Hutton, Barbara (1912–1979)

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Hutton, Barbara (1912–1979)

American heiress. Name variations: (nickname) Bobbie Hutton. Born Barbara Woolworth Hutton on November 14, 1912, in New York City; died on May 11, 1979, in Los Angeles, California; daughter of Franklyn Hutton (a stockbroker) and Edna (Woolworth) Hutton; attended Miss Shinn's School for Girls, in Los Angeles, California; attended Santa Barbara School for Girls, Santa Barbara, California; graduated from Miss Porter's School for Girls, Farmington, Connecticut, 1929; married Prince Alexis Mdivani, on June 22, 1933 (divorced 1935); married Court Haugwitz-Reventlow, a count, in 1935 (divorced 1941); married Cary Grant (an actor), on July 8, 1942 (divorced 1945); married Prince Igor Troubetzkoy, on March 1, 1947 (divorced 1950); married Porfirio Rubirosa (a diplomat), on December 30, 1953 (divorced 1955); married Baron Gottfried von Cramm (a former German tennis ace), on November 8, 1955 (divorced 1960); married Raymond Doan (an artist), on April 7, 1964 (permanently separated 1971); children: (with Count Reventlow) one son, Lance Reventlow (d. 1973).

Given the facts of her formative years, it is hardly surprising that Barbara Hutton squandered one of America's greatest fortunes, along with her life. She was born in New York City in 1912, the only child of Franklyn Hutton, vice president and partner in his brother's investment firm, The E.F. Hutton Company, and Edna Woolworth Hutton , daughter of dime-store magnate Frank Woolworth. Barbara was raised for the most part by nurses and governesses. Her father, a successful broker and notorious philanderer, was scarcely around, and her mother, lonely and revengeful, was driven into her own affair with Bud Bouvier, youngest brother of John Vernon Bouvier, the father of Jacqueline Kennedy . In 1917, Edna Hutton was found dead in her bedroom, probably a suicide, though her death was attributed to a chronic ear disease. According to biographer C. David Heymann, it is widely believed that the family paid off city officials to avoid an investigation into Edna's death. Heymann also claims that despite press coverage that Edna's body was found by a maid, it was in truth discovered by five-year-old Barbara.

Following her mother's death, Hutton was sent to live in the 60-room Long Island mansion of her maternal grandparents, where she played on a velvet-backed rocking horse and dined formally—and in silence—in the enormous Georgian dining room. Hutton had little interaction with her grandmother, Jennie Creighton Woolworth , who suffered from premature senile-dementia and spent her days rocking back and forth in a white wicker rocking chair, under the supervision of a medical attendant. Her only family contact was with her grandfather, who called her "princess" and surrounded her with the trappings of royalty. "Woolly was always a little loony, but he was sweet to me," Hutton wrote about the once dynamic tycoon who at 64 was slipping into the paranoia and melancholy that would eventually overcome him. Hutton remained on Long Island until her grandfather's death in 1919, after which her father shuttled her from one relative to another. "She was a wistful, imaginative, lonely child with no family and few friends," said Harrie Hill Page, a longtime acquaintance. Page also recalled that Hutton both hated and feared her father whom she could never please. "He was a cruel and spiteful man. Brilliant in the brokerage business, I suppose, but he had no compassion for anyone, least of all his daughter."

In various private schools in California and New York, Hutton made few friends and spent much of her time alone, writing poetry that revealed her growing ambivalence over her wealth and privilege. "Why should some have all/And others be without,/Why should men pretend/And women have to doubt?" Poetry would continue to be an outlet for Hutton throughout her life. Two of her volumes were privately published: The Enchanted (1934) and The Wayfarer (1957). She further detailed her life in a series of notebooks, which Heymann found invaluable when writing his 1983 biography of her. "Insofar as it is possible to write the definitive biography of Barbara Hutton," he wrote in the foreword, "it can almost be said that she actually wrote her own."

By age 16, Hutton was living in her own 26-room apartment, decorated with Louis XIV furniture and overseen by a household staff. While outwardly living a fairy-tale existence, her notebooks of the period reveal her fragile self-image and disillusionment. "I long for a friend, somebody to understand me, an intimate with whom to share my innermost thoughts and terrors," she wrote. "Deep down I feel inadequate. I am ugly, fat, awkward. I am also dull…. Nobodycan ever love me. For my money but not for me…. I will always be alone." Years later, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. would say: "Barbara Hutton lived a fairy-tale existence, a second-rate fairy tale at that. She was like the Cincinnati shopgirl who goes to the movies for the first time, sees a distorted celluloid image of the world, then swallows it hook, line and sinker."

