Gloria Morgan Vanderbilt v. Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney

We’re nostalgic here at Entertainment News and one of our main goals is to bring yesteryear as close as yesterday. We will eventually be going back in time and looking at the vaudeville and radio shows which served as foundation for great Hollywood legends. In this section of the website, we will also be revisiting “trials of the century”. Bruno Richard Hauptmann, Roscoe Arbuckle, Oscar Wilde, those famous cases that are still being discussed decades after they happened. We will be giving daily summaries of the trial as if they were happening in real time, using court records and transcripts, newsreels and newspaper articles. We’ve all heard the synopses. Here, we expose the devil buried in the details, uncovering minutia that has been lost to time, so our readers truly get the sense that they are living through it.

We will be starting with the 1934 Gloria Vanderbilt custody trial. This one intrigues me because some of the testimony from Gloria Vanderbilt’s maid, baby nurse and her own mother, was literally laughable. Both nurse and mother had a sense of the dramatic and treated the witness stand as their Broadway stage. It’s hard to believe their improbable testimony resulted in Vanderbilt (Sr.) losing custody of her only child to her sister-in-law, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, for whom both maid, nurse and mother were advocating. Clearly, all one had to do was hint at homosexuality, watch panic ensue and then steal a verdict amidst the chaos of resulting scandal. It’s hard to say whether Gloria Vanderbilt, Sr.  was a fit parent, but it’s clear that she did not get a fair trial.

With this first installment, we will set the stage, by describing Gloria’s point of view based on the court briefings submitted by her attorney, Louis D. Frohlich. 

We are prefacing trial coverage with Gloria Sr.’s perspective of events, because she was the petitioner, the moving party seeking relief (recovery of her daughter). And also because she is the mother and any party challenging her for custody should have the burden of proving that she is an unsuitable parent. We should assume that the child belongs with the parent, unless the evidence suggests otherwise. Furthermore, as an adult, Gloria Laura Vanderbilt, wrote about her childhood experiences and, although she loved both her nurse and grandmother passionately, she says that they lied to wrest her away from her mother and coached her to do the same.

To tear the child’s heart in two in this way is a crime against nature and reason, and is opposed not only to humane sentiment, but to all enlightened child welfare practice.

After this summary today, we will report on the first day of the trial, next time. The day after that, we will cover the second day. And so on, until we have lived through the proceeding, gavel to gavel.

Description of the case based on Gloria Morgan Vanderbilt’s petition to the Supreme court, seeking to reverse the lower court’s decision granting custody to Gertrude Whitney

The Glorias

Gloria Morgan Vanderbilt (mother to “Little Gloria,” Gloria Laura Vanderbilt, the child over whom custody was sought and fought) was born on August 23, 1905, along with her twin sister Thelma, in Luzerne, Switzerland. Her father was in the consular service of the United States and its duties took him to various countries in Europe, South America and Cuba. He  and his family moved from capital to capital. Most of Gloria’s  associations were formed abroad.

Gloria attended schools in Switzerland, Spain, Germany and France until 1916, when she came to America for six months. The following year, in 1917, she entered the Sacred Heart covenant in Manhattanville, New York City, where she remained for three years. She spent her summer holidays abroad. In 1920, Gloria attended schools in the United States for a year and then returned to Brussels. Gloria returned to the United States in September 1922. Due to her travels, the precocious Gloria grew up to be a well educated, cultured and refined young woman.

On January 12, 1923, Gloria met the late Reginald C Vanderbilt and married him in March, 1923. He was 43 years of age and the petitioner was 17. During the short period of their married life (Mr. Vanderbilt died on September 4, 1925, making his baby daughter an heiress), Gloria and her husband traveled extensively, both in the US and abroad.

Their only child,Little Gloria, the subject of this custody battle, was born on February 20, 1924, in New York City.

While Gloria was still in the hospital after childbirth, Mr. Vanderbilt and Gloria‘s mother, Mrs. Laura Morgan, engaged a nurse for the child Miss Keislich. This nurse was in constant attendance upon the child, down to the commencement of the custody litigation. Further, until 1932, Gloria‘s mother, Mrs. Morgan, was likewise with the child practically all of the time. The testimony of Miss Keislich and Mrs. Morgan was that Gloria had entrusted the entire care and upbringing of her daughter to them, while she was absent. The truth is, Gloria brought up the child from the moment of her birth and kept Little Gloria with her at home in the United States until 1932.          

