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`SISTERS' EXPLORES MARRYING RICH - AND THE COST

Are there still stage-managing mothers of talented, beautiful daughters, dowagers who manipulate their girls' lives and encourage them to make marrying brilliantly a goal and a career? Are there still women like Katherine Cushing, mother of Babe, Betsey and Minnie Cushing?

Certainly since the days of women's liberation, there is not the same motivation for marriage as a form of female self-expression. Talented, self-respecting, industrious women can make their own fortunes, hence few such women will endure the indignities of such marriages such as the Cushing sisters not only endured but embraced.Katherine Cushing, nee Crowell in Cleveland, Ohio, had made her own marriage to the brilliant neurosurgeon Harvey Cushing the goal of her life, and to achieve it she submitted to a 10-year wait, cheerfully yet doggedly determined, while he completed his studies and established a practice.

She became the ideal doctor's wife, creating a beautiful home, raising her five children almost singlehanded, and imbuing her three girls with her own ideal - that an advantageous marriage must rank above all other considerations, even happiness. Aiding her plans was the fact that the girls were beautiful, stylish, warm and kind - truly worthwhile in their own right.

Even though David Grafton is not the greatest storyteller, he has one of the greatest stories to tell, and his book makes an engrossing read. He does not moralize or draw conclusions, he just lays out the facts.

Those who remember the Cushing sisters (as I do), their style and grace, will find "The Sisters" especially entertaining. Clothes and furs, jewels, paintings and priceless furniture, yachts and dream homes, following the jet set, keeping up with the beautiful people - all are set forth in alluring detail.

And Grafton is a first-rate gossip. He examines the notorious friendship-turned-feud of Truman Capote and Babe Paley and follows the sub-plots of the sisters' many moving and shaking acquaintances, providing titillating tidbits of truth and speculation.

Grafton's worst fault is repetition, giving the same information again and again. It's almost as if this book had been serialized, and in each installment he must give a thumbnail sketch of all the action that went before for the non-subscribing reader who catches one chapter only.

Happiest of the Cushing sisters was Betsey, the middle daughter, who first married Franklin D. Roosevelt's oldest son, James, and acted as White House hostess on numerous occasions during the '30s. The president loved her dearly and admired her style, which led to jealousy in the Freudian family he brought with him.

After divorcing James, Betsey lucked out with the fabulously wealthy John Hay (Jock) Whitney, a genial gentleman and philanthropist whose myriad interests included horse racing, art collecting, backing entertainment, and dozens of businesses and charitable trusts. Theirs was a love match, highlighted by their sojourn in England as ambassadors to the court of St. James (1957-61). He died in 1982, and Betsey is the only surviving Cushing sister.

Less lucky was Mary (Minnie), the eldest, who spent many years as the mistress and then the wife of Vincent Astor - far from a devoted husband, though scarcely able to count his vast wealth. Tiring of his difficult personality, she divorced him and married James Fosburgh, an artist and homosexual, with whom she hosted a remarkable salon in New York, frequented by intelligentsia and arts personalities.

To Barbara (Babe), most beautiful and stylish of all, fell the most two-edged fate. Her first marriage was to Stanley Grafton Mortimer, a Standard Oil heir and socialite from Tuxedo Park, N.Y. After two children and a divorce, she joined the staff of Vogue magazine and achieved marriage to filthy-rich William Paley, who eventually headed CBS communications. With this coup, Kate Cushing's triumph was complete.

But at what a cost.

All these women were largely slaves to possessions - Manhattan homes and country estates, furnishings, clothes, lavish entertaining, travel - and to the men who provided them. Babe especially was in thrall to Paley, who demanded only the finest food, domestic settings and creature comforts and demanded them of Babe. She kept notebooks to stay up with his demands. The Paley children, six in all with his, hers and theirs, fared poorly with next to no parental attention. Both Babe and Minnie died rather young of cancer - one speculates somewhat stress-induced in their cases.