Socialites: A History

Clockwise from top left: Mrs. Harrison Williams; Barbara Hutton; Brenda Frazier; Porfirio and Doris.
What do I care, if Mrs. Harrison Williams
Is the best-dressed woman in town.
What do I care if Countess Barbara Hutton
Has a Rolls-Royce built for each gown.
Why should I get the vapors
When I read in the papers
That Mrs. Simpson dined behind the throne?
I’ve got a cute king of my own.

-- Cole Porter, “Ridin’ High”

The ladies Mr. Porter was writing about in his 1936 musical “Red, Hot and Blue” were actual Socialites of their day. In fact, they were the original socialites, those for whom the word was coined. Not necessarily Social Register-ites, because often they didn’t have the “right” background to have got in, but rich girls who lived fabled (and sometimes fast) lives.

Socialite columnists circa 1938, Lucius Beebe and Maury Paul (the first Cholly Knickerbocker)
Mrs Williams, Mona, later Mona, Countess Bismarck, was married to one of the world’s richest men, a utility magnate with a fortune before the ’29 Crash estimated at $700 million (or $70 billion in today’s currency). She and her husband lived in the house on 94th and Fifth built by Delano and Aldrich for Willard Straight and Dorothy Payne Whitney, and in Palm Beach and Bayville.

Barbara Hutton, known in the press and to the public as the “Poor Little Rich Girl” was the Woolworth heiress who in the late 1920s inherited about a half a billion (in today’s currency) when she was a child, and later owned houses all over the world (including Winfield House in London which is now the American Ambassador’s residence). Famous for her extravagance and multitude of husbands, she was an object of fascination and resentment by the public and the press.

But they were only two of the clamoring crowd who populated the social scene of those times. The term “socialite” was a code word, invented about 1928 by Briton Haddon, Henry Luce’s Yale classmate and partner in their invention Time magazine. The word meant rich, and maybe a little racy. It meant play not work in what was essentially a Puritanical society. They were ostensibly the “leisure class,” gentlemen of leisure, ladies of leisure. They were the babies of the last of the Victorians where people lived off the “fat of the land,” namely their land of banks and stocks and bonds.

Haddon was a wordsmith and the term was breezy and smart-alecky, reflecting the “who cares” economic euphoria America was swimming in in the late 1920s. The automotive age was in full swing; the country was getting out and about drinking bootleg liquor and bathtub gin. It was Prohibition in name (and law) only because people were boozing everywhere and flaunting it (breaking the law), and even killing themselves with it. In Manhattan, the flappers and the jazz babies, dressed to kill, were out on the town, hitting the speaks, celebrating the new freedom, dancing and drinking up a storm.

Debutante Mimi Baker and her mother Margaret Emerson
The socialites were the coolest (a word not yet in the vernacular) of the pack because they had nothing but time and money. They frequented first the speakeasies, and then after the Repeal of Prohibition, the clubs like the Stork and El Morocco. They dressed to the nines—the women in gowns and jewels and the men in white tie or black tie. They mingled with theatre people and movie stars who aped their style, adding dash and glamour to it. They were the “socialites.”

A good many of them were new rich, not listed in the Social Register, the social bible of the first half of the 20th century which would eliminate people from their pages because of their nightlife or their marriages and divorces. But the nouveau riche mainly imitated the manners, if not the mores of the Old Guard, except they flashed their wealth around more publicly.

A socialite was an American, or a South American; not European which still had and has its nobility, aspiring and authentic. They lived up on Park Avenue or on Fifth, or on the North Shore of Long Island. Or both. They did not live on Central Park West or the East Village (which was then called the Lower East Side), or, God knows, Park Slope. Which would explain why Elmo’s was on East 54th Street and the Stork on East 53rd.

The Stock Market Crash of 1929, followed by the Great Depression (and the lifting of Prohibition) did not affect their nightlife. Many of the most successful speakeasies became the watering holes of the elite and the term Café Society was born. Young women like Brenda Frazier and then little Gloria Vanderbilt came into the spotlight.
The Cushing Sisters and their family at the wedding of Bill and Babe Paley, July 1947, at Greentree, the Whitney estate in Manhasset. L. to r. rear: Mr. and Mrs. Henry Cushing, Minnie and Vincent Astor, Bill and Babe Paley, Jock and Betsey Whitney. Front row: Sarah Roosevelt, Tony Mortimer, Mrs. Harvey Cushing, Amanda Mortimer, and Kate Roosevelt.
There also were those girls from Boston, the Cushing Sisters whose father was not rich but was revered and esteemed by the public because he was America’s first neurosurgeon. Their real status, however, as socialites, was determined by their marriages (and affairs).