Mrs. Morgan was with Little Gloria daily until  Little Gloria returned to America in 1931.  In view of the charges of neglect made against Gloria, a compilation of the actual times when Gloria was absent from her daughter was made by her attorneys. This shows that the child was with Gloria 76% of the time, during the period from March 1924 to September 1932 (the date when Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, the child’s paternal aunt, began to detain little Gloria against her mothers will).

The wrongful detention of little Gloria by Mrs. Whitney since September, 1932, was a condition which Gloria could not prevent, it was entirely beyond her control.

Mrs. Whitney succeeded in detaining the child against Gloria’s will by playing upon Gloria’s maternal love and constant concern for her daughter’s welfare, by having the Whitney physicians represent an urge that little boy as well being required that she remain in Old Westbury, Long Island which was Gertrude Whitney‘s home. Mrs. Whitney put off Gloria’s attempts to take back her child for periods of six months at a time, under one pretext or another, by preventing Gloria from taking a house in Long Island in order to be near her child and finally by sheer force.

Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney

It is not to be believed that Gloria abandoned her child in September, 1932. She had arranged to have the child spend the summer of 1932 at Newport with Mrs. William H. Vanderbilt (a paternal great aunt) and had so notified Mr. Gilchrist,  one of the guardians of Little Gloria’s property.

The first sign that there was a change in this plan was a cablegram which Gloria received from the nurse stating that the child was not going to Newport but would remain in Westbury pursuant to doctor‘s orders. On her return in September 1932, Gloria, for the first time, met Dr. St. Lawrence who was sort of a family physician to the Whitneys. The doctor advised Gloria to let the child stay with Mrs. Whitney at Westbury for six months, because it was for the good of Little Gloria’s respiratory health. Gloria took it for granted that her daughter would be back after the school term, as she had arranged to send little Gloria to Miss Chapin’s school in New York City, after Little Gloria returned to her.

While Gloria was in England in January 1933, to be with her dying father,  Doctor Saint Lawrence wrote Gloria stating that he had learned from the nurse Catholic that it was Gloria‘s intention to take little Gloria back with her in the very near future, and he strongly urged her against doing this until the “respiratory season has past“.  

Dr. St. Lawrence admitted that in April 1933, when Gloria came to see him and asked when she could have her child, he strongly impressed upon her the necessity of keeping the little girl at Old Westbury. The same doctor testified that Gloria came to his office a number of times, from 1932 until the custody  lawsuit commenced, to inquire about her child and that she insisted that she wanted her daughter, but the doctor advised her to leave the child in Old Westbury, for health reasons.

In September, 1933, Gloria was so upset that she took her attorney, Mr. Gilchrist, (who later became co-guardian of little Gloria‘s property), with her to see Dr. St. Lawrence and demanded to have her child back. Dr. St. Lawrence again put her off on the same health pretext. In September 1932, Gloria had taken a house at 49 E. 72nd St., New York City, for little girl Gloria and herself. In the early part of 1933 she wanted to take a house in the country, as well, to be near Little Gloria and when she asked Mr. Gilcrest to go to the surrogate (the NY county surrogate controlled the Vanderbilt money that Gloria used for support)  for the purpose of approving her plan, Mr. Gilchrist told her that the surrogate would not approve the outlay of money because of the expense involved. Consequently, Mr. Gilcrest said that little Gloria should stay with Mrs. Whitney at Old Westbury, in view of Mrs. Whitney‘s offer to keep the Little Gloria free of charge. 

In June 1934, little Gloria was at Oakland Farms, the home of (great uncle) Mr. William H Vanderbilt, in Newport. Gloria went up there and spent a number of days with little Gloria, spoke to the nurse and discussed the little girl’s return to her in September. The nurse did not tell Gloria at that time that other plans had been made. 

In the summer of 1934, an incident occurred which led Gloria to believe that her daughter’s affections were being weaned away from her. Little Gloria was spending the summer in the Adirondacks at  Mrs. Whitney‘s estate at Sabbattis. Gloria visited the camp. She was not invited in but was compelled to wait for a long time until little Gloria was brought out to her in the custody of three or four guards. Little Gloria behaved unnaturally and kept walking away from her. Little Gloria had never acted like that before. Gloria demanded to have her child back. Mrs. Whitney cut her off and turned her away . The day before this lawsuit was filed, Little Gloria was in Gloria’s home on E. 72nd St. Without giving any indication of what she was about to do, the nurse, in league with Mrs. Whitney, spirited little Gloria away to the Whitney studio and from that time on Mrs. Whitney refused to return little Gloria.

