All That Glitters: The Troubled Lives of Famous Heiresses

Take a closer look at several women whose apparently charmed lives proved the point that money can’t buy happiness.
Publish date:

Babe Paley, the socialite wife of CBS founder William S. Paley, reportedly once said, “A woman can never be too rich or too thin.” However, many of her fellow glamour queens might have added that those riches don’t necessarily guarantee contentment. Heiresses may even share a unique kind of adversity. Read on for a list of seven “golden girls” who inherited their share of troubles along with their fortunes.

Consuelo Vanderbilt

Consuelo Vanderbilt Photo

Consuelo Vanderbilt, the great-granddaughter of shipping and railroad tycoon Cornelius Vanderbilt. (Photo: USA Library of Congress Bain collection [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

When Consuelo Vanderbilt was born in New York in 1877, she joined one of the most famous—and wealthiest—families in America. Her great-grandfather, Cornelius Vanderbilt, had made a multi-million fortune in shipping and railroads and passed it down to his descendants. Thanks to the planning of her ambitious mother, Alva Smith Vanderbilt, Consuelo wed England’s 9th Duke of Marlborough in one of the highest-profile weddings of the Gilded Age. The combination of the Duke’s title and estate with Consuelo’s beauty and riches seemed like a fairy tale in 1895; however, it was a loveless marriage that felt to Consuelo like a kind of imprisonment. She separated from Marlborough in 1906 and divorced him in 1921. She later had a second, happier marriage to the textile manufacturing heir and war hero Jacques Balsan. She published a memoir of her trials and triumphs, titled The Glitter and The Gold, in 1953.

Nancy Cunard

Nancy Cunard Photo

Nancy Cunard, heiress to the Cunard shipping fortune. (Photo: Man Ray/Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Nancy Cunard (born 1896) was the only child of an American socialite mother and a British baronet father, as well as the heiress to the Cunard shipping fortune and transatlantic ocean-liner business. She became one of the most stylish bohemians of the 1920s: she set fashion trends and she inspired writers like T.S. Eliot and Pablo Neruda and artists like Constantin Brancusi with her wit and glamour. She also had serious interests as a journalist, publisher, and political activist: she took part in humanitarian aid during the Spanish Civil War of the 1930s and was highly supportive of African-American causes. “I’ve always had the feeling,” she said, “that everyone alive can [do] something that is worthwhile.” However, she was plagued by inner demons, and excessive drinking and erratic behavior led to her eventual institutionalization. She died in Paris in 1965.

Barbara Hutton

Barbara Hutton Photo

Barbara Hutton, the granddaughter of Frank W. Woolworth, the founder of the Woolworth “five and dime” stores.

Barbara Hutton’s family was literally a household word: she was the granddaughter of Frank W. Woolworth, the self-made founder of the worldwide chain of Woolworth “five and dime” stores. Her mother died in 1917, when Hutton was just four years old. Hutton inherited millions of dollars in trust, leading newspapers to nickname her a “poor little rich girl.” She received even more when turned 18, and she embarked on a lavish lifestyle and seven successive marriages; her husbands included aristocrats, athletes and film icon Cary Grant. Hutton reportedly lived by the motto “If you’ve got it, flaunt it,” and she was infamous for her excessive spending, including her purchases of precious jewels. However, she also struggled with alcohol and drug addiction, eating disorders and abusive relationships, and she was grief-stricken by the death of her only son in a plane crash in 1972. She lived her final years in Los Angeles and died from a heart attack in 1979, at the age of 66, leaving behind very little money.

Doris Duke

Doris Duke Photo

Doris Duke, the tobacco heiress who was known as one of the richest girls in America. (Photo: Doris Duke Charitable Foundation)

When Doris Duke was growing up in an elegant mansion on Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue, she was known as one of the richest girls in America. Her father, James Buchanan Duke, was president of the American Tobacco Company. When he died in 1925, 12-year-old Doris inherited his fortune. As an adult she moved between homes in Rhode Island, Hawaii and California as well as New York. She was often wary of other people’s motives: as she said in 1945, ”All that money is a problem sometimes. . . .After I've gone out with a man a few times, he starts to tell me how much he loves me. But how can I know if he really means it?” 

