In an article about Gloria Vanderbilt in Thursday's Style section, her children's parentage was reported incorrectly. Vanderbilt has two sons by her fourth husband, Wyatt Cooper, and two sons by her second husband, Leopold Stokowski.

Her trademark breathy whisper and wide-eyed childlike gaze are evidence of the schoolgirl heart that still flutters -- nervous and naive -- beneath a steely self-restraint.

Somehow, by refusing to relinquish her childhood, she still has a chance of getting it right. Of getting what she needed.

Mostly, Gloria Vanderbilt needed a mother.

"It really is my mother/myself," she said yesterday, referring to her just-published book, "Once Upon a Time," the first of an expected five-volume autobiography spanning the 61-year-old heiress' life. "That is where we get our frame of reference from . . . our identity. If we don't have that connection . . ." Her voice trails off. "I had this longing to merge with her, to find out who I was. We have to get our reflection back from our parents.

"If I can find out who she is, I can find out who I am."

It took Gloria Laura Morgan Vanderbilt Di Cicco Stokowski Lumet Cooper a long time to find out who she was. Of course, we knew all along. She was the name on the tip of our hips, the signature on the derrie res of millions. A name synonymous with taste, style and a smile wider than John Madden's waistline.

But only after 20 years of psychotherapy and four marriages did Vanderbilt discover her true identity. After all that time, the words came easily; it took her only four months to write the book, destined to hit the best-seller list.

(Sunday's New York Times Book Review calls it "an extraordinary book . . . a series of deft, verbal snapshots . . . a haunting lament for that primal love, a cry of the heart that speaks to the child in all of us.")

It is, by all accounts, a fascinating tale, filled with society-page scandal, sex, money, a notorious custody battle and a cast of self-absorbed characters whose material wealth seems to have permanently impaired their mental health. It's a wonder Vanderbilt, America's favorite "poor little rich girl" and living testament to the maxim, "You can never be too rich or too thin," isn't totally around the bend herself.

"I was determined," she said, "to make everything okay."

The harsh, jet-black hair and alabaster makeup have been refined into a gentle marriage of auburn chin-length coif and apricot blush. Her wide, Joe E. Brown mouth is a pale peach, her huge brown eyes are outlined in sable and she sports a choker of chunky coral beads with matching earrings over a yellow cotton jersey and long print skirt.

Surrounded by that aura of rarefied air common to celebrities, she wears her fame lightly, smiling self-consciously and saying, "I still don't have any guile really. It's not in my nature."

She is gracious, soft-spoken and level-headed. There is something so soft, so fragile about her that you can't even tweak her by bringing up the subject of frozen tofu, her latest commercial venture.

Her designer frozen tofu follows a long line of Vanderbilt-inspired products, including sheets, place mats, perfume, shoes, blue jeans and bath oil.

Does Vanderbilt really need a best seller, another feather in her Adolfo? Does she need the money? Don't ask. She will say only that earned money is much sweeter in the wallet than inherited money.

"Billie Holiday used to sing a song. 'Mama may have and Papa may have, but God bless the child that's got his own,' and that says it."

Vanderbilt's life was previously the subject of Barbara Goldsmith's 1980 best seller, "Little Gloria . . . Happy at Last" (later made into an NBC television mini-series.)

She bristles at the notion that she wrote "Once Upon a Time" in answer to "Little Gloria . . ."

"I didn't read that book. I have no idea what it's about."

She looks uncomfortable. "I'm a writer. And if you're a writer, you write. I always knew I would do it; I didn't know the form that it would take."

Despite published reports that she was upset over the unauthorized book and television series, Vanderbilt says, "No. I'm built of stronger stuff than that."

But don't press her on the subject. "Let's not give publicity to somebody else's book," she says impatiently. "We're here to talk about mine."

And the book -- with its main character, her mother -- is her favorite subject. Come to think of it, it's her only subject.

"I was really obsessed with her, and still am and always will be."

But, she says, she has made peace with the past.

"It's not that I forgive her. I understand what happened."

She was born in 1924, the only child of alcoholic Reginald Vanderbilt and his spoiled, selfish, 19-year-old bride Gloria Morgan Vanderbilt. Reggie had the dubious honor of squandering $25 million in 14 years and died when little Gloria was 15 months old.

Unable to cope with motherhood, Gloria Morgan Vanderbilt embarked on a whirlwind social life, leaving the care of her daughter to her manipulative mother, whom the child called Naney Morgan, and a nurse, known as Dodo.