In 1930, following her graduation from the exclusive Miss Porter's School in Farmington, Connecticut, Hutton made her society debut, which included an endless round of parties and culminated in a lavish winter ball at the Ritz-Carlton, with four orchestras, 200 waiters, 2,000 bottles of champagne, 1,000 seven-course midnight suppers, and 1,000 breakfasts. Maurice Chevalier, dressed as Santa Claus, greeted arriving guests, each of whom received a pocket-sized jewelry case containing unmounted diamonds, emeralds, rubies, and sapphires. "It was the night Bobbie became Barbara Hutton—debutante, Glamour Queen, Playgirl of the Western World," remarked one guest.

Hutton's emergence into adulthood not only gave her access to a fortune estimated at well over $28 million, but also marked the beginning of her search for love, a quest that took her through numerous casual affairs, seven marriages and six divorces. Her last marriage would end in a permanent separation, orchestrated by her advisors to keep her from marrying again and risking any more of her fortune. Heymann likens Hutton's failed relationships to "an interlocking series of passion plays, with herself as heroine and the man (or hero) as the unattainable object of her desire. The play endured only as long as the hero remained just out of reach; the moment he capitulated, the moment he revealed his feelings, he was discarded and ultimately replaced."

Among Hutton's husbands were two princes, a count, a baron, an ambassador, an actor, and an artist, each of whom seemingly accepted her wealth as his own, spent it lavishly, and then demanded hefty divorce settlements. Hutton actually purchased a title for her seventh husband, artist Raymond Doan, who was afterwards known as Prince Raymond Doan Vinh Na Champassak. Her second husband, Court Haugwitz-Reventlow, a Danish count with whom she had her only child, was so concerned with Hutton's fortune that he convinced her to sign an "Oath of Renunciation," by which she relinquished her American citizenship, ostensibly to eliminate her tax burden and help preserve her fortune. Of true concern for Reventlow, however, was elimination of the two-thirds U.S. inheritance tax on Hutton's estate in the event of her death. The count subsequently engaged Hutton in a long post-divorce custody battle over their son, Lance Reventlow, who would enjoy a brief career as a race-car driver before his untimely death in a plane crash in 1972. Hutton's third husband was actor Cary Grant.

Her first husband, Alexis Mdivani, is credited with launching her unending battle with anorexia nervosa, although the disorder might have manifested itself even without his help. One doctor called it a cry for the attention she never had as a child. On their wedding night, Mdivani pronounced his bride, who at 5′4″ weighed a Rubenesque 148 pounds, too fat, prompting Hutton to embark on a crash diet consisting of nothing but black coffee. Maintaining this regimen for three weeks at a time, she dropped 40 pounds in a few months and established a pattern of fasting and bingeing that would continue throughout her life. While limiting her food intake, Hutton became addicted to cigarettes, alcohol, and barbiturates, often mixing the latter two with dire results. Later, during a bout with digestive disorders, she gave up alcohol and became addicted to Coca-Cola, which she consumed by the caseload.

Besides husbands, Hutton acquired a number of houses (including "Sumiya," a Japanese-style mansion in Cuernavaca, Mexico, and the palace of Sidi Hosni in Tangier), as well as an extraordinary collection of Chinese porcelain, jewelry, and artwork. She also traveled extensively, taking along a small army of help and upwards of 30 pieces of luggage. Although the public denounced Hutton's extravagant lifestyle, particularly during the Depression, it was seemingly fascinated with her comings and goings. The media dogged the heiress and frequently had fun at her expense. "Our felicitations and whatever else may be appropriate to Miss Barbara Hutton, who is spending nobody knows how many millions of American nickels and dimes collected from poor people in America in anticipation of her marriage to a foreigner whose name has slipped our mind," wrote the New York Daily News, shortly before Hutton wed Alexis Mdivani. By 1934, the year that RKO released the film The Richest Girl in the World, a comedy loosely based on Hutton's life, she described herself as "the most hated girl in America." Earlier, Hutton had also inspired two hit songs: "Poor Little Rich Girl," by Cole Porter, and "I Found a Million-Dollar Baby (in a Five and Ten Cent Store)," with lyrics by Billy Rose and Mort Dixon. Another crush of publicity surrounded Hutton's second marriage to Court Reventlow, which was announced barely 24 hours after her divorce from Mdivani in 1935. Will Rogers attempted to bring a more balanced view to the event. "Well, a big headline today says Barbara is marrying a count, or a duke or something, and we get all excited and start criticizing as though she was a ward of the people," he wrote in his syndicated column. "It's her money. It's her life. She must pay a tremendous lot of taxes to our government. She deserves some right. Her fortune was made from five- and ten-cent purchases, so nobody got stuck very much. So, if she wants to pick up where the United States Government left off and finance all Europe it's her own business."

