A Tragic Countdown Through the Life of America’s Poor Little Rich Girl, Barbara Hutton

A Tragic Countdown Through the Life of America’s Poor Little Rich Girl, Barbara Hutton

Trista - December 4, 2018

If she were alive today, Barbara Hutton would be worth about a billion dollars, receiving around $25 million from her grandfather after his death. While you might not recognize this name, Hutton was all over the papers during her lifetime. Then known as the “poor little rich girl,” Hutton’s life was anything but perfect. In fact, it was a life which seemed to be made for Hollywood, with storylines ranging from tragic deaths to addiction to rivalry.

A Tragic Countdown Through the Life of America’s Poor Little Rich Girl, Barbara Hutton
Portrait of Frank Winfield Woolworth, founder of the Woolworth chain. Bettmann/Getty Images/History.

16. Barbara Hutton Was An Heiress To The Woolworth Store Chain

Barbara Hutton was not like the average American as she never had to work a day in her life. Hutton’s grandfather was the founder of the favorite Woolworth retail stores. These stores, officially under the F.W. Woolworth Company, was a retail chain and one of the original pioneers of the five-and-dime stores. The Woolworth stores are also considered to be the most successful five-and-dime businesses in America and around the world. It was the Woolworth stores which set trends and created the modern retail model which stores continue to use today.

Frank Winfield Woolworth opened his first retail store called “Woolworth’s Great Five Cent Store” in Utica, New York, on February 22, 1878. While it initially looked like the store would be successful, it failed. So, after much research on how to improve and to search for a different location, F.W. Woolworth chose Lancaster, Pennsylvania, for his next store. This store opened its doors on July 18, 1879, and became the first successful Woolworth store in its long history.

Once the Lancaster five-and-dime store took off successfully, F.W. Woolworth brought on his brother, Charles, into this business. They then quickly went to work establishing more stores and developing one of the most successful retail chain stores in history. Soon hundreds of Woolworth five-and-dime stores were open all over the United States. In fact, by 1904, there were 120 stores in 21 states. Fast-forward to 1929 and the Woolworths had 2,250 stores between Great Britain and America. Over time, these stores began to close, and in 1997 the F.W. Woolworth Company became the Venator Group. This group was a clothing and shoe store. Then in 2001, the store chain became known as Foot Locker.

A Tragic Countdown Through the Life of America’s Poor Little Rich Girl, Barbara Hutton
Advertisement for Poor Little Rich Girl: The Barbara Hutton Story TV miniseries 1987. pinimg.

15. Barbara Hutton’s Life Was Turned Into A Movie Titled

It was not long after Barbara Hutton passed away in 1979 when writers Dennis Turner and C. David Heymann got together to write a script based on Hutton’s life. C. David Heymann had written a book titled, Poor Little Rich Girl: The Life and Legend of Barbara Hutton, which was published in 1983. This book chronicled Hutton’s life and was later turned into a miniseries which premiered on NBC. Poor Little Rich Girl: The Barbara Hutton Story was directed by Charles Jarrott and featured Farrah Fawcett as Hutton. It also stared Anne Frances, Nicholas Clay, and Bruce Davidson.

The whole miniseries was almost five hours long and ran in a series of six parts. The miniseries was advertised as the story of Hutton, the wealthiest woman in America who died nearly penniless. It chronicled her seven marriages, including to Cary Grant. It also focused on her addiction to drugs and many other pieces of her life. The miniseries was a hit and won several awards, including Golden Globe for Best Miniseries or Motion Picture Made for Television. It also won a Primetime Emmy for Outstanding Hairstyling for a Miniseries or a Special, Outstanding Costume Design for a Miniseries or a Special, and Outstanding Makeup for a Miniseries or a Special.

A Tragic Countdown Through the Life of America’s Poor Little Rich Girl, Barbara Hutton
Lance Reventlow. Blogspot.

