Decades before Kim Kardashian and Paris Hilton became famous for being rich girls with sex tapes, no class, and the height of 21st Century vulgarity – the original out-of-control Hollywood heiress-celebrity was Barbara Hutton. Hutton came from money on both sides of the family tree.
Her maternal grandfather was Frank W. Woolworth, founder of the eponymous Woolworth’s chain of retail stores. Her father was Franklyn Laws Hutton, co-founder of the massively successful New York investment bank E. F. Hutton. She was also the niece of General Foods cereal heiress Marjorie Merriweather Post, who made her first cousins with actress Dina Merrill, whose $5 billion net worth makes her the second richest celebrity in the world today, right behind George Lucas. But that’s beside the point. Long story short, Barbara Hutton was extremely rich.
Her fortune peaked at an inflation-adjusted $900 million, which makes it especially shocking that when Barbara died in 1979, she was a penniless seven-time divorcee. How on earth did that happen?
She blew the Woolworth’s Five and Dime billions on seven husbands, jewels galore, and endless travel. Babs was an expert at spending and makes today’s social media celeb jokes look like paupers.
Barbara Hutton On Honeymoon in 1954…
Babs charters TWA passenger plane – not some private jet. In today’s dollars, she spent $215,000 for a three-hour flight to Florida from New York.
Frank W. Woolworth was a colossus who started life in the backwoods but went on to build a worldwide business empire and a mighty New York skyscraper, the Woolworth Tower, to remind people how powerful he had become.
Paparazzi greeted Barbara Hutton upon her return to New York from England aboard the RMS Queen Elizabeth in 1949.
Woolworth worked every day of his 66 years, and when he died, he left the equivalent of two billion dollars in his will. His family blew it all.
It has taken the Woolworths company more than 100 years to reach its nemesis. But it took Frank Woolworth’s family a fraction of that time to ruin itself.
BABS ARRIVES IN AMERICA ABOARD CUNARD LINER …
Woolies may be best known for its pick ‘n’ mix, but the family was a byword for sex, drugs, and profligacy. They went from rags to riches and back to rags in three generations. Money, to the Woolworths, was a curse.
Unlike families such as the Rothschilds, they never learned how to deal with it. So they just spent it – and bought their own destruction in the process.
The sad irony of the demise of Woolworth’s stores is that they continued to exemplify all the virtues instilled by their founder – hard work, cheap goods, a little pleasure – while his family took off in the opposite direction.
In her later years, Barbara insisted she be carried around everywhere by two burly attendants. When asked why, she said, “Why walk when I can pay someone else to do it for me.”
They despised work and indulged themselves in consumerism and debauchery instead.
Hard-working: Frank W. Woolworth founded Woolworth’s Five & Dime Stores.
The main culprits were FW’s grandchildren, Barbara Hutton and Jimmy Donahue.
Hutton was the original ‘Poor Little Rich Girl’, the child of FW’s daughter, Edna.
Donahue, the fast-talking playboy who was to ruin the reputation of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, was the son of the old man’s daughter, Jessie.
Hutton, whose mother committed suicide – Barbara found the body – was just seven when she inherited today’s equivalent of a third of a billion dollars.
The counter assistants at Woolworth’s may have been toiling ten hours a day, but she would never have to work. Instead, Barbara Hutton went shopping.
As the richest girl in the world, she could have anything – so she went shopping for husbands. In the end, she had seven.
In her secret little world, Hutton repudiated her origins and longed to be high-born. It was no coincidence that of her husbands, two were princes, one was a count, one was a baron, and one had a title bought for him.
She detested being a plain old ‘Mrs’. Of her many husbands, the most famous was her third, Hollywood aristocrat Cary Grant – while they were together, wiseacres labeled them Cash ‘n’ Cary.
Grant got the call to the altar only because he was one of the world’s most famous actors then – and he was only too aware that his wife fantasized about being a real princess.
Their marriage barely lasted four years, and Grant gave an insight into his wife’s make-believe life as he departed:
“Barbara surrounded herself with a consortium of fawning parasites – European titles, broken-down Hollywood types, a maharajah or two, a sheik, the military, several English peers, and a few tennis bums. If one more phony earl had entered the house, I’d have suffocated.”
Nobody who met Barbara Hutton walked away the poorer – how she loved to spend her grandfather’s money.
And if people commented, so what? She spent the equivalent of £20 million on building a house in London’s Regent’s Park, now the U.S. Ambassador’s residence, and without a breath dished out half that on a suite of jewels once belonging to Napoleon.
She treated upmarket jewelers Cartier, Asprey, Van Cleef, and Arpels like other people treated her grandfather’s five-and-dime stores – she’d drop in and help herself to whatever took her fancy.
The richest girl in the world: Barbara Hutton inherited a fortune at the age of seven and regularly splashed out on expensive jewelry
Her flagrant disregard for propriety – her dictum was ‘If you’ve got it, flaunt it’ – caused her on one occasion to be reminded of where all that cash came from.
When Barbara declared: ‘Living well is the best revenge’, it hit the business hard – poor people were reluctant to spend their hard-earned pennies at a business that had such a gargoyle at its prow.
And the workers had to pay the price by working longer hours for pitiful wages. When American employees noisily threatened to strike in 1938, the executive board blamed Barbara for their troubles.
And weeks later, groups of unruly shopgirls were picketing the swanky Pierre Hotel in New York, where Barbara had a suite of rooms, shouting: ‘Barbara Hutton! Is 18 dollars a week too much?’ But she didn’t care.