The middle sister Betsey married in 1930 to James Roosevelt whose father Franklin D. two years later became President of the United States. That marriage produced two daughters, a divorce and a second marriage to John Hay Whitney, one of America’s wealthiest men. The eldest Cushing daugher, Mary Benedict, known as Minnie, took up with real estate heir Vincent Astor, as his mistress (he was still married to his first wife, Helen Huntington), and they finally married in the early 40s. The youngest, and real beauty of the Cushing family, Barbara (known as Babe) married the blue-blooded Stanley Mortimer, who she later divorced and married for a second time to William Paley, the broadcasting tycoon (founder of CBS).

Like many young ambitious socially women who came after, the Cushings had a powerful mother whose aspirations, not unlike the typical stage mothers, influenced them to marry rich and marry up. Although these girls were already “socialites” by the terms of the day, like so many others, they aspired to, they quite naturally in time took on an air of old society. Manners reigned (at least in public).

The Second World War changed everything, creating a more dynamic and broader “society.” The country had finally come out of the Depression and wealth became more widely distributed. The mass popularity of radio brought Americans coast-to-coast together. The airplane shortened travel time and the “socialite” began to associate with the upperclasses in Europe and South America who were often charmed by the rich Americans. Women like Doris Duke and Barbara Hutton spread their wealth among men (they married) from distant shores, with their alliances lighting up headlines in the same way movie stars romances did. Hutton and Duke even married the same man (Porfirio Rubirosa), a Dominican “diplomat” who was famous for his astounding priapic prowess said to be beyond compare. Neither heiress remained married for very long to the Latin playboy, who in an earlier age of society would have been referred to frankly as a gigolo, but he departed with buckets of cash, cars, an airplane and all kinds of trinkets --  homage to his personal asset.
The wedding of Jacqueline Bouvier and John F. Kennedy in Newport, Rhode Island.
By the 1950s, many who had once been known as “socialites” (as opposed to “real” society) had become “real” society. And when the scion of a wealthy old family, like Woodward or Rockefeller (Winthrop) married blonde showgirls/actresses, their wives were immediatey embraced by their social peers.

The world had become a smaller, more democratic place and generally speaking “socialites” had become the new society. And so when William Woodward Jr., son of the founder of the Hanover Bank (later absorbed after several mergers into what is now called Citicorp) was shot to death by his former-showgirl wife in what was reported to be an accident and decades later revealed (through Truman Capote) to be cold-blooded murder, his social dowager mother, Elsie Woodward, took her murderous daughter-in-law under wing (“for the sake of the children”) as if to let bygones be bygones. Almost 25 years later, the widow Woodward committed suicide, to be followed eventually by both sons (death by leap) whose grandmother had tried to create a “normal” life for them.

By the 1960s and the rise of the Kennedys to national prominence and power, the term “socialite” became something of a relic. Heirs and heiresses, members of fine old families, tycoons and scoundrels all drank and danced (the “Twist” and the “Frug”) and occasionally  drugged under the same rooftops on the High Road or the Low. The President, while in office for what turned out to be a short time, was rumored to have had an affair with the sex symbol of her age, Marilyn Monroe while fathering children with his legal wife, the beautiful New York socialite Jacqueline Bouvier. And although it was passed over even by the well informed members of the press, it was well known amongst his “social” peers.  We had entered the Age of Excessive Behavior where mores fell by the wayside and manners were about to make a swift exit.
L. to r.: Duane Hampton; Cece Cord and Jamee Gregory; Cynthia Lufkin and Muffie Potter Aston; Gayfryd Steinberg; Susan Gutfreund.
By the end of the 60s, with advent of Women’s Liberation and the ubiquitous television screen witnessing the very public murders of both John Kennedy and his brother Bobby, as well as a real hero, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the  turbulence of Viet Nam in every day American life slammed into and obliterated “society” and Mrs. Astor’s 400 of the late 19th century New York. From it emerged the proletarianization of society in America.

