It’s May 1979, and ex-socialite Barbara Hutton is living a reclusive life at the Beverley Wilshire Hotel in Los Angeles. Born into great riches, her life has been a rollercoaster of drugs, marriages and reckless spending. Now, she is almost bankrupt, forgotten by a world that once tracked her every move.
The story began in 1878, when Barbara’s entrepreneur grandfather Frank Winfield Woolworth opened his first “Five-and-Dime” store in Pennsylvania. With his affordable products and innovative approach to shopping, he soon had a hit on his hands. And by 1911 there were almost 600 Woolworth retailers around the country.
With Frank’s success came great fortune, and before long he had become one of America’s most wealthy men. However, his work commitments forced him to spend long periods of time away from his wife Jennie and their three young daughters, Helena, Jessie and Edna.
Frank himself had crawled his way up from the lower rungs of society. But he seemed determined that his children would enjoy a far higher status. And with his wealth, he sought out beneficial marriages for the girls. But although Helena and her husband enjoyed a relatively peaceful life, Jessie and Edna were not so lucky.
Jessie married a man named James Donahue, and the couple had a son, Jimmy. However, both men would die young, according to the Woolworth Museum. Meanwhile, Edna tied the knot with accountant Franklyn Laws Hutton, a confidant of her father. And in 1912 she gave birth to a daughter named Barbara.
However, Edna struggled with her relationship with Franklyn, who often slept around with other women. And with her husband away, Edna found her own distractions – leaving Barbara to be raised by a succession of governesses and nurses. Eventually, things came to a head when the five-year-old discovered her mother’s dead body.
Official reports claimed that Edna had died as the result of a bacterial infection. However, many believed that she had committed suicide, unable to cope with her husband’s behavior. Their daughter Barbara was then sent to live with Frank and Jennie in their palatial mansion in Long Island, New York.
By this time, Jennie was suffering from dementia and Frank had begun to succumb to the mental health problems that would plague his later life. Nevertheless, the entrepreneur doted on his young granddaughter. Sadly, he passed away in 1919, leaving Barbara to be ferried between relatives and private schools.
In 1924 Jennie died, leaving Barbara with a fortune worth more than $26 million at the time. Her father Franklyn then took full responsibility for her investments. In fact, by the time that she had turned 21, her inheritance had skyrocketed up to $46 million – more than $1 billion in today’s money.
Meanwhile, although Barbara’s net worth soared, her popularity took a nosedive. In 1930 the upper echelons of New York society had attended a ball to mark her 18th birthday. But at a cost of around $60,000, the event had infuriated those who were caught in the throes of the Great Depression. In the end, backlash against the party was so great that Barbara was packed off to Europe in order to escape it.
In 1933 Barbara married for the first time. Thus began a lifetime of turbulent relationships for the woman who was now one of the wealthiest in the world. Apparently, she had always loved nobility. And with her new husband, Prince Alexis Mdivani, she seemed perfectly placed to make her dreams come true.
A member of the Georgian royal family, Mdivani lived a very different existence to the businessmen with whom Barbara was acquainted. And at first, she seemed excited to enjoy life as a carefree princess. However, in 1935, the couple divorced. According to Barbara, her husband had been frivolous with her money, leaving her lonely and craving company.
But despite the difficulties of her first marriage, Barbara jumped straight into another. This time, she married Count Court Haugwitz Hardenberg Reventlow, a penniless man originally from Denmark. And once again, her fortune seemed to play an important role in the relationship. By the time they divorced in 1938, Barbara said she had handed some $3 million over to her second spouse.
In 1942 Barbara married again, this time to Hollywood actor Cary Grant. And for the first time she felt she’d found a man who was after more than her money. However, their relationship was still turbulent, and they separated twice before they finally divorced in 1945.
Pledging to never marry again, Barbara continued to spend her fortune. And in 1947 she broke her promise and wed for a fourth time. She married a Lithuanian prince called Igor Troubetzkoy. But the union lasted just four years. Reportedly, she referred to him as the “meanest man in the world,” and he allegedly requested $3 million as part of their divorce settlement.
But if Barbara’s colorful love life had earned her scorn in the national press, her next romantic entanglement sent the tabloids into overdrive. In 1953 she married Porfirio Rubirosa, a diplomat from the Dominican Republic with a reputation as a notorious womanizer. Divorced three times himself, he already had one marriage to an heiress, socialite Doris Duke, under his belt.
Barbara’s hectic lifestyle was now beginning to take its toll. Weighing just 110 pounds, she was nursing an addiction to drink and drugs. And by 1954 her fifth marriage had collapsed. Undaunted, she wed again in 1955, this time to German tennis star Gottfried Von Cramm. But it ended in divorce once more.
Finally, in 1964 Barbara embarked on her final marriage. Her seventh husband, Pierre Raymond Doan, was a Laotian artist. But apparently that wasn’t good enough for the troubled heiress. Instead, she forked out on an elaborate title for them both, and together they became Prince and Princess Doan Vinh Na Champassak – until they too split in 1966. He took $4 million in the divorce.
Sadly, it wasn’t just Barbara’s poor relationship choices that ate away at her fortune. She also spent wildly, bestowing generous financial gifts on friends and acquaintances. And towards the end of her life, her inheritance had depleted so much that she was forced to sell her possessions in order to survive. However, she continued to splurge what little she had on others.
Despite the opulence of Barbara’s younger days, she spent the last years of her life as a virtual recluse within the walls of California’s Beverly Wilshire Hotel. And in May 1979, she passed away from a heart attack, with only $3,500 left to her name. Ultimately, her generosity was her downfall. And today only her gifts, such as the London mansion that she donated to the United States government, remain.