14. Barbara Hutton’s Only Child Died At 36 Years Old

Even though Hutton was married seven times and had other relationships, she only gave birth to one child. Lance Reventlow was born on February 24, 1936, to Hutton and her second husband, Kurt. Like his mother, Lance was born into a wealthy and privileged class. In fact, on the day he was born, the world gave him the title of the richest baby in the world. Lance’s parents would divorce in 1938 and engage in a bitter custody battle. In the end, Lance would live with his mother. He then became mostly estranged from his father until close to Kurt’s death in 1969.

It was his mother’s fourth husband, Igor Troubetzkoy, who introduced a then 12-year-old Lance to car racing. Lance would immediately fall in love and later befriend James Dean. Lance was one of the last people to see Dean alive. It was in the mid-1950s when Lance started to race professionally. He would also marry twice in his short life. First, Lance married Jill St. John in 1960, but they divorced three years later. In 1964, he married Cheryl Holdridge. Tragedy would strike the family on July 24, 1972, when Lance was killed in a plane crash.

A Tragic Countdown Through the Life of America’s Poor Little Rich Girl, Barbara Hutton
Winfield Hall, F.W. Woolworth’s estate mansion in Glen Cove, New York. WordPress.

13. It Was Not Just Her Grandfather, F.W. Woolworth, Who Gave Her An Inheritance

Barbara Hutton was well-off from the day she was born. Of course, most of this was because of her grandfather, F.W. Woolworth, who was the founder of the large Woolworth store chain. When Woolworth passed away on April 8, 1919, he left his massive fortune to his mentally disabled wife. At the time, Woolworth was worth about $65 million, which is close to $900 billion today. When his wife, Jennie, passed away in 1924, she left everything to her daughters. However, because Edna, Hutton’s mother, passed away in 1917, Hutton was left with her mother’s share of the fortune.

From her grandmother, Hutton received $26.1 million. She also received an additional $2.1 million in stock, which was placed into a separate trust and handled by Hutton’s father, Franklyn. When Hutton turned 21 years old in 1933, she received an inheritance of $42 million. This amount would be about $1 billion in today’s value. On top of this, Hutton still had another $8 million added to her inheritance from her mother’s estate. Therefore, on her 21st birthday, Hutton became known as one of the wealthiest women in the world.

A Tragic Countdown Through the Life of America’s Poor Little Rich Girl, Barbara Hutton
Doris Duke circa 1920s. Duke University Library.

12. Just Like The Socialites Of Today, Barbara Hutton Had A Rivalry With Heiress Doris Duke

Doris Duke, born about ten days after Hutton, was a daughter to the tobacco King, James Buchanan Duke. When her father died, he reportedly left Doris with an estate worth up to $1.3 billion in today’s value. The majority of the wealth he left came from his “Lucky Strike” cigarette company. During the 1930s these cigarettes were the top-selling brand. With the two heiresses in the same social class, you would think they would have been best friends. Moreover, they were friendly with each other, at least while they were teenagers.

It could be stated that Doris received the best piece of advice between the two heiresses from her father. In 1925, when Doris was about 12 years old, her father passed away. While he was on his deathbed, he told his daughter never to trust anyone and left her with his full estate. You could say that Doris lived by these words while Hutton did not. It would be the ladies’ two ways of living which would add fuel to their rivalry. Because of her father’s dying words, Doris was very cautious and careful with her inheritance and the people she was around.

Barbara Hutton was not as cautious as Doris. Instead, Hutton was very free-spending with her inheritance. All of Hutton’s extravagant spending made her infamous in the newspapers. Hutton’s belief in free-range spending also caused her to call her rival “cheap.” On another occasion, Hutton was invited by Doris to stay at her mansion in Hawaii. While Hutton was a guest there, she decided to redecorate. Hutton bought all new Japanese furnishings and got rid of all of Doris’ Asian antiques and artwork. Upon Doris’ return, she kicked Hutton out.

