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10 Women Who Paved The Way For Modern Socialites
It has been said that Kim Kardashian’s phenomenal success as a professional famous person is a testament to the modern age and the erosion of our values as a society. She is rich, beautiful, and connected to famous people but doesn’t seem to have a skill to market aside from her skill at self-promotion. However, there is a long line of beautiful, oftentimes wealthy women who paved the way for Kim’s kind of fame, essentially becoming famous or even iconic not for any real contribution to society but for money, beauty, and those they wedded and bedded.
One could say that Kim and her predecessors are not so much products of any one era but examples of time and sexism standing still: Society still rewards women, sometimes against their will and sometimes fully complicit, for being the adored decorative object the public demands.
“Beautiful and damned” is how Yves Saint Laurent described Talitha and her husband, Paul Getty. Although Talitha dreamed of becoming an actress and had enrolled in the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, her fame revolved around her face and fortune. Tatler magazine bestowed on Talitha the title of “It Girl of 1965,” despite her having not really done anything aside from a few bit parts in films. However, she was described as “a total, complete transfixer of men” and a renowned beauty.
After meeting John Paul Getty Jr., the son of the richest man in the world, at a dinner party (thrown by none other than the infamous Reversal of Fortune Claus von Bulow), Talitha found herself as part of an “it” couple of the late 1960s. They married in 1966—she wore a velvet miniskirt and hood lined with mink, and he wore a psychedelic tie—and became friends with the most fabulous icons of the era like Mick Jagger, Marianne Faithful, and John Lennon. The Gettys’ fabulous, drug-fueled parties at their Marrakesh home were legendary. As the writer John Hopkins described: “Last night, Paul and Talitha Getty threw a New Year’s Eve party at their palace in the medina . . . I’ve never seen so many people out of control.”
High-profile magazines like Harper’s and Vogue breathlessly reported on Talitha’s life and clothes. She was simply famous for being rich and beautiful. Sadly, the lifestyle caught up with Talitha who died of a heroin overdose in her Roman penthouse apartment at the tragic age of 31.
9Brenda Diana Duff Frazier
In the 1930s–1940s, Brenda Frazier’s glamorous face was a regular sight despite the fact that she wasn’t an actress, model, or employed in any way. Brenda was the daughter of Frank Duff Frazier, whose family had cornered the western wheat market and had amassed a great fortune. Frank’s custody battle with Brenda’s mother was public, lengthy, and bitter; the judge noted, “Neither parent appears to have been in the past, nor appears to be now, any paragon of virtue in parenthood.” By the time she was a young woman, Brenda had been called the “Debutante of the Century.” According to The New Yorker, she had somehow obtained “the exalted position of glamour girl. She simply got there, and neither she nor anyone else knows exactly how.” In fact, American newspapers published 5,000 stories about Brenda in one six-month period, covering her life of shopping and Stork Club dinners.
Like Kris Jenner, Brenda’s mother bucked the norms of her social scene’s traditional shielding of children from the press by thrusting Brenda in front of cameras. Brenda was featured on the cover of Life magazine in 1938, and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. attended her debutante ball along with 2,000 other guests. Subsequent life was not kind to Brenda. Having been born and bred to be nothing more than a socialite, she became anorexic, bulimic, and addicted to pills. Looking back on her fame, Brenda saw that time period as confining and meaningless. Despite numerous suicide attempts, Brenda lived until 1982, dying of bone cancer at the age of 60.
8Baby Jane Holzer
In 1964, Andy Warhol asked the beautiful young Jane Holzer if she ever considered acting in movies. Jane, who had modeled as a teenager but had been living the traditional life, responded: “It beats the s—t out of shopping at Bloomingdales every day.” Meryl Streep she was not. As a partner to the originator of the idea behind “15 minutes of fame,” Warhol’s short film Screen Test featured Jane brushing her teeth for four and a half minutes (as seen in the video above).
Tom Wolfe wrote an essay about Jane entitled “The Girl of the Year,” describing her presence at a Rolling Stones concert as “some kind of queen bee for all flaming little buds everywhere.” Women’s Wear Daily reported on her comings and goings, while Diana Vreeland dubbed her “a blaze of golden glory” and featured her in Vogue. Jane seemed to represent the changes in society’s culture and the excitement of youth in the 1960s by turning her status as a rich girl upside down. She eventually drifted from the “Warhol Factory” world, leaving the “it” girl status for life as a leading art collector and real estate mogul.
7Marchesa Luisa Casati
Marchesa Luisa Casati rose to fame at age 15 when she became the youngest heiress in Italian society. At the turn of the 20th century, Marchesa was famous for being a rich eccentric—kohl-lined eyes, naked under a fur coat, with a necklace of live snakes—who threw extravagant parties. Her parties on the Grand Canal of Venice were reportedly the stuff of legend, with servants who “continually tossed handfuls of copper filings onto the flames, transforming them into blazes of vivid green.” She also once famously said, “I want to be a living work of art.”
She served as a muse to artists Augustus John, Boldini, and Kees van Dongen. Cecil Beaton and Man Ray photographed her. Jean Cocteau praised her beauty, calling her “heaven’s beautiful serpent.” By the Depression, she was $25 million in debt, having spent all of her vast wealth on the parties, beauty of all forms, and travel. Her last days were spent in London, casting spells on her enemies, journaling, and drinking gin. She died in 1957.
6Georgiana Cavendish, Duchess Of Devonshire
Georgiana Cavendish was an ancestor of Princess Diana Spencer and, despite living over 200 years apart, their lives are incredibly similar. Unlike the inspiration for this article, Kim Kardashian, Princess Di and Duchess of Devonshire certainly had reasons for being famous, as their titles suggest. However, like Kim, Georgiana was masterful in using her image and celebrity. According to the historian Amanda Foreman, Georgiana “literally couldn’t walk outside her house without being besieged.” Newspaper caricaturists—the paparazzi of her day—chronicled Georgiana’s every move in the tabloids. She was a fashion icon whose style was copied and coveted, including hair that defied gravity.