From the child's point of view, the elusive, beautiful mother became a fantasy figure. A woman to be adored and loved from afar. A woman whose very absence ensured in her daughter a lifetime of pain, longing and devotion.

She invited me into her presence, into the sunlight yellow that surrounded her, into the golden yellow of her dress, and together we sat by the window in her room of yellow, close. Sometimes our hands touched.

But then she would go away, down the long corridors of hotels, down staircases, along avenues in her pale furs, snow-sprinkled, disappearing into the velvet caverns of waiting cars and borne away, away, away, away . . . Would I ever see her again?

"The tragedy was, she never really knew what had hit her," Vanderbilt said yesterday in her Washington hotel suite. "She was really so gentle and so passive. She really was like a child. What happened of course is eventually we become our own mother."

There was guilt on the child's part. Maybe it was my fault. If only I had been a boy, she thought.

It was Grandmother Morgan who hatched the plot to remove Gloria from her mother and place her in the care of Reginald Vanderbilt's wealthy sister, Gertrude Whitney. Little Gloria -- who came down with mysterious stomach pains -- was coached by her elders to renounce her mother to the judge.

"I wasn't lying in the sense that I would have done anything to keep my nurse. Really, anything. It was survival. That really was the security.

"I was really happy for a long time just in that situation," she said. "The three of us together. When my Grandmother Morgan really started plotting the whole thing, it was then that I got really frightened and started to not only fear my mother but to worship her at the same time and want to merge with her and want to be her, really."

She says she even started imitating her mother's handwriting.

"I really wanted to become her."

She writes that she would "faint with longing at the mysterious beauty of her."

At the custody trial, Gloria Morgan Vanderbilt was accused of being a lesbian and wanting to murder her own daughter, who now writes that she suspected there was some horrible, evil secret.

What was it? What was it? If it was so terrible and she was my mother, it must mean I was in some way terrible too. I must know, must find out what it was. And I was torn apart wanting to find out and not wanting to know. Because if I did know, it might be a thing so terrible that I would no longer be able to live. I would be struck dead.

Immediately following the trial, in which Gertrude Whitney was awarded custody of the girl, the beloved nurse Dodo was sent packing. It was a blow for the child, one that she never recovered from.

My heart broke and the blood of it gushed from me into the soft sweet love of her . . . the torrent of it sped and sped on and away, spreading on into her . . . And from that moment to this -- nothing has ever been the same again.

From that moment. Gloria Vanderbilt, who shared the name with her mother, was determined to become a success.

Is that why her name is on everything from place mats to pillowcases?

"No. It's much more complicated than that. I've always felt I wanted to make something of my life. I wanted to make it right. I wanted to be the best I could be because if I could do that, in a way it would make it okay for her too. Do you understand that?"

She was estranged from her mother from the age of 20 to 38. During that time, she sought the help of psychiatrists.

"I remember the first time I went into therapy, when I was 29. My first words were, 'I'm here. But there's one thing I'm never going to talk about and that's my mother.' "

She laughs knowingly. "A couple of years later I was able to mention her name, and eventually to see her."

Their reunion, in New York, was "very very painful, very difficult. I was still really frightened of her and suspicious of her and had all these conflicting ideas of not only what she was like, but my own feelings about her, which were still those of longing to merge with her, still wanting to really become her in a sense."

Vanderbilt's eyes fill with tears. "When Wyatt Cooper met her, when I saw her for the first time, he said, 'This woman doesn't know one single thing that ever happened to her.' And it's true."

Was her mother aware of the pain she had caused? "She then had hysterical blindness, which as you know is a psychological thing. There was nothing any doctor could find wrong with her."

She died in 1964.

Vanderbilt has almost finished the second volume of her series, "Lady Moon, Lady Moon," a chronicle of her life from the ages of 17 to 21. The books will all be written in a narrative style, and the voice of the author will mimic each particular age.

The theme will remain the same. "They can't all be about my mother but of course they really are."

She says her drive, her energy and compulsion for hard work are "in my nature."

"I did feel I had certain gifts. I felt I had a gift for painting and a gift for writing. I believe if you're born with a gift, you owe it to that gift to develop it. Even if your parents don't believe in you, if you believe in yourself that's what's important."

She says her greatest accomplishment is her children. She has four sons from her marriage to writer Wyatt Cooper. Widowed for seven years, she says she is only now beginning to consider the possibility of remarrying. "One is struck dumb by death. I have a lot of friends, but there's no one I'm in love with."

There is one thing Gloria Vanderbilt has always wanted. Aside from her longing for a mother.

"I would have been really incredible with a daughter," she says. "I really would have."