Hutton was known to be the most beautiful one between the two socialites, and this made Doris very jealous of Hutton. The two would often compete with their looks and fashion, each wanting the top spot on the most beautiful and best-dressed lists. The two also married the same man, which did not help their rivalry. Doris married and divorced Dominican Playboy, Porfirio “RubiRubirosa within a year. The marriage ended after Doris attempted suicide. A few years later, Doris read that Hutton married Rubi and became furious, exclaiming that Hutton always wanted what she had.

A Tragic Countdown Through the Life of America’s Poor Little Rich Girl, Barbara Hutton
Mar-A-Lago Club. Maralagoclub.

11. During Part Of Her Childhood, Barbara Hutton Stayed At Mar-A-Lago

While this location is known as one of President Donald Trump’s private quarters, it was home to one of Hutton’s aunts, Marjorie Merriweather Post, who was then known as Mrs. E.F. Hutton. Post had spent years looking for the best location for her new home when she stumbled upon the land which Mar-A-Lago now sits. Construction for the estate took four years, and it was officially opened in January of 1927. The estate was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1972. Until her death in 1973, Post used the estate as a vacation spot for many notable people.

Many people would describe the Mar-A-Lago as one of Hutton’s best memories throughout it childhood. This place was one of the few places where Hutton was happy. It was Post who became horrified at how Hutton’s father and stepmother were treating her. Therefore, Post brought Hutton to live with her for a period. Hutton found her aunt to be very supportive and caring. It would be Post and her husband, Hutton’s Uncle Ned, who would pick up Hutton during her vacations from school, so she would not be left at the boarding school by herself during holidays.

A Tragic Countdown Through the Life of America’s Poor Little Rich Girl, Barbara Hutton
Barbara wearing what is thought to be queen Amelia of Portugal’s ruby necklace that Barbara had converted into a tiara. Meldimgxc.

10. Barbara Hutton Is Known To Have A Grand Jewelry Collection

While Hutton died with only a few thousand to her name, as her estate was counted for through her will, this was only when it came to cash. In fact, Hutton still had most of her jewelry with her when she passed away. Also, when Hutton had the money to purchase jewelry, she often bought the best and most expensive. She also purchased a lot of it. Hutton began collecting jewelry during her childhood. In fact, as a child, she was really into gemstones.

Of course, Hutton was not the only person who purchased jewelry for herself. Her husband’s, such as Cary Grant, her father, and friends were known to buy some of the best jewelry for Hutton. She designed much of Hutton’s jewelry. She was known to acquire jewels from other places, whether it was stores or stones from friends and ask someone to create the “perfect” necklace or crown for her. For instance, it is reported that Hutton acquired a chain from Queen Amelia of Portugal and asked someone to take the stones from the necklace and turn it into a tiara.

A Tragic Countdown Through the Life of America’s Poor Little Rich Girl, Barbara Hutton
Daniel Day-Lewis and Vicky Krieps in Phantom Thread in 2017. Variety.

9. Barbara Hutton Inspired The Character Barbara Rose From Phantom Thread

While Barbara Hutton has not seen much popularity in pop culture since her passing, other than a book and movie about her life, she has inspired characters in a film. One of these characters was named Barbara Rose and is from the 2017 movie Phantom Thread, which stars Daniel Day-Lewis and Vicky Krieps. In the movie, Barbara Rose is played by Harriet Sansom Harris. Other than the first name, there are actually quite a few tidbits in the movie Phantom Thread that follow Hutton’s real-life story.

For one, Barbara Rose is also known as an heiress and is considered to be one of fashion designer Reynold‘s best and most important customers. Another piece between the movie and Hutton’s life that is similar is the marriage to a playboy. Harris, the actress who plays Barbara Rose, did not note that Hutton’s experience inspired her character until the scene where Rose marries the playboy, who was inspired by Porfirio Runirosa.

