The Life of William S. Paley:

The Legendary Tycoon and

His Brilliant Circle

By Sally Bedell Smith

Simon & Schuster. 782 pp. $29.95

ONE CAN'T HELP wondering what William S. Paley's reaction would have been if he had lived to read Sally Bedell Smith's stinging new biography. Paley died last month, not long after his 89th birthday, and Smith's detailed account of his long life was not designed as a birthday present, nor even as a Get Well card. But surely Smith did not intend her book to become the kind of chilling epitaph it suddenly seems to be. Another ghastly thought occurs. During his last days, according to Smith, her subject's mind was "like a flickering light bulb." He still called meetings, only to forget what they were to have been about. But galleys of In All His Glory have been circulating within the media since late summer and, if Paley had happened upon the book while his mind was running on full wattage, the experience might have been enough to send him on his Long Goodbye.

It is clear from the outset that Smith's title drips heavily with sarcasm. Seldom in my memory has so much wordage been devoted to such a thoroughly inglorious figure. If Smith is to be believed -- and with over a hundred pages of source notes and other aftermatter to back her up, who should doubt her? -- Bill Paley was a chronically faithless husband, a dreadful father, an executive so aloof from his working staff that he was almost invisible, and a man given to violent temper tantrums involving throwing heavy furniture around the room when he did not get his way. He was also a snob, a hypocrite and, most likely, an anti-Semite. At least it is clear that he did not relish being Jewish, though Smith makes it clear that the name was always Paley. It was not, as has been snidely suggested over the years, Palinsky or Palinkoff or (as someone quipped) Paleontological, or anything else "before." It is ironic that the glamorous Babe Paley, the most beauteous of the fabled "Marrying Cushing Girls," whose sisters married the likes of John Hay Whitney and Vincent Astor, should have wound up with the worst husband.

He was also a liar. Even the title he grandly bestowed upon himself, founding chairman of CBS, was an untruth, since the company was in existence before he entered the picture. Actually, his wealthy father bought Columbia for him when the senior Paley noticed that radio advertising boosted sales of his La Palina cigars. But Bill Paley was a firm believer that the Big Lie, if shouted loudly enough and often enough, would eventually be accepted as the Big Truth. When an early independent rating system revealed that NBC Radio was attracting far more listeners than CBS, Paley hired a ratings team of his own which, to no one's great surprise, showed that CBS was leading the pack. Paley's public relations people then went to work touting this "fact," and the battles over network ratings that continue to this day were born.

Paley was very good at claiming the successes of others in his company as his own. He was equally good at blaming others for his failures. The dead and the unemployed made particularly good targets. A particularly egregious example of blame-laying occurred in 1979, when his own carefully laundered (through a series of "ghosts") memoir, As It Happened, was published, and failed to light up the skies with either readers or critics. It was all his dead wife's fault, he said; if he hadn't been so busy caring for Babe during her long illness, he would have written a better book.

Unlike his visionary archrival at NBC, David Sarnoff, who predicted the impact of television long before it was invented, Bill Paley saw no future for television as an entertainment medium in the home. "Man is a social creature; he likes to rub shoulders with his fellows," he pronounced. Therefore, television would only work if its programs were aired in the shoulder-rubbing ambiance of large movie theaters, but never in living rooms.

His stance was not only anti-television; it was also often anti-broadcasting and anti-entertainment. Many technological innovations -- such as FM radio, cable television, video cassette recorders -- have provided radio and television with the wide range of choices available today, but Paley initially opposed, and fought, them all. There were times when he even seemed anti-CBS. He periodically sold off blocks of his CBS stock in order to invest in oil, real estate and other commodities, lest he leave all his eggs in one basket. According to Smith's account, Paley never much cared about what CBS put on the air. He did, on the other hand, deeply care about making lots of money.

SMITH DOES her best to portray Babe Paley in a sympathetic light as the long-suffering wife who did her best to keep her chin up in the face of her husband's flagrant philanderings, and who most of all wished to keep the perfect home for her husband. She was certainly a perfectionist, almost to the point of paranoia. Such was her reputation as an elegant clotheshorse that she never selected clothes from models on a runway. Instead, she had couturiers spread out their garments on the floor, so she could study how all the elements of an outfit worked with one another. She was so fastidious that she wrote her hostess thank-you notes immediately upon returning home from a party, and scissored off the perforated edges of postage stamps before affixing them to her letters.

Smith suggests that Babe endured her husband's infidelities out of a longing to hold the family together, but this claim doesn't quite hold water. Mrs. Paley had divorced a previous husband, partially letting go of a pair of children, before marrying a second time. And mothering was certainly not among her talents. While Babe and Bill Paley dined and danced in the "Brilliant Circle" of Manhattan society, their children languished in the care of nurses and governesses on the Long Island estate. One of their several Manhattan pieds a` terre did not even have sufficient bedrooms to house the children. When, as inevitably happened, the children had problems, they were whisked off to psychiatrists or other "experts," while their mother fretted that her "best friend," Gloria Guinness, might be about to top her on the Best-Dressed List.

One suspects that Babe Cushing Paley stuck with her awful marriage principally because she enjoyed the perquisites and power that went with being the wife of the founding chairman of CBS. Only when dying of cancer did her bitterness show, when she occasionally referred to her husband as "the old SOB."

And so, in the end, that is the kind of man Smith presents us with -- a man who was all facade, all fake, all image, all form and no palpable substance. Behind the impeccable tailoring, the suave manners, the courtly airs was a man who liked quickies with easy women in hotel rooms, who was a gluttonous eater and dyed his hair. To create the illusion that CBS was "the Tiffany network," he hired PR men, propagandists and interior decorators. And it all worked -- at least until Sally Bedell Smith, who for 10 years covered media for the New York Times, stepped forward and blew the whistle.

So R.I.P., Bill Paley. And I really hope that reading this book wasn't what did you in.

Stephen Birmingham is the author of "America's Secret Aristocracy" and, most recently, a novel, "Shades of Fortune."