After I finished Melanie Benjamin’s The Swans of Fifth Avenue, I found myself down an internet rabbit hole. I started by looking for pictures of Babe Paley and friends, and ended up smack dab in the middle of images of the infamous Black and White Ball.
It became clear pretty quickly that I was going to have to read more about Babe and friends.
A quick google pointed me in the direction of David Grafton’s The Sisters: The Lives and Times of the Fabulous Cushing Sisters. This book covers the lives and loves of Minnie Astor Fosburgh, Betsey Roosevelt Whitney and of course, Babe Mortimer Paley. My library pulled it out of storage for me (this book was published in 1992, when Betsey was still alive!) which made me kind of feel like a historian and reminded me, again, of how much I love my awesome library.
(Also, 1992 does NOT feel that long ago but it IS!)
Minnie and Betsey aren’t mentioned that much in Benjamin’s book – it’s definitely more focused on Babe, the most famous of the three, her relationship with Truman Capote and his “Swans.” But Betsey and Minnie were interesting in their own right. At a time when marriage was a woman’s highest ambition, Betsey, Minnie and Babe managed to turn their upper “middle class” origin (their father was a pre-eminent neurosurgeon but whatever) into the kind of lives that most only dream of. Groomed from birth to marry well by their ambitious mother, each ended up marrying into the very highest echelons of American society.
I enjoyed this book, especially once we get to the Truman sections and learn all about how that all went down (honestly, Benjamin pretty well nails it in her book), but it still didn’t feel like the first story. It felt like Grafton himself was a fan, and was scared to dive too deep into the truth for fear of offending his subjects and their friends. For example, there are hints in Benjamin’s book that Babe’s first husband hit her but Grafton only mentions that after the war, Stanley Mortimer came back different and that he drank too much and was prone to dark moods. And then he just kind of fades into the background.
It’s also not a balanced biography. Obviously, one of the sisters was more famous than the others but, while Betsey’s early marriage to President Roosevelt’s son gets early play, Minnie, who married an Astor, barely gets any page time. Once Truman enters the scene, we rarely hear from the elder Cushing sisters. I would have also liked to read more about how the sisters interacted with each other.
Grafton also as a tendency to be repetitive. I was fairly certain that I was going to scream if I read about “top drawer” American society again. Same with “scions”, “upper echelons”, “society hostess Elsa Maxwell” etc. Again, you get the sense that Grafton is completely blinded by the wealth and prestige of his subject matter to want to paint anything but the most flattering portrait. And it’s really not all good – by all accounts, Babe was a neglectful mother, intent on her persona in society at the expense of time with her kids, Minnie married an “avowed” homosexual and potentially never consummated either of her marriages and Betsey’s relationship with her sisters was fraught, at best.
And yet, my interest has been piqued. I still want more. Someone tell me that J. Randy Taraborrelli is planning a biography of the Cushings! Or someone who is excellent at sister biographies: Mary S. Lovell? Julia P. Gelardi? Can I interest you in subject matter for a new book?