A Tragic Countdown Through the Life of America’s Poor Little Rich Girl, Barbara Hutton
Farrah Fawcett stars in the title role of Poor Little Rich Girl: The Barbara Hutton Story as the famed Woolworth heiress 1987. AP Photo/CNN.

8. She Was The Poor Little Rich Girl

Hutton was born on November 14, 1912, in New York City. While she was born to an extremely wealthy family, she is known to be America’s firstpoor little rich girl” and much of this is because of her childhood. While this includes the death of her mother, it is mostly because of the life she lived after her mother’s passing. It did not take long for Hutton’s father, Franklin, to fall in love again and marry another woman, who has famously become known as Hutton’s wicked stepmother, Irene Curley Bodde.

Because neither her father nor stepmother paid much attention to her, Hutton was neglected and mostly cared for by nannies, governesses, and relatives. Her governess, who was called Tiki, requested bodyguards for Hutton’s own protection. While she was still young, she went to live with her father’s sister for a while. She also stayed with other relatives, such as Marjorie Merriweather Post Hutton, who married Franklin’s brother, Edward. Because Hutton was sent to live with different relatives, she moved around often as a young child.

Around the age of 12, Hutton’s father and stepmother began sending her to a boarding school. However, even living with some children her own age, Hutton continued to isolate herself from others. Most of the other students picked on Hutton because her father and stepmother were so neglectful. In fact, Hutton spent many holidays alone in the schools because no one came to pick her up to take her home, even during Christmas.

A Tragic Countdown Through the Life of America’s Poor Little Rich Girl, Barbara Hutton
Woolworth Mausoleum, New York. Mausoleums.

7. The End Of Her Life Was Just As Sad As The Beginning

Unfortunately, it seems that Barbara Hutton was never able to escape the sadness and tragedy of her life. While Hutton did have happy moments and times, the last few years of her journey were filled with tragedy, struggles, and illness. Of course, one of the toughest times of Hutton’s life happened when her only child, Lance, passed away in a plane accident in 1972. Like most parents who have faced such a devastating loss, Hutton never got over the loss of her son. Those who were closest to her state that Hutton began to lose interest in living once she heard the news that her son has passed.

From that point, Hutton’s health began to deteriorate. Not only did Hutton struggle with walking due to breaking her hip and refused medical care immediately after the injury, but she also started to go blind. Many people speculate that this was another reason Hutton requested to be carried or pushed around in a wheelchair when she was out and about, she did not want people to know she was going blind. Two weeks before Hutton passed away, she was discharged from the hospital, where she was receiving treatment for pneumonia. Whether this illness was a factor in the heart attack that took Hutton’s life on May 11, 1979, at the age of 66 is unknown.

A Tragic Countdown Through the Life of America’s Poor Little Rich Girl, Barbara Hutton
Edna Woolworth Hutton. Davis E. McCollum/findagrave.

6. Barbara Hutton Found Her Dead Mother’s Body When She Was A Young Child

Whenever people would ask Hutton about her mother, she would barely respond. In fact, all Hutton would typically say was her mother passed away when she was a young girl. Whether people knew the full story of her mother’s passing during Hutton’s lifetime remains to be unknown. However, today, we know the death of Barbara Hutton’s mother, Edna Woolworth Hutton, was very tragic; especially for young Hutton. Edna, who was married to Hutton’s father, Franklin Laws Hutton, suddenly passed away when Hutton was only four years old.

The tragedy occurred on May 2, 1917. Edna Hutton, who was 33 years old, was found dead by her four-year-old daughter. The reports said she died from mastoiditis, which is an infection that goes into the air cells of the skull behind the ear. Basically, everyone believed she died from suffocating. Therefore, the coroner decided against doing an autopsy. However, today, it is thought that Edna killed herself. The belief is she found out her husband was unfaithful, so she decided to poison herself, leaving her daughter to discover her body in the Plaza Hotel suite.

A Tragic Countdown Through the Life of America’s Poor Little Rich Girl, Barbara Hutton
Barbara Hutton in her Tangier’s Palace. Yabiladi/Ph. DR.

5. Because She Never Sought Treatment For An Injury, She Had To Be Carried Around

Hutton had many physical and psychological problems throughout her life and sought treatment regularly. In fact, Hutton missed her son Lance’s second marriage due to an illness; there was one situation where Hutton should have found therapy from a doctor but refused. This situation happened when she was in Rome. The year was 1971 and Hutton, who was almost 60 years of age, was walking when she tripped over some carpet, fell, and broke her hip. While it is reported that she did see a doctor eventually, she delayed treatment for a period of time.

No one knows why Hutton did not seek the treatment of a doctor immediately after falling and breaking her hip, especially when she seemed to seek treatment for many other injuries and illnesses. Whatever the reason, this choice left Hutton with extreme pain and many complications with her hip until the end of her life. These complications were said to make walking too painful and challenging for Hutton that she had to be carried around for the rest of her life, at least if she was not in a wheelchair.

A Tragic Countdown Through the Life of America’s Poor Little Rich Girl, Barbara Hutton
Cary Grant and Barbara Hutton after their wedding in Lake Arrowhead, California. Lavanguardia.

4. She Was Married A Total Of Seven Times

Hutton had a favorite saying that money did not buy happiness. If you look at Hutton’s seven marriages, you might believe her. On the outside, Hutton looked like she had it all. However, on the inside, her life was filled with psychological problems and abuse. She first got married in 1933 to Alexis Mdivani, who claimed to be a prince from Georgia. Hutton was practically forced to marry Alexis because his brother threatened Hutton with negative publicity if she refused. After Alexis spent the $1 million dowry and more millions of Hutton’s inheritance, the couple divorced in 1935.

Kurt Haugwitz-Reventlow was Hutton’s second husband and father of her only child, Lance. They married in 1935 and Kurt quickly dominated the relationship through his physical abuse, which eventually sent Hutton to the hospital. The two divorced in 1938. In 1942, Hutton married actor Cary Grant. The two genuinely seemed to care for each other, but due to Hutton’s psychological issues, they divorced three years later. In 1948, Hutton married Igor Troubetzkoy in Switzerland. However, in 1951, he filed for divorce.

Hutton’s fifth marriage was to Porfiri “Rubi” Rubirosa. This marriage only lasted for about 53 days, from December 30, 1953, to February 20, 1954. In 1955, Hutton married friend and German tennis player, Baron Gottfried Von Cramm. The two would end up divorcing about four years later, in 1959. Finally, Hutton married Pierre Raymond Doan in 1964. However, in 1966, the couple would divorce. This last union would be Hutton’s seventh and final marriage (and divorce). However, this does not mean Hutton did not have relationships after.

A Tragic Countdown Through the Life of America’s Poor Little Rich Girl, Barbara Hutton
Barbara Hutton. Fanpop.

3. Her “Coming Out” Ball Cause A National Scandal During The Great Depression

While debutante balls still exist, they are not nearly as popular today as they were during Hutton’s lifetime. In fact, during Hutton’s time, if your parents had money you had to be a part of the debutante ball. This concept was known as your official arrival into society. These balls were extraordinarily fashionable and extravagant. Usually, the parents had no spending limits on what their daughter’s debutante ball cost because they wanted to show off their wealth and let others know their child was no on the marriage market.

Nearly everything Hutton did for and during her debutante ball was normal for her social standing. The party’s price tag was around $80,000, and she had all the best. Like most socialites, Hutton was 18 years old, but the timing was miserable because it was at the beginning of the Great Depression. Newspapers were quick to pick up on Hutton’s ball and what it cost. They reported it, and not many people were pleased about the cost. People all over America stated that this money could have gone somewhere else to help the current situation the country faced. The coverage became so horrifying for Hutton that she was sent to Europe so that she could escape it.