Nothing approached the outrage voiced in 1938, when Hutton, at the urging of Reventlow, relinquished her American citizenship and sailed off to Europe. Her departure was viewed as a betrayal of the very country that had provided her fortune, and the heiress was vilified from coast to coast. Walter Winchell took to the airwaves, referring to her as "Society's most outrageous child," while The New York Times thought her "Despicable." Reaction to Hutton's renunciation also impacted Woolworth stores in New York. Within two days of her sailing, three stores in New York closed, and 36 others faced a similar plight. Angry employees, who used every opportunity to blame Hutton for their meager paychecks, even wired her at sea: "URGE THAT YOU ORDER MANAGEMENT TO CONCEDE A LIVING WAGE TO THOUSANDS NOW EXISTING ON STARVATION WAGES," read their plea. Hutton did not respond but soon afterwards hired a public relations firm to generate some positive publicity. They began by trumpeting some of Hutton's more magnanimous deeds, including her numerous large contributions to public and private charities. In truth, Hutton was frequently quite generous, although her philanthropy was haphazard. While living in Tangier, Morocco, for example, she donated money to dozens of charitable and philanthropic organizations in the area. She also established a soup kitchen to help feed the impoverished Rifians who arrived in Tangier in 1945 to escape a famine in their native region, and she funded a fellowship program for poor children at the American School there. Hutton also bought expensive gifts for her friends and personal staff, and often made gifts of her own belongings in spontaneous displays of gratitude. What she gave away, however, she soon replaced, collecting expensive art and jewelry as whim dictated. The last of her purchases was a 48-carat, pear-shaped diamond, one of the largest in the world, purchased in 1965 for $400,000.

As she grew older, Hutton began to lose her grasp on reality, much as her grandfather had. In 1968, she was living at Claridge's in London, where she spent most of the time in seclusion. Old friends Derry and Joan Moore , found her much changed. "She was very odd by now," said Derry. "In bed she wore all her pearls at once. She retreated into a strange fantasy world, the result of being completely isolated from normal human contact." As time went on, Hutton became more and more reliant on her staff and advisors, some of whom did not have her best interests at heart. Graham Mattison, her long-time lawyer, mismanaged her fortune to the point of depletion, while growing rich himself in the process. Hutton apparently foresaw this coming years before. "Lawyers are the dregs," she once told Cecil Beaton. "Unless you commit mayhem or manslaughter, you're better off without them. They'll only exhaust your money and your patience."

Hutton's final years were marked by the agonizing deterioration of her body and mind, her world reduced to a king-sized bed where she was catered to by nurses and doctors who did little but keep her in a continually drugged state. Among her most frequent visitors in her final years were her cousin, actress Dina Merrill , and Dina's husband, actor Cliff Robertson. Robertson recalled that each time they visited, Hutton was in bed, surrounded by half-empty glasses of Coke and books. "She was definitely alert but you could see her frailness. It was a sad thing," he wrote. "She had a sweet, lost quality, a sensitivity. She also had a strong and determined mind. She was surrounded by sycophants, by people on her payroll. Barbara was a virtual cocoon. She refused to get out of bed." The heiress endured in this state until her death on May 11, 1979, age 66. Only ten mourners attended a simple ceremony for Hutton at Woodlawn Memorial Ceremony, after which she was interred in the Woolworth family mausoleum.


Heymann, C. David. Poor Little Rich Girl: The Life and Legend of Barbara Hutton. Secaucus, NJ: Lyle Stuart, 1983.

suggested reading:

Jennings, Dean. Barbara Hutton: A Candid Biography. NY: Frederick Fell, 1968.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts