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Barbara Hutton: Poor Little Rich Girl

Getty Images / The LIFE Picture Collection / Jon Brenneis

On the 100th anniversary of her birth, we looked back at the life of "poor little rich girl" Barbara Hutton.

Long before today's tabloids began shouting at us about the lives of the rich and famous, Barbara Hutton became famous … simply for being rich.

Heiress to the Woolworth fortune, Hutton was born Nov. 14, 1912, and spent her life in the public eye, at turns fascinating the public and inciting their wrath. Decades before we became obsessed with the lives of professional celebrities like Kim Kardashian and Paris Hilton, Barbara Hutton was notably "famous for being famous."

Hutton saw a string of ups and downs that kept the public thinking about her: A Depression-era 18th birthday party with a price tag that would have topped $800K in today's dollars … Seven failed marriages, including one to Cary Grant … A trust fund that neared a billion modern dollars ... A troubled childhood, including discovering her mother's body after her suicide… When Hutton herself attempted suicide after her fourth divorce, the public followed the story with prurient glee, labeling her "Poor Little Rich Girl." The name stuck, and later a biography of Hutton with that title was written. Twenty-five years ago, it became a TV miniseries starring Farrah Fawcett.

The perception of Barbara Hutton as the "Poor Little Rich Girl" never really faded, even as she spent and donated away most of her fortune. By the time she died in 1979, she was said to have only $3500 to her name. By all reports, her life was truly a difficult one, and in her later years she became desperate for companionship, throwing money at anyone who would spend a little time with her.

It doesn't seem likely that we'll stop being fascinated by the "famous for being famous" any time soon. But maybe we can take a lesson from Barbara Hutton's life and remember that sometimes the rich girl really does have a poor life. If we're willing to believe the aphorism that money doesn't buy happiness, we have to extend it to people like Hutton, too – even a whole lot of money can't make you anything but rich.