I was sorry to hear of the death of designer Gloria Vanderbilt this week.
The news that she died reminded me of all the books I’ve read about how she lived, the first one being the magnificent Little Gloria…Happy at Last by Barbara Goldsmith. It told the true story of the infamous custody battle that was waged between Gloria’s mother, Gloria Morgan Vanderbilt, and her aunt, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, back in 1934. It told it so well that it became a television mini-series. I’ve been watching it again in my spare time for the past two days.
What’s most interesting about the case is neither mother nor aunt, however. It’s the cast of supporting characters, and I do stress the word character here.
But first let me back up a bit. The Vanderbilts were a very rich family. After little Gloria’s father, who had squandered his millions in, ahem, gambling debts, died, there wasn’t a sou left in his estate – but his child did inherit an airtight trust fund. The only way her mother could be supported financially was through the fund’s interest. She promptly packed up little Gloria, the child’s nurse, Emma Sullivan Kieslich, and went to live in Europe.
Gloria Morgan Vanderbilt, who was Swiss born with a South American mother, could have settled in Europe in one place but didn’t. She bounced all over the place, and also made numerous trips back and forth from there to the United States and back again. I remember reading that whenever she got on a boat, she’d claim the expense as a trip with her daughter to appease the guardian of little Gloria’s finances. The child’s money, or rather the interest from it, was paying for a lavish, rather gadabout lifestyle for Mama…and her mother’s various friends, lovers and brother, too.
The child’s money was also paying for her nanny, Emma Kieslich, but strangely, the nanny, along with Gloria Morgan Vanderbilt’s mother Laura Kilpatrick Morgan, began poisoning the little girl’s mind with lies that her mother was “dangerous” and out to “use her” for the loot. It seems the nanny dictated letters for the chld to write to her grandmother, Laura, that her mother was “a rare beast” and that she was “afraid” of her. Recently Gloria Vanderbilt said that the nanny and grandmother were causing her to feel afraid of her mother.
After little Gloria stayed with her Aunt Gertrude following minor surgery, and remained with her to attend school, Mama’s allowance from the fund was cut, since she was no longer caring for her daughter. Uh-oh! That’s when her mother suddenly decided she wanted the child back…
The trial was a circus, and it is beautifully depicted in the television miniseries – I’ve provided a link to that below, but please keep reading a bit further before you click on it. The piece of work of a nurse, portrayed by Maureen Stapleton, goes berserk against Gloria Morgan Vanderbilt on the stand, offering answers to questions that weren’t even asked and trying her damndest to destroy the woman’s character. Little Gloria’s mother’s mother, played by the incomparable Glynis Johns, testifies against her own daughter – clutching a crucifix. Barnard Hughes plays the judge who is deciding who will get custody of the child. The judge is a drunk. The miniseries is worth watching to see these three in action alone, and young Jennifer Dundas also does a brilliant job as the over-the-top hysterical little Gloria, who repeatedly claims she “hates” and is “afraid of” her mother – though when questioned in the judge’s chambers, can’t quite explain why…
But several elements of the real story of what went on behind the scenes of what as called “the trial of the century” only recently came to light in a book Gloria Vanderbilt wrote with her son, Anderson Cooper. Little Gloria was coached by her aunt’s lawyers on what to say. She also realized, as an adult, that her “fear” of her mother was instilled in her by the nanny and her grandmother.
In addition, I remember hearing somewhere that one of the main witnesses against the child’s mother, a French maid, was paid off to smear her. And Grandmother Laura Kilpatrick Morgan was on the receiving end of moolah from Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney as well.
So as good as the mini-series was, and it’s superbly done, I think a second movie on this subject is in order. I’ve got to wonder about this Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, not to mention Laura Kilpatrick Morgan and Nurse Emma Kieslich. What a group! Yes, Gertrude did the right thing in taking the child in and letting her stay when she expressed a desire not to be returned to her mother. But…winning by bribing witnesses? Having her attorney coach the child in what lies to tell to the judge? Banding with the poor kid’s crazy grandmother?
And that nurse! The mind-games she was playing on that child should have been a violation of the law.
Anyway, RIP, Gloria Vanderbilt.
And if you want to see a wonderfully well-done but who-could-believe-this kind of mini-series, here it is. Enjoy!