INCOME TAX month is a tough time to try to persuade people that life can be hell for the rich. But Gloria Vanderbilt's remembrance of her youth builds a subtle and convincing case.

From behind her crib bars, darkly, her chronicle begins. She is in Newport, in the first of many mansions, helpless and screaming, as her father lies dying in a nearby room. Too young to be told or form words in reply, she can only sense that terrible events are in the air. Her beautiful, fleetingly glimpsed mother, 19 years old at the time, is in New York at the theater with another man. The scenery will shift as her life unfolds, but the pattern of fear will persist.

At first life seems pleasant enough. Her mother takes her to Paris to live, and what passes for family life takes the form of a "Caravan" -- a roving loose-knit band that includes her mother and her mother's suitor of the hour; her mother's beautiful twin sister Thelma ("Toto"); another sister Consuelo ("Tamar"), silent and malevolent, always dressed in black; her mother's mother (the "Little Countess") and Dodo ("Big Elephant"), who is Gloria's nurse. With assorted bearers to shake the cocktails, pilot the Hispano-Suiza and pack the trunks, the Caravan drifts aimlessly from Paris to Monte Carlo, Deauville and Biarritz and back, sleeping until noon and partying the nights away.

In England, at Aunt Toto's country estate, even the Prince of Wales comes to join in the weekend fun. "By day, the ladies smiled in their gentle knitted things and jingled their charm bracelets; the gentlemen were in nubbly jackets, elbows stitched with patches of leather. At night, changing by magic into long drifting clouds, the ladies would float along the corridors down the stairs to the gentlemen waiting in the Great Hall in their black-and-white penguins . . . and every night of the long weekend a party went on every single minute." But only the Little Countess and Big Elephant pay any heed to the small anxiety-ridden presence yearning for acceptance in their midst.

Back in America, the Caravan, which has been her world, comes unglued before her eyes. The Little Countess is exiled to a room in a New York hotel, where she awaits some special event that will be worthy of the ermine cape she keeps in a box under the bed. "Mummy" appears and vanishes like some lovely wraith. "How I longed to merge into her, to disappear into her so that no longer would I be separated from her or separate from her," Gloria Vanderbilt writes. Yet often, when her mother comes near, she flees in disarray. She and Big Elephant are taken in tow by Aunt Gertrude, her father's formidable sister, who writes her volumes of tender letters and seldom speaks to her in the flesh. She becomes obsessed by the fear that Big Elephant, like the Little Countess, will be banished from her world.

The forces are gathering for the bitter court battle that pitted Gloria's mother against Aunt Gertrude for control of her upbringing, but no one tells her a thing. They whisper in corners and go silent when she draws near, but no one tells her and she is afraid to ask. She has nightmares, is afraid of the dark and develops a stutter, but no one reads the signs.

Instead, she is shunted from palace to palace as the seasons change, as though she were a sack of laundry instead of a bundle of nerves. At the Adirondacks spread ("Aunt Gertrude has forests, lakes and mountains in the Adirondacks, tended by guides with names like Marvin and Old Bill"), one cousin chains his daughter to a tree, "a dog collar around her neck, a bowl of water beside her. On a most frequented trail." Unexplained events are the norm by then; communications breakdowns as well. When she and other cousins pay a call on Grandma Vanderbilt at The Breakers in Newport, scrubbed until they shine with ribbons in their hair, Gloria notices that the old lady's pearls are "garlanded around her tiny neck, but they don't weigh her down or jiggle as she walks, for she carries herself so straight I think she is wearing a crown." She wants to call out: "Grandma, Grandma . . . I love you, Grandma, I love you." But she doesn't. Grandma studies the children's faces one by one and asks: "Who are these children?"

AS THE COURTROOM battle nears, "Little Gloria" is coached for weeks by Aunt Gertrude's lawyers, but still not told why or what is at stake. They all look like henchmen of Al Capone in the pictures, but later she finds them easier to talk to than Aunt Gertrude, who lives right in the same house.

Her life becomes a court order. Sunday mass with her mother by court order -- with a police escort and sirens and crowds of the curious lining the routeElephant -- all she has known of warmth and love and stability -- is banished by court order from her life. ("And from that moment to this -- nothing has ever been the same again.")

Yet life was not all bitter, and her book is not a complaint. The Vanderbilt palaces were her prisons, but they offered beauty as well. "Everywhere order, and it was perfect. And it lived with such ease. Is that what luxury meant? . . . The flowers in their vessels of gold and silver were never allowed to die. Overnight they would be replaced, massed into new shapes and colors, by unknown hands, each group different and lovelier than the one before."

Silence was the nightmare of her childhood, and she passes the burden along. The book is a mosaic of unconnected vignettes, each one described as it appeared to her at the time -- with no hindsight or footnotes to keep you straight. Even the photo captions are tiny squiggles, hidden away in the back. But in the end the mysteries serve a purpose and have a power of their own. They force you to share with her the gradually deepening awareness that you realize will ultimately set her free. They are a part of the telling of a very moving tale.