I've spent half a century writing for radio and print (mostly print). I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.
Barbara Hutton was one of the wealthiest women in the world in her time and is proof that money can’t buy you happiness. Her grandfather started the F.W. Woolworth chain, and although having every possible advantage, Barbara’s life was one of sadness and self-destruction.
The Woolworth Fortune
Frank Winfield Woolworth (1852–1919) borrowed $300 and opened a store in Utica, New York in February 1879. The concept was that all goods were priced at five cents. The store failed, but by April of the same year, Woolworth had a successful Great Five Cent Store in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.
The F.W. Woolworth Company expanded to become one of the biggest retail chains in the world. At the time of his death in 1919, Frank Woolworth had a net worth of $76.5 million, that’s about $1.2 billion today.
Frank’s money went to his ailing wife, Jennie. In 1924, Jennie died and her estate was split three ways, with Barbara receiving about $28 million. She was only 12 at the time so the inheritance was put into a trust that was astutely managed by her father, Edward Francis Hutton.
By the time Barbara turned 21, her father had almost doubled the value of her holdings and got out of the stock market months before the crash of 1929.
When she reached the age of majority in 1933, she had a fortune of $50 million, just over $1 billion in today’s money.
Barbara Hutton’s Early Life
E.F. Hutton was a stellar money manager but a louse of a family man; he was a philandering boozer. His bed-hopping and drinking drove his wife, Edna, to an early grave. The death certificate said “Mastoiditis” (brain damage caused by an ear infection), but Hutton money ensured there was no autopsy.
The long-held belief is that Edna took her own life because she was distraught about her failed marriage. It’s reported that Barbara was the one that found her mother’s body.
Hutton shipped four-year-old Barbara off to live with relatives while he went back to what interested him most, making gigantic gobs of money and chasing women. Then, it was private school that involved little socializing with her peers and a lonely existence in a 26-room apartment.
At 18, as New York high society demanded, there was the debutante ball. People such as the Vanderbilts, Astors, and Rockefellers were there in all their haute couture finery. The bill for the shindig was $60,000, and it caused quite a stir as the Great Depression was starting to devastate ordinary families.
Barbara Hutton’s Marriages
Deprived of parental love as a child, Barbara confided to her diary “I long for a friend, somebody to understand me, an intimate with whom to share my innermost thoughts and terrors. Deep down I feel inadequate. I am ugly, fat, awkward. I am also dull . . . Nobody can ever love me. For my money but not for me . . . I will always be alone.”
The first opportunist to exploit Hutton’s desperate need for affection was Alexis Mdivani from Georgia (the country not the state). He styled himself a prince and he and Hutton married in 1933. Her dowry was $1 million and it didn’t take Mdivani long to burn through that on houses, jewellery, and polo ponies. By 1935, the couple was divorced and Mdivani was dead after crashing his Rolls-Royce at high speed in Spain.
Read More From Owlcation
Barbara wasted no time in re-marrying. Her second husband was Danish Count Kurt Haugwitz-Reventlow. He was an abusive brute who spent time in jail for assaulting his wife. That’s when Barbara started doing drugs. The marriage lasted until 1941 and produced a son, Lance.
Movie idol Cary Grant, who certainly didn’t need the money, became Barbara's third husband in 1942. The press, in a catty mood in its coverage of Hutton, dubbed the couple “Cash and Cary.” She also became known as “the poor little rich girl.”
Grant couldn’t put up with Hutton’s need to surround herself with fawning Europeans with titles, and left in 1945.
Prince Igor Troubetzkoy was next to marry the heiress in 1947. It’s clear by now that Hutton had become an extremely difficult person to live with. Prince Igor bailed out in 1951, and Hutton attempted suicide.
Dominican playboy and diplomat Porfirio Rubirosa was husband number five for all of 53 days. Bedroom issues caused the break-up. Rubirosa preferred the boudoir of Zsa Zsa Gabor for most of his seven-week marriage to Hutton. Despite his tom-catting around, Rubirosa scored big in the divorce settlement: millions of dollars, a plane, and a coffee plantation.
Baron Gottfried Von Cramm lasted from 1955 to 1959. He said he tried to get Hutton off her substance abuse. He failed and divorce followed.
Prince Pierre Doan was the seventh and last of Hutton’s spouses, and it ended in the now-familiar pattern. Less than two years after the wedding, the marriage was over in 1966.
Except for Cary Grant, Hutton’s exes all walked away with millions in settlements.