After two marriages (both ended in divorce) and the early death of her only child, her premature daughter Arden, Duke lived the rest of her life single. She maintained her privacy within a close circle of friends including Chandi Heffner, a 32-year-old Hari Krishna devotee whom Duke came to believe was the reincarnation of her daughter, who had died over 40 years earlier. Duke bought Heffner a million-dollar ranch in Hawaii, and legally adopted her in 1988, which Duke would later say was "the greatest mistake I ever made," according to the unauthorized biography The Richest Girl in the World. Heffner's boyfriend became Duke's bodyguard and she introduced the heiress to Bernard Lafferty, who became her butler. In the years leading up to Duke's death, Lafferty became the heiress's closest confidante, but he also came under suspicion for ill motives. It was alleged that he persuaded Duke to disinherit and sever ties with Heffner, who later sued Duke for breach of contract. Increasingly frail, disoriented and prone to depression, Duke signed a will relinquishing her fortune to Lafferty, in April of 1993. In October of that year, Duke died of progressive pulmonary edema resulting in cardiac arrest at the age of 80.

While Duke's money couldn't buy her happiness, she dedicated much of her good fortune to helping others. She devoted her time and money to philanthropy, sponsoring a variety of projects in education, the arts, historic restoration, environmental protection, and AIDS research.

Patty Hearst

Patty Hearst Photo

Patty Hearst, the granddaughter of publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst. (Photo: Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Patricia Campbell Hearst was the granddaughter of publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst, whose life story inspired Orson Welles to make the classic film Citizen Kane. Patricia’s own story also turned out to be stranger than fiction. A California native, she was attending college in Berkeley in 1974 when she was kidnapped by members of the radical group calling itself the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA). After making ransom demands, the SLA reportedly tortured and brainwashed Hearst until she publicly swore allegiance to the group. She participated in the SLA’s bank robberies and other violent acts for over a year until she was captured and arrested. After serving a jail sentence for her activity as a self-declared “urban guerilla,” Hearst published an autobiography. She eventually lived a quieter life as a wife, mother, and socialite—yet, with a flair for the dramatic and unpredictable, she has also appeared in several John Waters movies.

Edie Sedgwick

Edie Sedgwick Photo

Edie Sedgwick, the socialite who became a muse for 1960s style.

Edie Sedgwick was born in 1943 into a family with historic New England roots. She moved from her native California to Boston to study art, then headed to New York. Even in that cultural epicenter, her pedigree, her looks and her style made her an “It Girl” and a symbol of the 1960s “youthquake.” She appeared in magazines like Vogue and Life, inspired Bob Dylan to write songs about her and became a central figure at Andy Warhol’s Factory studio, appearing in several of the artist’s experimental films. However, her sparkle and allure were countered by darker forces. Like several members of her family, she was institutionalized repeatedly for mental illness, drug addiction and self-destructive behavior. She died of a barbiturate overdose at the age of 28. 

Christina Onassis

Christina Onassis Photo

Christina Onassis, daughter of shipping and finance magnate Aristotle Onassis. (Photo: Dutch National Archives [CC BY-SA 3.0 nl], via Wikimedia Commons)

The only child of shipping and finance magnate Aristotle Onassis, Christina Onassis grew up on her father’s giant yacht when her family wasn’t staying at sumptuous homes in various cities, a chateau on the French Riviera or a private estate on a Greek island. However, her early adulthood was darkened by her parents’ divorce, her father’s notorious affair with the opera diva Maria Callas, and the deaths of her mother and her aunt. Later she was distressed by her father’s much-publicized marriage to Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy, and she suffered another loss when her only brother died in a plane crash in 1973. When her father died in 1975, Onassis inherited his fortune and business. She went through four difficult marriages and divorces, and she died in 1988 at the age of 37, from a heart attack possibly caused by her eating disorders and drug dependency. "Happiness," she had said in 1975, "is not based on money. And the best proof of this is our family."