Gloria Vanderbilt Custody Trial: 1934
Gloria Vanderbilt Custody Trial: 1934
Defendant: Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney (Mrs. Harry Payne Whitney)
Appellant: Gloria Morgan Vanderbilt (Mrs. Reginald Vanderbilt)
Appellant Claim: Custody of Gloria Laura Vanderbilt, a minor
Chief Defense Lawyer: Herbert C. Smyth
Chief Lawyer for Appellant: Nathan Burkan
Judge: John Francis Carew
Place: New York, New York
Dates of Trial: October 1-November 21, 1934
Decision: Custody awarded to Whitney
SIGNIFICANCE: The claim by her mother that Gloria Morgan Vanderbilt was unfit to have custody because of her debauched lifestyle and cold indifference to her child scandalized both society and the general public. Coming in the depths of the Great Depression, this custody battle within one of the nation's wealthiest families confirmed Americans' worst suspicions about the super-rich, while giving them two months' diversion from their own financial worries.
Gloria Laura Vanderbilt was 1 year old and her mother was 20 when her father, Reginald Vanderbilt, died at 45 in 1925. Cirrhosis of the liver, brought on by countless brandy milk punches, ended Reggie's dissipated life. By then, he had exhausted not only his own body but a $7.5-million fortune inherited at 21 and the income from a $5-million trust fund.
Once all Vanderbilt's creditors and taxes had been paid, his young widow, Gloria Morgan Vanderbilt, ended up with $130,000. But the principal in the $5-million trust fund remained to be shared between his baby daughter and her 21-year-old half-sister. Since the widow was still a minor, the fund was to be administered by New York Surrogate Court Judge James Aloysius Foley.
Shortly, little Gloria's mother petitioned the court for an allowance to cover "monthly expenses necessarily incurred for the maintenance and support of said infant and the maintenance of the home in which said infant resides." The court granted $4,000 per month.
With the allowance, Gloria Morgan Vanderbilt flitted from New York to Paris, London, Cannes, Hollywood, Monte Carlo, Biarritz, and Switzerland. She crossed the Atlantic as often as once a month. In her international set, the pace was led by the Prince of Wales, with whom Gloria's twin sister, Thelma, was having a five-year love affair (it ended when Thelma introduced her friend Wallis Warfield Simpson to the prince, who subsequently gave up the throne of England to marry the divorced Simpson).
Meanwhile, little Gloria was more than overprotected by her grandmother, Laura Kilpatrick Morgan, and by nurse Emma Keislich, who had not missed a day or night with the child since she was hired two weeks after her birth. Together the grandmother and the nurse grew to feel that little Gloria, neglected by a mother who came home intoxicated, toward dawn (if she came at all), was theirs.
"We are Moving Again—Oh what a Life"
For almost a decade, little Gloria sometimes did not see her mother for months on end. At other times, she and nurse Keislich lived in Paris or London with her mother, who was also living with Gottfried Hohenlohe Langenburg, a destitute German prince and a great-grandson of Queen Victoria. Langenburg wanted to marry Gloria Morgan Vanderbilt, but Surrogate Judge Foley had ruled, "No part of the infant's income can be used to finance a second marriage." Little Gloria feared and hated the prince, who never spoke to her. She sent post cards from Europe to her grandmother Morgan declaring that "My mother is so bad to me I wish I could run away to New York to you," that "my mother was in Paris enjoying herself while poor me was unhappy in England [sic]," and "We are moving again oh what a life."
In June 1932, little Gloria's tonsils were removed in New York. Sailing yet again for Europe, her mother welcomed the suggestion of her sister-in-law, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, that the 8-year-old recuperate over the summer at the Whitney home in Old Westbury, Long Island. That fall, the Whitney family doctor urged that she continue to live in Old Westbury. Her mother agreed. Surrogate Judge Foley, notified by Gertrude Whitney that her deceased brother's child was now living with her, cut Gloria Morgan Vanderbilt's allowance from $48,000 to $9,000 a year. Suddenly it dawned on the absent mother that, without little Gloria, she was practically a pauper.
Movie theatre magnate A. C. Blumenthal, Gloria's current lover, introduced her to lawyer Nathan Burkan. The attorney discovered that, since she was still a minor when husband Reggie Vanderbilt died, Gloria Vanderbilt had never been appointed guardian of her own child. He petitioned Surrogate Judge Foley to make her sole guardian. But a complainant appeared: Gloria Morgan Vanderbilt's mother, who said her daughter was unfit.
Lawyers and surrogate reached agreement: Little Gloria could live with Aunt Gertrude during the school year, and her mother could see her at any time. In September little Gloria went to New York City to visit with her mother. But when she arrived, Gloria Vanderbilt announced, "Little Gloria is not going back to Mrs. Whitney's."
