Barbara Hutton might not be a name that rings many bells today, but in her time she was notorious. She was the Woolworth heiress whom the press dubbed “poor little rich girl.” She was one of the richest women in the world, with a fortune of almost a billion dollars in today’s money. Hutton was also never out of the papers, with gossip columnists following her every move.
Her life had all the fodder for a Lifetime movie: a rivalry with another heiress, more than one tragic death, and a devastating riches to rags life trajectory. Hutton once said, “Money alone can't bring you happiness, but money alone has not brought me unhappiness.” But when you read about her life you have to wonder if that was really true. She might have been a lot happier without all that cash weighing her down. Learn all about the poor little rich girl, and decide for yourself whether or not money can solve all of your problems.
Barbara Hutton never had to work a day in her life, thanks to being born an heiress to one of the world’s largest fortunes. Her grandfather on her mother’s side was Frank W. Woolworth, who founded the famous Woolworth chain of stores. He started from nothing, but through sheer hard work, determination, and a savvy business sense, he became a colossus of the business world, and erected his own skyscraper in New York City to cement his legacy.
Frank W. Woolworth began Woolworths, a five-and-dime store that turned into a department store empire. Barbara inherited $25 million from her grandfather.
Saying her mother died when she was young does not even start to explain the scarring experience Barbara went through. Hutton was only four when her mother died. Originally, all the newspapers said it was the result of an ear infection, but the more probable reality was much worse.
Her mother had killed herself. Allegedly, she had found a letter from her husband to his mistress, and in her anguish, she took poison and died. What we know for sure is that the young Barbara was the one who found her mother’s body in her suite in the Plaza Hotel.
While more than one heiress has been labeled a “Poor Little Rich Girl,” Barbara Hutton was the first. The term was the perfect phrase to describe her messed-up childhood. After her mother's death, her father remarried a woman who can best be described as a wicked step-mother. Both of them were cold to Barbara and effectively ignored her. She was mostly raised by nannies and governesses until she was 12, when they sent her packing to boarding school.
School didn’t improve her life, either. She didn’t have many friends, and her father and step-mother cared about her so little they left her there over school holidays, even Christmas vacation.
However, the "poor little rich girl" moniker also had a sharp side – it was glibly used to describe the expensive debutante ball that Hutton through in the middle of the Great Depression.
While debutante balls do still exist, back in the day they were a huge deal. If your parents had money, you absolutely had to attend a ball as your official entrance into society. You got to show off things you had been learning your whole life, like your perfect posture and manners and dancing skills. But most importantly, it let everyone know that you were rolling in it and were now on the marriage market.
Barbara debuted when she was 18, which was normal. What was not so normal was that she threw this huge party at the start of the Great Depression, when people could think of quite a few things for which the money would be better suited. She didn't just spend a good amount of money on the party; she spent a BOATLOAD of money. The average ball at the time cost $16,000 or about $200,000 in today’s money. But Barbara’s cost $60,000 or almost a whopping $1 million today. For one party.
It became a scandal with horrible coverage in the newspapers, and Barbara was sent to Europe to get away from the bad press.