Everything that Gloria did that had a bearing upon the welfare of the child was constantly cleared by the surrogate of New York County who was always kept apprised of Gloria’s life. At no time did the surrogate direct or initiate any proceedings against Gloria, nor did he instruct the guardians of the property to do so. On the contrary, he approved the annual accounts that were presented which set forth the location and current residences of both Gloria and her daughter and also itemized all expenditures concerning Little Gloria’s assets.

Little Gloria was a healthy, well nourished, normal child. The videos taken of her in Biaarritz in 1926 and the photographs in evidence, taken over the entire period of her life, substantiate this. 

Dr. Schloss, who had treated Little Gloria since 1925 testified that she was a perfectly well little girl and at no time did he recall a serious or particular illness until 1932.

When he examined her that year she had had a succession of colds with a sinus infection and it was thought best to remove her tonsils. Dr. Schloss discussed this with Gloria several times and referred her to Dr. Stewart Craig, a specialist. The tonsils were removed by Dr. Craig and little Gloria’s convalescence was perfectly normal and uneventful. 

It was Gloria who took the child to the hospital;  she was present while the anesthesia was administered and remained with her daughter and comforted her. Gloria visited little Gloria every day for the nine days that she was at the hospital and then took her home to their apartment at the Sherry-Netherland hotel. About that time, Little Gloria complained of abdominal pains although there was no evidence of any serious condition.

Dr. Jesspup was called in to treat little Gloria and he very quickly cleared up the condition. He took x-rays and found that there was a narrowing of the cecum, the first part of the colon, a condition which doctor Schloss said is commonly found in perfectly normal infants. Dr. Jessup then pronounced little Gloria “OK”.

Under these circumstances, it was most astounding to have Gloria charged with neglect in the health of her daughter and nothing could’ve been further from the truth. The attempt to make little Gloria out to have been sickly during those years was a complete failure. The nurses letter’s, written during that time, clearly show that little Gloria was a healthy, normal, active youngster, happy and well at all times.

Gloria’s deep affection for her daughter was thoroughly established to the satisfaction of the trial court. This is evidenced by the fact that the trial court made provisions for Gloria to have little Gloria with her on weekends and during the entire month of July. Gloria’s affection for little Gloria, was made manifest to the court in various ways. 

There is in evidence a film reel taken by Gloria‘s brother and other members of the family at Biarritz in the summer of 1926. These pictures taken over the course of the summer show the happy life led by little Gloria in family surroundings and the deep affection lavished by Gloria upon her daughter.

Gloria employed the best physicians to look after Little Gloria in Paris, England and New York. On every trip that she took to the United States with little Gloria, she took her to Dr. Schloss for examination. The child spent several summers at Biarritz, a healthy, sunny seaside resort in Spain. She spent a summer at Glion, Switzerland, and another at Evian, France, both resorts noted for the healthful climate. Outstanding is the fact that petitioner never chastised or physically punished her child. Many witnesses were called to testify to the affectionate relations that existed between mother and daughter.

Many letters were placed in evidence written by little Gloria to her mother from the time the child was six or seven years of age. These letters breathe affection and love and contain “XX“ and circles, denoting hugs and kisses. The fact that  Gloria preserved these childish letters over the years speaks eloquently of her affection for the child. There are also in evidence many photographs taken of Little Gloria, the child with her mother and stepfather, and of mother and daughter, alone.

The photos cover the period from little Gloria’s earliest infancy until December, 1932 and show Gloria and her child in loving poses. Little Gloria appears to be unusually robust, good-natured, happy and contented. In every picture, the mother’s expression is one of pride mingled with tenderness. Many of these pictures are mounted and framed, showing that they were displayed in Gloria’s home. This supposedly neglectful mother thought enough of her child to treasure and preserve these pictures down the years with the most meticulous care.

The order below is unprecedented and extraordinary. It condemns this child to a most abnormal life: the child cannot leave the confines of New York State; she must spend five days a week with a stranger (who never took the slightest interest in her until June, 1932), and the remaining two days with her widowed mother; the child is exposed to this atmosphere of hostility and antagonism; she is shuttled back-and-forth each week like a tennis ball; her life is hedged and regimented by rules and regulations.

To tear the child’s heart into in this way is a crime against nature and reason, and opposed not only to humane settlement, but to all enlightened child welfare practice.   

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