The next morning, while her Aunt Gertrude, her Aunt Consuelo (sister of her mother) and her mother sipped sherry in the Whitney mansion, little Gloria was slipped out to the car by nurse Keislich and Gertrude Whitney's private maid. When her mother asked presently where her daughter was, Gertrude said, "Little Gloria is halfway to Westbury by now. I'm not going to let you have her."
In Old Westbury, little Gloria found guards posted throughout the house and the nurse or the maid always at her side. But that afternoon, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney was served court papers that commanded her to have "the body of Gloria Laura Morgan Vanderbilt by you imprisoned and detained" presented before Judge John F. Carew.
"Trial of the Century"
The opening of the trial in the "Matter of Vanderbilt" October 1, 1934, was jammed with more than 100 reporters, who dubbed it the "trial of the century," and with countless spectators. They heard nurse Keislich testify that she had seen Prince Langenburg and Mrs. Vanderbilt in bed together reading "vile" books. A chauffeur testified about Gloria Morgan Vanderbilt's several lovers. A French maid testified that she had found Lady Milford Haven at Mrs. Vanderbilt's bedside and "kissing her just like a lover." Judge Carew, who later admitted that until then he thought he had heard everything, immediately closed the courtroom to press and public.
Bedlam followed. The tabloids cried "Lesbianism." More refined papers reported Mrs. Vanderbilt's "alleged erotic interest in women." Women demonstrating outside the courthouse with placards declaring a mother's right to her child were perplexed. Meantime, testimony against Aunt Gertrude, an accomplished sculptress and founder of the Whitney Museum of Art, tried to establish her interest in the nude in art as an immoral influence on her niece.
The judge, baffled by more than five weeks of shocking public testimony, at last decided to take little Gloria, attorney Burkan, attorney Smyth, and the court stenographer into his chambers. Over 21/? hours, the stenographer recorded such questions and answers as:
How would you like to live with your mother down in the country?
No. Never. I always want to live with my aunt.
You lived a long while with your mother?
Yes, but I have hardly seen her. She has never been nice to me.
Don't you think you could learn to love her?
No. She never even kissed me good night.
On November 21, Gertrude Whitney was awarded custody of little Gloria. But the judge's decision stated that Gloria's mother could have her from Saturday morning to Sunday evening each week, for eight hours on Christmas day, and all the month of July. The New York Journal American summed it up:
Up on a writ, Monday to Friday Mother's unfit.
As the week ends she rises in virtue;
Mother won't hurt you.
Little Gloria now spent quiet weekdays in Old Westbury, ignored by her Aunt Gertrude, who lost interest in her immediately after the trial, and without nurse Keislich, whom the judge had dismissed. On Saturday mornings, under guard, she traveled to her mother's suite in the Sherry-Netherland Hotel in Manhattan, where reporters mingled with detectives and curiosity-seekers toblock her way and shout questions.
Lawyer Burkan tried to file an appeal to the New York State Court of Appeals. The court declined. Next, he asked the Supreme Court of the United States to review the case, on the grounds that little Gloria's constitutional rights had been violated. It, too, declined.
At 17, Gloria married Pasquale di Cicco, a Hollywood actors' agent. They divorced when, at 21, she came into her nearly $5-million estate. The next day, she married conductor Leopold Stokowski, who was 42 years older than she. The marriage produced two sons and a nervous breakdown for her, and after 10 years they parted, with Vanderbilt winning a custody fight that, ironically, awarded Stokowski permission to see the boys on weekends and for a month in the summer.
In 1956, Vanderbilt married film director Sidney Lumet. After their divorce in 1963, she married writer Wyatt Cooper, who died in 1978. They had two sons. Over the years, she had written poetry before turning to design, creating note cards, linens, china and chic blue jeans. The jeans brought her new wealth—a 3.5-percent royalty on $125 million in sales in 1979 alone—and new fame. In addition, Gloria Laura Morgan Vanderbilt di Cicco Stokowski Lumet Cooper has written two books in a projected five-volume autobiography.
—Bernard Ryan, Jr.
Suggestions for Further Reading
Clemons, Walter. "Poor Little Rich Girl." Nersweek (June 16, 1980): 43-44.
Goldsmith, Barbara. Little Cloria … Happy At Last. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1980.
Howard, Margo. "Gloria Vanderbilt." People Veekly (June 10, 1985): 122-131.
Langway, Lynn, Diane Weathers, and Lisa Whitman. "Sic Transit Gloria." Vewsweek (June 16, 1980): 44-45.
Stasz, Clarice. The Vanderbilt 117omen. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1991.
Vanderbilt, Arthur 11. Fortune's Children. New York: William Morrow & Co., Inc., 1989.
Vanderbilt, Gloria. Black Knight, White Knight. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1987.
——. Once Upon A Time. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1985.