It was the dawn of the artist/ bohemian/ hedonist as social arbiter in the person of an unprepossessing-looking former shoe illustrator, Andy Warhol. The artist, who was born the son of poor Polish immigrants in Pittsburgh in 1928, about the same time Brit Haddon coined the term “socialite” was becoming one of its most influential leaders.

Brooke Astor
Warhol was imbued with the American working class fascination with all things rich and powerful, including “socialites.” He created a mock society with a cast of characters delivered up from the psycho-bowels of American life, including a young woman from an authentic Old Society New England family, Edie Sedgwick. Sedgwick briefly symbolized the shedding of all things prim and proper that once defined the image of polite society as well as its socialite antecedents. She died young and of a drug overdose, shedding tragic darkness on notion of “socialite.” Viet Nam fostered a national scandal called Watergate, a President left office for the first time in American history, and Andy Warhol became a magazine publisher and contemporary artist of wealth and social position.

By the time of Warhol’s death by medical accident at age 39 in 1987, society and “socialite” had morphed into one conception – the ones with the money (or friends of the ones with the money). Tycoons and their beautiful wives (now known as “trophy wives”) became the arbiters, the socialites, as it were, women and men who re-created the sensibilities of society forty and fifty years hence. These wives, the new generation of the liberated, raced each other toward publicity and social prominence, competing in the corridors of fund-raising and fancy private entertainment. They were the rocket age version of the New York women of a century before – the Alva Vanderbilts and Lina Astors.

By the 1990s, however, positions secured, marriages coming undone, children growing up and leaving the gilded nests, it seemed as if the activist wife, woman of independent means, philanthropic, art-collecting individuals had forever shed the title “socialite.” And who cared, for it was irrelevant.

Aerin Lauder Zinterhofer and Lauren DuPont; Marina Rust Connor; Dayssi Olarte de Kanavos
Except for Brooke Astor, granddaughter-in-law of the Mrs. Astor of the 400. A woman of advancing age, who after a brief (six year) marriage to Vincent Astor, the grandson of the Mrs. Astor (and former husband of Minnie Cushing), having inherited his immense American Astor family fortune, became the prima philanthropist of the city.

Brooke Astor, a child of the Edwardian age, adapted to the new ways of the age of Liberations, adding to her presentation the style of society that preceded the age of the Socialite. With her philanthropy, she set an example of public conduct – the actions of a “lady” – that resurrected the defunct notion of society. Mrs. Astor’s activities, inspired and enlisted many men and women of her succeeding generation who now make up the world of philanthropy in New York today. These men and women raise hundreds of millions annually for all kinds of causes – cultural, educational, medical, civic – that provide the heart of life in the city.

Ironically, at the end of the “reign” of Mrs. Astor also came the emergence of a young teenager from a wealthy hotel-owning family, Paris Hilton who achieved world celebrity from the direct and exclusive result of her posing tirelessly before camera lenses recording  party times. This celebrity has earned millions in fees from entertainment and sales projects over the past decade.

Ms. Hilton’s footsteps in posing ways spawned an army young men and women by the SUV-load who have re-defined the term Briton Haddon coined eight decades ago in his telegraphic-styled reference to the rich and leisure class.

These young men and women of today -- mainly women – also, like their forebear Ms. Hilton have become omnipresent models for the camera lens, supplying the reams of social edit/copy/photo images.

They are now regarded, in the popular parlance of the media, as “socialites,” people who seek public attention in clubs and stores which cater to 21st century contemporary life. Unlike their predecessors, they seek not good times or fun times, so much as media/press attention that congratulates and “rewards” them with an endless stream of borrowed (or comped) clothing, shoes, accessories, free rides, free travel, parties and self-aggrandizement all competing for a temporary space in the consciousness of a benumbed public, a public whose sensibility and curiosity has been highjacked by polymorphous concept of the life of the rich and leisurely, cavorting with Kings and tooling around in Rolls-Royces.

Socialites all, everywhere.
L. to r.: Zani Gugelman; Birdie Bell, Coralie Charriol, and Olivia Palermo; Tinsley Mortimer; Marisa Brown; Fabiola Beracasa.

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