Barbara Hutton was known as the 'poor little rich girl'. At one time, Barbara was one of the wealthiest women in the world. She had a very unhappy life and went through two terrible tragedies. The cliche 'money does not buy happiness' certainly was true in her case.
In later years, Gloria Vanderbilt would also be given the same nickname. Both of these women had very traumatic childhoods. At the height of the Great Depression, the media and the public were fascinated with the young heiresses. In Barbara's case though, a lot of the attention she received was negative.
Some people manage to go from rags to riches, but Barbara's life was the opposite. She was born into wealth and inherited a fabulous fortune, but by the time she died, she was broke. She made many bad choices with her many marriages and in the handling of her finances.
Barbara Hutton's Early Years
Barbara was born in 1912. Her mother was Edna Woolworth and heiress to the Woolworth fortune. Barbara's father was Franklyn Hutton, one of the founders of the E. F. Hutton investment company. He was a wealthy man in his own right. She had no brothers or sisters.
At the age of five, Barbara's mother died. Young Barbara found her deceased mother, which undoubtedly had a profound effect. There was gossip at the time that suggested Edna's death was a suicide, although no one knows for sure, since an autopsy was not done. However, Edna apparently had been very depressed due to her husband's frequent extramarital affairs.
To make matters worse for the young girl, she was abandoned by her father. This was at a very impressionable age, and would affect Barbara's ability in later years to form relationships with others. She would have multiple marriages and affairs that never lasted long.
For several years Barbara went from home to home, living with various relatives. She was a cousin to actress Dina Merrill, who was a member of the C. W. Post family. They also amassed a fortune with Post cereal. Barbara spent some time living with this family and was trained by a governess.
She attended an all girl's school in Connecticut, and was said to be a very shy and lonely child. That really isn't surprising, considering the lack of parental love and guidance she missed through most of her childhood.
Her maternal grandmother died when she was about 12, leaving her sole heir to a fortune. The one thing her father did do for her was manage her money, and he did so brilliantly. By the time Barbara reached legal age and could take possession of the money, her father had almost doubled its worth.
At the age of 21, Barbara inherited $42 million, which is the equivalent of about $1 billion dollars today. Young Barbara was now one of the richest women in the world.
Barbara Hutton's Debutante Ball, Marriages, and Birth of Her Son
When Barbara turned 18, she was given a highly publicized debutante ball to introduce her to New York society. It was a very lavish affair, with a guest list that included the Rockefellers and Astors.
The total cost was $60,000, which would be over $800,000 today. This was in 1930, the start of the Great Depression. Many people were shocked and disgusted at the extravagant display of wealth. The press was no kinder to Barbara. In fact, she was sent out of the United States for some time until the furor died down.
In 1933, Barbara married for the first time. She would end up marrying seven times, with all of the unions being short lived. Her first husband was Alexis Mdivani, pictured here. Credit: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Barbara_Hutton_and_Prince_Alexis_Mdivani.jpg
This marriage would end in 1935. She wed her second husband, a Danish Count, the same year. While living in London in 1936, she gave birth to her only child, a son she named Lance.
Barbara was both mentally and physically abused in this relationship. One beating was so bad that she had to be hospitalized, and the Count was arrested. By this time, Barbara was regularly taking drugs and drinking excessively.
They divorced in 1938, and the next year Barbara returned to America. The battle for custody of young Lance would be an ugly one. She was successful and custody of Lance was granted to her. However, she allowed her son to be raised by a governess and attend private schools. Barbara was an aloof parent just as her father had been. Perhaps it was because it was all she knew. In any case, this would lead to an estrangement in later years between mother and son.
Newsreel of Barbara in 1934, returning from her honeymoon
Marriage to Cary Grant and Later Years
With two bad marriages behind her, Barbara moved to California. By this time she was regularly abusing prescription drugs and alcohol, and also developed anorexia.
World War 2 was then in the early stages. She decided to use her celebrity to sell war bonds. She received very favorable publicity for this. This was a welcome change from the negative press due to her tumultuous private life.
When she met Cary Grant, it seemed that life was going to be better for her. He was one of the most popular actors in Hollywood at the time, and did not need her name, and he did not want her money either. Credit: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Grant,_Cary_(Suspicion)_01.jpg
In fact, accounts from that time are that Cary was the one man who genuinely loved her. They married in 1942, and he became a substitute father to Lance. Although still a very young boy, Lance was already very troubled due to the lack of parenting and the abuse he had endured from his biological father. His childhood was almost mirroring his mother's.
Unfortunately, the union between Barbara and Cary would not last long. They divorced within three years. Grant did not want any financial settlement in the divorce, unlike her other former husbands.
Lance was kidnapped by his own father immediately after the divorce but he was later returned to the United States. Lance and Cary had a good relationship for the rest of Lance's life. He died in a plane crash in 1972.
Her son's death would prove to be too much to bear. She would marry four more times, with the shortest union lasting less than two months. Barbara married playboys and princes, and had many affairs, but never found lasting happiness with any of the men she was with.
How Could Barbara Squander Such A Large Fortune?
Barbara's grandfather, who founded the Woolworth department store chain, went from poverty to immense wealth, and wisely knew how to handle his fortune. However, Barbara lost the fortune she inherited. It took her several decades to do it, but she spent nearly all her money by the time she died.
Her life changed completely after her mother died, and she went from home to home. She experienced a terrible trauma by finding her mother's body, and it likely contributed to her inability to form meaningful relationships with others.
With the exception of Cary Grant, all her husbands married her for the Barbara Hutton name and the money that went with it. It's not surprising if she found it hard to trust anyone, but she didn't learn from her mistakes or the bad decisions she made.
Barbara bought mansions in London, California, Florida and Mexico. She later gave her English mansion to the US government, which is now the home of the American ambassador.
She had massive art and jewelry collections. However, Barbara didn't just spend lavishly on herself. She reportedly wrote large checks on impulse to friends and even strangers. Anyone who would pay any attention to her could be the recipient of a large sum of money.
Her judgement would have been further hindered by the drug and alcohol abuse that started at a young age and continued for the rest of her life. In later years, Barbara appeared in public intoxicated. The press never left her alone, and except for a brief respite when she sold war bonds, the attention she got was almost entirely negative.
There were allegations that she received bad financial advice, and that questionable investments were made, which cost her millions.
Her wealth had diminished by 1972, the year that her son died. She was inconsolable over his death. Not long after this, she had to liquidate some of her assets as her financial resources continued to dwindle. Credit: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Category:Mausoleum_of_Frank_Winfield_Woolworth
Barbara died suddenly in 1979. She was only 66. It was alleged that she only had a few thousand dollars left at the time of her death, but some people who personally knew her denied that this was true. One thing that is beyond dispute is that most of the money was gone.
Barbara Hutton was born into wealth, yet the happiness she wanted always seemed to allude her. She really was the 'poor little rich girl' in many ways.
She was interred in New York in a mausoleum belonging to the Woolworth family.