officially being inducted into the Fashion Hall of Fame in 1958. In describing her affect, the designer Bill Blass said, “I never saw her not grab anyone’s attention, the hair, the makeup, the crispness. You were never conscious of what she was wearing, you noticed Babe and nothing else’
Babe became an editor at Vogue Magazine, hired by Conde Nast himself who employed women based on social standing and appearance rather than education. In an interview with author Grafton, Alexander Liberman, a long time artistic director at Conde Nast revealed that ‘the Social Register was the great publisher’s bible…In an era when bright, socially elite young women did not necessarily attend or finish college and did not quite know what to do with themselves before marriage, Conde Nast served as a sort of finishing school.’
Eventually Babe succumbed to social expectations and she managed to snag a top-drawer, eligible bachelor for herself. After a quick courtship, she married Stanley Grafton Mortimer, Jr; heir to The Standard Oil fortune in 1940. Babe was escorted down the aisle by her brother, wearing an exquisitely simple long sleeved wedding dress that she capped off with a tiara and delicate veil. The ceremony was low-key in comparison to previous standards set by Betsey’s wedding to James Roosevelt but nonetheless upscale. Most importantly, it secured her position on The Social Register.
The couple moved into an elegant apartment in the St. Regis and had two children: Amanda Jay Mortimer and Stanley Grafton Mortimer. But the marriage met its inevitable demise after only six years, the couple filed for divorce in 1946. While Babe excelled at entertaining and fashion, motherhood was not her forte. Babe ignored her children while in pursuit of social status and depended upon the wealth of her husbands to support her lavish lifestyle.
Years later Amanda admitted that her relationship with her mother was ‘virtually non-existent’ and that the distance ‘was her choice, not mine.’
Portrait of Babe Cushing by Horst P. Horst for Vogue Magazine. Hubert de Givenchy, Valentino and Charles James lavished Babe with clothing. Currently The Metropolitan Museum of Art has one of Babe’s custon gowns on display
Truman Capote stands between Babe Paley (right) and her daughter Amanda Burden (left). Amanda Burden was Babe’s daughter from her first marriage to Stanley Grafton Mortimer. Set by example, Burden also became a socialite; marrying twice before spending a number of years with television host, Charlie Rose. As she grew up, Amanda admitted that her relationship with her mother was ‘virtually non-existent’ and that the distance ‘was her choice, not min
John ‘Jock’ Whitney and his second wife, the former Betsey Cushing Roosevelt, smile happily at each other as they enter a Washington Theater for a performance on April 30, 1942. Jock was a scholar of fine art and a generous supporter of the performing arts. He was responsible for producing Gone With The Wind and had amassed a collection of impressionist masterpieces by the time of his death
As official Café Society fixtures, Betsey did not have a difficult time finding a second husband. She was determined to find herself a partner that matched her two brother-in-law’s credentials which landed her in the arms of John Hay Whitney, known to friends and gossip pages as ‘Jock.’ Much like the Astors, Vanderbilts and Rockefellers, the Whitney family were icons of The Gilded Age. The Yale graduate was tall, athletic, fabulously rich and famous for his playboy reputation which did not deter Betsey who was attracted to Jock for his more intellectual interests.
Unlike his polo- playing peers, Jock was a scholar of fine art and a generous supporter of the performing arts. He was responsible for producing Gone With The Wind, the blockbuster movie which when adjusted for inflation is still the most successful film in box office history to this day. And by the time he met Betsey, Jock had already amassed an impressive collection of masterpieces by Monet, Cezanne, Degas, van Gogh and John Singer Sargent.
Different from other Cushing marriages, this relationship was bound by genuine love. Jock went on to become Ambassador to the United Kingdom under Eisenhower’s administration and Betsey bloomed in her role as hostess at the Winfield House in London. They stayed married until Jock’s death in 1982.
Mr. and Mrs. John Hay Whitney pictured immediately after their wedding that was held in Gogsie Cushing’s New York City apartment on March 1, 1942. The middle sister was enamored with the polo playing Yale graduate who eventually went on to become Ambassador to the United Kingdom
First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy entertained the newly appointed Special Committee for White House Paintings. Seated on the settee is Mrs. Kennedy and James W. Fosburgh, Minnie’s second husband. Standing behind Mrs. Kennedy in the burgundy dress is Minnie Fosburgh and her sister Babe Paley in a red cowl neck dress to the far right. Jacqueline Kennedy commissioned Fosburgh to paint a portrait of John F. Kennedy for her own collection which was famously featured on the November 5, 1965 cover of LIFE Magazine
Minnie’s matrimonial affair with Vincent Astor was rather doomed from the start; the two had very little in common and the 15 year age difference started to take its toll after 13 years together. It was rumored that their marriage had never been consummated and Minnie got bored with Vincent’s stodgy friends and old world interests. Likewise, Vincent never gelled with Minnie’s new cast of acquaintances, a veritable who’s who in the art and show business world: Noel Coward, Cole Porter, Salvador Dali, Fred Astaire, David Hockney, Princess Margaret and Rudolph Nureyev.
By 1953, the second Mrs. Astor had officially divorced herself from the respectable title. Minnie flourished in her new group of artsy friends which is how she became acquainted with her second husband, painter James Fosburgh. Fosburgh did not have ‘the pedigree’ that defined the Cushing sisters’ idea of a perfect partner, but he was prosperous in his own right. As a successful painter, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Frick Collection acquired much his work. He was also appointed by John F. Kennedy as Chairman of the Special Committee for White House Paintings under both President Kennedy. Fosburgh was tasked with expanding the White House collection of paintings to include landscapes, portraits, and still-lifes; within two years the Special Committee had acquired over 150 new pieces.
The trophy wife: Babe married her second husband, William Paley, Chairman of CBS in 1947. Paley carried on a series of extramarital affairs throughout their marriage; leaving Babe humiliated after her closest confident, Truman Capote revealed her secrets in his book, ‘Answered Prayers.’
By then, Gogsie had passed away which cleared the path for Minnie to ‘break’ tradition and marry for ‘love’, even in the most unconventional sense. It was well known that Fosburgh was a homosexual but like her first marriage to Vincent, Minnie was marrying for companionship. She saw his connections to the art world as an opportunity to host a salon of artistic, theatrical and academic celebrities. Eventually, Minnie’s soirees became one of the hottest tickets in town.
This family opera of society marriages and divorce was not prepared for the drama that fate had in store for Babe. Her star power grew as a socialite during her career at Vogue Magazine. She maintained her position on the best-dressed list 14 times before officially being inducted into the Fashion Hall of Fame in 1958. Babe was good copy for the magazines and designers loved to dress her while photographers loved to shoot her. This was by no means an accident, Babe cultivated this celebrity and American’s were insatiable for it.
In describing her affect, the designer Bill Blass said, “I never saw her not grab anyone’s attention, the hair, the makeup, the crispness. You were never conscious of what she was wearing, you noticed Babe and nothing else.’
It was only a matter of time before she caught the attention of Bill Paley, the broadcasting pioneer that built CBS. Paley was instantly smitten with Babe and he married ‘the ultimate trophy wife’ in 1947. Paley’s immense wealth provided them an unimaginably privileged lifestyle. A twenty room apartment on Fifth Avenue, a villa in Jamaica, a 7 acre property in Southampton. Babe was draped in Russian sable furs and dripping in multi-million dollar diamonds.
Babe’s closest friend was the literary darling, Truman Capote—she was the crown jewel in his group of close knit friends that included Lee Radziwill, C. Z. Guest, Gloria Guinness and Marella Agnelli. Capote called his gaggle of fabulously rich and glamorous women, the ‘swans.’
The swans of Fifth Avenue: Lee Radziwill, sister of Jacquline Kennedy and Truman Capote walk together in front of the iconic New York restaurant ‘The Colony.’ In 1962, Capote wrote in his journal: ‘My God: how jealous she is of Jackie!…I never knew!’
Babe Paley enjoys an elegant dinner with her husband and the notorious American socialite, Wallis Simpson. Simpson, twice divorced made headline news when she became the Duchess of Windsor through her marriage to King Edward VIII. Cogsie Cushing admitted to a gossip columnist that she expected her daughters to marry into the highest level of European nobility and was disappointed with Betsey and Babe’s first marriages to a Roosevelt and Mortimer. Pictured from left to right: Babe Paley, Bill Paley, Wallis Simpson and Milton Holden
In his journal Capote wrote, ‘Mrs. P had only one fault: she was perfect.’ Babe, likewise, adored Capote. The two were inseparable friends that lunched, dined, shopped, gossiped and vacationed together in various estates around the world from Guy de Rothschild’s estate in Normandy to Gianni Agnelli’s yacht in the Greek Isles.
However this friendship was effectively destroyed overnight after Capote published ‘La Cote Basque 1965’ in Esquire Magazine. The chapter was an installment to his forthcoming book, ‘Answered Prayers’ which essentially exposed Café Society’s most intimate secrets. He traded in his sacred relationships with the swans for material that dropped like an atomic bomb among the ladies who lunch. One of its most scandalous stories was a thinly-veiled, humiliating account of Bill Paley; who cheated on his wife despite her being ‘the most beautiful creature alive.’ Capote continued with its excruciating details revealed to him by Babe in confidence: that Babe walked in on her philandering husband washing the sheets after the woman (rumored to be Nelson Rockefeller’s wife) had menstruated on their marital bed. The story spread like wildfire up Park Avenue.
Babe never spoke to Truman Capote again. She stayed married to Bill until her death in 1978 from lung cancer. Her sister, Minnie Fosburgh passed away the same year and Betsey Whitney lived till 1998. Though the legacy of the Cushing sisters live on through the countless photographs and newspapers that chronicle their charm, beauty and a life well lived.