A Tragic Countdown Through the Life of America’s Poor Little Rich Girl, Barbara Hutton

Barbara Hutton wearing the Romanov emerald tiara (once belonged to Grand Duchess Vladimr) and the Pasha diamond. Cecil Beaton/Alchetron.

2. Barbara Hutton Struggled With Anorexia and Addiction

Starting in her childhood, Barbara Hutton lived up to her “Poor Little Rich Girl” title whether she wanted to or not. This title started around the time she was four years old and found her mother’s dead body in their suite. The title continued as Hutton dealt the emotional abuse from the neglect of her parents and stepmother throughout her childhood. While some, including Hutton, may have hoped she would have found better days as an adult, this did not occur as many would have wished. Because of all the difficulties of her life, Hutton turned to drugs and alcohol.

It is believed that her addiction and eating disorder, which was anorexia, began with her second marriage to Kurt. Many people think Hutton started to turn to drugs and alcohol to try to numb herself from the physical abuse at the hands of her second husband. It was also in her early adulthood when Hutton began struggling with her physical appearance and became anorexic. During her third marriage to Grant, he started to feel that Hutton was a hypochondriac and didn’t need the surgeries or have all the illnesses she claimed to have.

A Tragic Countdown Through the Life of America’s Poor Little Rich Girl, Barbara Hutton

Barbara Hutton carried off a plane in London, 1971. Getty Images/townandcountrymag.

1. Barbara Hutton Went From One of the Wealthiest Women In the World to Nearly Penniless

One of the biggest challenges people of a higher-class status have is trying to teach their children how to handle money. This problem was one problem Hutton’s family members had with her. So it seemed like no matter how hard they tried to control Hutton’s spending, they would come out empty-handed. From a young age, Hutton enjoyed shopping and spending money. However, this is not to say that Hutton was selfish with her spending. In fact, Hutton was known to be very generous with her money. Some might say she was generous to a fault.

While Hutton was known to help support and buy lavish gifts for her friends, it was mostly her many husbands, except for Cary Grant was her most expensive taste. While she was known to spend millions of dollars on her mansion, her husbands often did the same. Then, of course, there were the best and expensive cars and jewelry. There were also numerous divorces, with six of her seven husbands leaving with some type of settlement. Her first husband cost her about $2 million while her second husband $1.5 million and her fifth about $2.5 million. When Hutton died at 66 years old in 1979 from a heart attack, she had only $3,500.


Where did we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“Company News: Venator, once Woolworth, is now Foot Locker.” Bloomberg News, The New York Times. November 2001.

“F.W. Woolworth Company.” Wikipedia

“Barbara Hutton.” Wikipedia

“The Strange, True Story Behind One Of The Saddest ‘Phantom Thread’ Characters.” Dan Callahan, Nylon. January 2018.

“James Buchanan Duke” Wikipedia.

“Stories from the Fall of the World’s First ‘Poor Little Rich Girl,’ Barbara Hutton.” Kathy Benjamin, Ranker.

“Jane Bowles, Libby Holman Reynolds, and Barbara Hutton.” Paul Bowles, paulbowles.org.

“Poor Little Rich Girl: The Barbara Hutton Story (1987).” IMDB.

“Barbara Hutton: The Iconic Jewelry Collector.” Alexandra Rhodes, Sotheby’s. April 2014.

Wide Open Eats – What Happened To All the Woolworths?

The Guardian – Woolworths: The Rise And Fall Of The Department Store Empire

The Palm Beach Post – Building Mar-A-Lago: Marjorie Merriweather Post’s Palm Beach Showplace

The Court Jeweler – Queen Maria II’s Sapphire And Diamond Tiara

Ranker – “Poor Little Rich Girl,” Barbara Hutton

Factinate – Heartbreaking Facts About Doris Duke, The Ill-Fated Heiress

Factinate – Extravagant Facts About Barbara Hutton, “The Poor Little Rich Girl”