As time passed, whatever tenuous link with reality she’d once had evaporated completely. Between husbands, Barbara had a string of affairs – among them with Howard Hughes, one of the world’s richest men, and with Porfirio Rubirosa, one of the world’s best-endowed.
She demanded sex, often, from the men she was with, yet remained strangely aloof from the process.
After the expenditure of much energy and ingenuity, one lover concluded she could not be satisfied.
And so one of the richest women in the world was also one of the unhappiest – and took to alcohol and drug abuse on a grand scale.
Blushin Babs – the bride … again: Barbara became the Countess Kurt Von Reventlow after she married Prince Mdivani – one of her seven husbands
With her cousin, Jimmy, she discovered in her teenage years the dubious delights of Seconal, a barbiturate-based drug that produced a damaging but lasting high.
It was to prove her downfall. But compared with Jimmy, Barbara was a mere innocent.
The son of Frank Woolworth’s second daughter, Jimmy, was born bad. Knowing he would never have to work, he devised a career for himself – mischief-making.
There were many pranks. But the best was taking the Duchess of Windsor to bed.
Jimmy first met the Duchess at the Palm Beach Palace Hotel, which he called home, in 1941.
He was 25, and she was 44. But it was probably Jimmy’s predatory mother, Jessie Donahue, who encouraged her son, nine years later, to make overtures to the Duchess.
Certainly, she paid for Jimmy’s first-class ticket on the RMS Queen Mary as it slipped away from New York on May 24, 1950, heading for France.
The couple started the journey as mere acquaintances but ended it as lovers. For the next four years, they were inseparable as the poor, aging Duke played the tormented cuckold.
Nobody else suspected because Jimmy – until this point – had been a hugely promiscuous homosexual.
He had tribes of gay lovers, most of whom refused to believe he could have a sexual relationship with a woman. But Jimmy did.
Duke And Duchess Of Windsor In France (1937)
By 1950, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor had been married for 13 years and had been lovers for 16.
But their relationship was largely one-way traffic, with the Duke gaining gratification from his hectoring and abusive wife while she refused sexual satisfaction.
But with Jimmy, everything changed. The Duchess, when in Paris, would go out with the Duke and Jimmy as a threesome – but the Duke, tiring now of long hours spent in nightclubs, would go home at midnight.
The Duchess and Jimmy would then repair to the black, satin-lined apartment of socialite Count Jean de Baglion, overlooking the River Seine, and her car would not return home until after dawn.
Noel Coward confided to Truman Capote over the Duchess’s affair with the homosexual Jimmy: “She is married to a King but is fucking a queen!”
The Duchess would go home and leave notes on her bedroom door: ‘Go away. Stay away. Don’t come in here.’
‘Born bad’: Jimmy Donahue with the Duchess of Windsor, nee Wallis Simpson, with whom it is alleged he had an affair
Meanwhile, the Duke, who only a few years earlier had given up throne, empire, riches, and power for ‘the woman I love’, was forced to sit out his wife’s menopausal fling with a gay playboy young enough to be her son.
One day, more of a joke than anything else, Jimmy proposed marriage to the Duchess. And she didn’t say no.
In America, where she hailed from, the name Woolworth meant much more than Windsor. What, apart from her reputation, was there to lose?
In the end, wiser counsels prevailed – and Jimmy was getting bored anyway. There was a row. Jimmy kicked her on the shin, drawing blood, and finally, the tiny Duke gathered up enough courage to shout: ‘We’ve had enough of you, Jimmy. Get out!’
Jimmy walked. It meant goodbye to a large slice of the high life for the Windsors. For during the affair, Woolworth money had bankrolled the couple – who caved into the onslaught of money, gifts, holidays, cars, foreign travel, and jewelry which Jimmy and his mother Jessie showered on them.
Woolworth money had brought the former King-Emperor to his lowest point – one night, and he’d even worn the diamond cufflinks Jimmy had given him as a present for bedding his wife.
Jimmy returned to the life he’d known before, queening it around the Fifth Avenue bars strictly reserved for New York’s upper crust gay set.
When asked about the Windsors, he would say: ‘Oh, them! Don’t you know I’ve abdicated?’
His life continued on a downward spiral of drink and drugs. Though it was never proved (because the police, in receipt of Woolworth kickbacks, had no desire to prove it), Jimmy almost certainly murdered his boyfriend, the unfortunately named ‘Lucky’ Morra, by force-feeding him drugs, and soon there seemed nothing left to live for.
When he died in 1966 of a drug overdose, Jimmy was found in his Fifth Avenue bedroom – which contained nothing but a bed and 13 framed photographs of the Duchess of Windsor.
His mother, when told the news of her son’s death, glimpsed the social oblivion that was soon to encompass her and uttered: ‘Oh! This is the worst thing that can happen to me!’
But what of Jimmy’s cousin, the Poor Little Rich Girl? Her biographer David Heymann recorded that by now, Barbara Hutton’s daily diet consisted of 20 bottles of Coca-Cola with spirits (usually vodka), intravenous megavitamin shots mixed with amphetamines, a soybean compound, cigarettes, and a cocktail of drugs, including codeine, Valium, and morphine.
Away with the fairies, she married a Vietnamese chemist working for a French oil company and bought him an Indo-Chinese princedom from the Laotian embassy in Rabat.
She went to her grave as Princess Raymond Doan Vinh Na Champassak, the wife of a nobody.
Like the stores that still bear their name today, the Woolworth family had truly lost their way.