When her husband boldly asked his mistress, who was none other than Georgiana’s best friend, to live with the couple, the public was not only aware but sided with Georgiana. Even though Georgiana lived in a time when her role as a woman was to provide an heir, she used her position as a popular and beloved duchess to become the first woman to appear on political platforms. Despite not being able to vote, Georgiana campaigned and raised funds for the Whig Party, passionately and effectively, until the end of her life.
People outside of Los Angeles may not be familiar with her name, but within Hollywood, she is nothing short of a legend. Despite only having a few bit parts in films like Earth Girls Are Easy (video above), Angelyne rose to fame in the 1980s by leasing billboards in glamorous neighborhoods like the Sunset Strip and La Brea Avenue. The billboards featured nothing more than her visage, ample cleavage, name, and phone number. If one actually called, they were connected to Angelyne Management.
Her billboards have been featured in L.A. Story, Get Shorty, The Simpsons, Moonlighting, and other films and television shows. Magazines like People and National Geographic have featured her story. She tools around Los Angeles in a hot pink corvette with a vanity plate reading “Angelyne,” a rather genius move considering Los Angeles is a city based around the car and freeway. Her clothes are generally bright, pink, and tight. As Angelyne herself has said, “I am famous for doing nothing.”
4Pamela Des Barres
Pamela Des Barres, or Miss Pamela, is a name one immediately associates with the classic rock era, despite the fact that she wasn’t actually a famous musician, singer, or songwriter. Instead, she was something of a muse—a groupie, famous for partying and sleeping with the icons of the 1960s and 1970s rock including Jim Morrison, Keith Moon, Mick Jagger, Jimmy Page, and Frank Zappa. Considered the “queen” of the groupies, Pamela has become well known for—as she put it—the “notches on the handle of my love gun.”
As a teenager in the San Fernando Valley of Los Angeles, Pamela grew not only obsessed with the world of pop stars but was close enough to the heart of the industry to do something about it. Between the ages of 19–25, Pamela found herself entrenched in the rock scene of Los Angeles. Her love of music, artists, and the excitement to be had backstage led her into the life of a groupie but she found success because, in Pamela’s words, “we dared to have a blast.” Her relationships with some of the greatest artists of all time have not only led to fame but to a career as a writer, with five books to her name.
Evelyn was part of a love triangle that ended in murder, but how she got into that position is a story in and of itself. In the musical Ragtime—which dramatized a part of Evelyn’s life—feminist Emma Goldman points out that Evelyn used her body and sexuality to climb the ladder of the capitalist system.
Considered America’s first bona fide sex goddess, Evelyn came to New York in 1900 to model and became a sensation. She was discovered a year earlier in Philadelphia and was successful enough to become the sole breadwinner of her family; her mother fully lived off Evelyn’s earnings from modeling for painters, sculptors, magazine illustrators, and eventually, advertising.
Evelyn generated endless newspaper sales and publicity due to the juxtaposition of the “purity” of her overall look with a smile that implied forbidden knowledge. By the time she was 16, Evelyn’s celebrity earned her a spot as a chorus girl in a hit musical. It was because of this celebrity that she was able to meet Stanford White and Harry Thaw. White took advantage of her while she was drunk, she married Thaw, and Thaw murdered White in anger. The subsequent murder trial cemented Evelyn’s place in history.
Cornelia Guest has been called the original “celebutante” and “Debutante of the Decade.” As a teenager, she partied at Studio 54, Regine, and Xenon. When People magazine profiled her in 1982, they said “she serves as an ornament and excuse for glitterati parties.” The daughter of socialite C.Z. Guest (herself rather legendary for money and beauty) and Winston Guest (heir to the Phipps steel fortune and cousin of Winston Churchill), Cornelia grew up around talented luminaries like Truman Capote, Andy Warhol, and Halston. Cornelia also had the Duke and Duchess of Windsor as godparents. She bucked the tradition of high society and not only dropped out of school at 15 but moved to Hollywood where she dated Sylvester Stallone and was hired and fired on Falcon Crest. Despite her high-profile life, Cornelia eventually slowed down and now runs Cornelia Guest Events, a catering company that has Donna Karan and Estee Lauder as clients.
To some, Edie was just a rich girl who did a lot of drugs. Granted, she was rich. Born in Santa Barbara, Edie had a distinguished heritage, with a grandfather who had been Speaker of the House of Representatives and an aunt who had been painted by John Singer Sargent. Oil was discovered on her family’s land in the 1950s, which only added to their fortune. Extraordinarily beautiful, Edie dropped out of college in 1964 and moved into her grandmother’s East Side apartment. Soon, she established herself as a girl about town and befriended Andy Warhol, which officially made her an “it” girl.
She had a promoter, Chuck Wein, and Diana Vreeland put her on the pages of Vogue, calling her a “youthquaker.” Edie’s look—dark eyeliner, cropped bleached hair—was emulated everywhere and still is today. Life magazine said that her look was “doing more for black tights than anybody since Hamlet.” Edie’s romance with Bob Dylan reportedly inspired his songs “Just Like a Woman” and “Leopard Skin Pill Box Hat.” Throughout her life, Edie battled anorexia, mental illness, and a youth that left her unprepared for adulthood in any way. And yes, she did a lot of drugs. Too many, in fact, and her life was cut short at the age of 28 due to an overdose of pills and alcohol. Edie’s legacy of fame for simply being famous has been immortalized both on film and in print.
Kindree Cushing is a Jane of all trades who enjoys writing lists.