The news media never tired of covering Barbara Hutton, usually negatively. There was little understanding of, or sympathy for, her mental health issues. The attitude was that a person with her immense wealth and social standing had no right to be depressed.
It’s possible to speculate that her lavish spending was a coping mechanism for her melancholy. There were grand homes, very expensive jewellery, and exquisite pieces by Cartier and Fabergé. She made generous gifts to numerous charities.
But, her extravagance did not banish the blues and neither did the substance abuse; she frequently appeared drunk in public. In addition to the heavy drinking, she was using morphine and Valium.
Emotionally and physically she was falling apart and then, in 1972, he son was killed in a plane crash. She was devastated.
Her fortune was vanishing and she started to sell possessions to pay for her living expenses. She moved into the Beverley Wilshire Hotel, California where she died in May 1979 of a heart attack. She was 66 years old and a biographer said she had just $3,500 left in her chequing account.
- The Woolworth chain started to decline in the 1980s and closed down in July 1997. It re-emerged as a sporting goods-only retailer under the name Foot Locker.
- Marjorie Merriweather Post, heiress of the Post cereal fortune was Barbara Hutton’s aunt. Post owned a Florida mansion and Hutton often stayed there as a sanctuary from her bleak life. That estate is Mar-a-Lago.
- One of Hutton’s possessions was a string of pearls that had once belonged to Marie Antoinette.
- “Alexis Mdivani – ‘The Charming Prince’. ” Georgian Journal, Dec 11, 2014.
- “Barbara Hutton: The ‘Poor Little Rich Girl’ Who Had Everything Except Happiness.” Jerome London, Thought Catalog, August 12, 2019
- “Hutton, Barbara (1912–1979).” Encyclopedia.com, March 12, 2021.
- “Poor Little Rich Girl: The Life and Legend of Barbara Hutton Hardcover.” C. David Heymann, Random House, November 1, 1983.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2021 Rupert Taylor
Rupert Taylor (author) from Waterloo, Ontario, Canada on March 19, 2021:
Thanks Shauna. Wooley's was a favourite in my home town in England when I was a child. They had roasted peanuts that I loved, quite the exotic treat in the 1950s.
Some of the rascals in my school loved Wooley's because the goods were in open display making, so they said, shoplifting easy.
Shauna L Bowling from Central Florida on March 19, 2021:
Rupert, before this article I knew nothing about Barbara Hutton. It's a shame she was treated so poorly as a child and by the men she chose later in life. I'm sure it's that treatment that led to her mental and emotional instability.
Ugly and fat?! I think she's beautiful!
Woolworth's was my favorite store as a little girl. I didn't know that it later became Foot Locker. Wow!
I enjoyed this look into Barbara Hutton. Well, "enjoyed" isn't really the right word, given how unhappy she was for most of her life, but I think you know what I mean.
Another great write!
Ann Carr from SW England on March 16, 2021:
Poor woman! It all goes back to the parents, I suppose. Sad childhood with little love and what do you get? Such a sad tale and I feel so sorry for her. It's a shame Cary Grant couldn't manage to help her but it must have been hard.
She looked lovely when young, and gracious when old. Shame she couldn't believe in herself but then depression doesn't see the positives.
I had heard the name but knew hardly anything about her. I did love going to Woolworths as a child though! The lovely wooden flooring and all the counters laid out so that you could reach everything! To me, it was a treasure chest, especially with all the sweets (Saturday treat only!).
Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on March 16, 2021:
What a sad story! Despite the riches and many marriages, her life was anything but happy.
Rupert Taylor (author) from Waterloo, Ontario, Canada on March 16, 2021:
When I was young I recall Barbara Hutton being scorned because of her behaviour. Back then, there was little sympathy for those dealing with mental health issues. We have progressed somewhat, but there's still a long way to go.
John Hansen from Gondwana Land on March 15, 2021:
This is a good example of the saying "money can't buy happiness." I found this story sad but very interesting. I learn something new too...that Woolworths eventually became Foot Locker. Woolworths is one of the biggest retailers in Australia, however, I am quite sure there is no connection to the US Woolworth chain. We do have Foot Locker as well though.
EK Jadoon from Abbottabad Pakistan on March 15, 2021:
For me, that was a fascinating read, Taylor. I literally feel sad for Barbara. She lost much in life and her wealth couldn't help her.
She faced lack of love and protection since childhood. That left her in complex. I have read your article twice; I enjoyed it each time. Keep up the good work.