Like a lot of sensational trials, the custody battle over Gloria Vanderbilt was dubbed the “trial of the century.” With courts now tending to keep custody matters private, the media maelstrom around it would never happen today.
But in 1934, the headlines nearly dripped with the details of a neglected little girl’s suffering: “Mother Seldom Saw Gloria,” “Servant Shocks Court With Her Story,” “Feud So Bitter Opponents Insist on Separate Seats in Court.”
Gloria Vanderbilt, who died Monday at 95, later said her traumatic childhood sent her on a lifelong “restless search for love.”
When her parents married in 1923, her mother, Gloria Morgan Vanderbilt, was a beautiful 19-year-old socialite, already a society fixture along with an identical twin sister, Thelma. Her father, Reginald Claypoole Vanderbilt, was a 42-year-old gambler, struggling with alcohol and squandering his family fortune.
“Little Gloria,” as she was called, was born the next year. The year after that, her father died of cirrhosis of the liver and other complications of alcoholism.
At the age of 18 months, she inherited her father’s $5 million trust fund, worth about $63 million in today’s dollars, which she shared with a half sister from her father’s first marriage. Her 21-year-old mother received a generous allowance from the fund to support her daughter.
Gloria Morgan Vanderbilt moved to Paris with her daughter and a nanny. She was joined by her twin, Thelma, and her mother, Laura Kilpatrick Morgan. She had a busy social calendar that took her all over Europe, and she often left her toddler to be cared for by others.
By summer 1934, Gloria Morgan Vanderbilt and her daughter were back in New York. Although she often left the girl in the care of paternal aunt Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, she filed paperwork to gain sole control of her daughter’s inheritance.
Then, on Sept. 25, 1934, Gloria Morgan Vanderbilt filed a writ claiming that Whitney had “spirited” away her daughter while the girl was feeding birds in Central Park and was holding her captive. Whitney came out swinging, suing for full custody. A judge ordered that the 10-year-old stay with Whitney while the case was decided.
First, Vanderbilt’s own mother filed an affidavit claiming that while in Paris, her “daughter paid absolutely no attention to little Gloria. She devoted herself exclusively to her own pleasures. … She took long trips to Germany and other places. … She seldom wrote to me or inquired about the baby.”
Morgan also said Gloria Morgan Vanderbilt had tried to teach the child how to mix cocktails that very month, according to The Washington Post at the time. She recommended that Little Gloria go to Whitney.
Then the nanny testified on Whitney’s behalf. She said Gloria Morgan Vanderbilt caroused at all hours with a film actress, that her lovers sometimes spent the night and that magazines with pictures of nude men and women were “tossed carelessly about the house.”
The accusations “startled the crowded courtroom,” The Post reported.
One of those alleged lovers, the German aristocrat Prince Gottfried of Hohenlohe-Langenburg, set sail for New York to clear his name. Papers reported on the progress of his ship.
When a former maid took the stand, she intimated that Gloria Morgan Vanderbilt may have had a lesbian relationship — at which point the judge cleared the courtroom. He implored the two sides to conduct the rest of the proceedings in private, “for the future peace and self-respect” of the little girl, the New York Times reported, but they refused. Little Gloria’s mother said she had a right to defend herself in public.
Her twin sister and a brother vouched for her in the press, calling the accusations “outrageous.” Her friend the film actress said that if “all mothers were as good as she, it would be good for America.” And when the prince arrived, he testified that their relationship had been proper and that Gloria Morgan Vanderbilt’s “whole life centered about the child.”
Her attorney declared that Whitney had “a mania for bringing up children,” pointing out that eight of her grandchildren already lived with her. As for the charge that Gloria Morgan Vanderbilt kept nude photos, weren’t there also nudes in Whitney’s new art museum?
“Battle Over Gloria Vanderbilt Shifts to ‘What Is Art’ Debate,” read a headline in The Post.
When it came time for Little Gloria to testify, the judge ordered that she do so privately. But the Times still got all the details: The “poor little rich girl” told the judge she had been lonely in her mother’s care and wanted to stay with her aunt.
As an adult, Gloria Vanderbilt said that Whitney had coached her on what to say.
It worked. The judge gave Whitney primary custody, with the girl’s mother getting limited visitation rights.
While Whitney’s household was more stable, it wasn’t exactly overflowing with love. Rules were strict, and Little Gloria felt stifled, she later said.
When she was 17, she dropped out of school and ran away to be with her mother, who now lived in Beverly Hills. Soon after, she got married for the first time to a gambler many years her senior — just as her mom had done the year before she was born.
correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated Gloria Vanderbilt was 19 when she first married. She was 17.
Read more Retropolis: