As the October 1, 1934 trial date for the custody fight over 10 year old Gloria Laura Vanderbilt by her mother Gloria Morgan Vanderbilt and her paternal aunt Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, neared, the press in both Europe and the United States began circling, looking for tidbits of celebrity gossip as if a gala was about to begin, rather than a trial.
The child, her father having died in 1925, was heiress to a $4,000,000 fortune. Her mother Gloria Morgan, was the daughter of a diplomat and, by no means poor, but still considered a gold digger in many circles. Morgan married into the legendary Vanderbilt fortune and her 42 year old husband married a girl who was still in her teens. Yet, she was thought to be the predatory one and that bias tinged coverage of the trial and, most certainly, its outcome.
It’s easy to say Gloria Morgan would not be considered a good mother by today’s standards. But today’s standards for mothers are as unfair, in their own way, as those of 1934. To be sure, Gloria Morgan traveled often, leaving her child in the custody of the nanny, but that was common for the elite of the era. Rose Kennedy, matriarch of the political clan, recounted in her memoirs that, although she had 9 children, she hardly changed a diaper. Rose Kennedy’s job was to supervise the children’s caregivers and make decisions about vacations, lessons, itineraries and religious instruction, not to rise for 4 am feedings. That style of mothering didn’t seem to turn out too badly for the Camelot crew.
Then too, despite the trauma of her childhood, Gloria Laura Vanderbilt, was not that different a mother to her first two children (by conductor Leopold Stokowski) than her own mother was to her. It was only as she reached her forties that “Little Gloria” became a more hands on parent to her third and fourth born children, Carter Cooper and, CNN Anchor Anderson Cooper. Thus, for the 1920s and 1930s there was nothing appalling about Gloria Morgan’s relationship with her daughter.
Indeed, nothing that Gloria Morgan was accused of during the trial (affairs, excessive partying, lesbian trysts) was not also rumored of Gertrude Whitney, the sister-in-law that wrest Gloria Morgan’s child from her. Love letters from a young Gertrude to Esther Hunt (an architect’s daughter) were steamier and more graphic than any innuendo about Gloria Morgan and Lady Milford Haven floated at the custody trial. Even in 1934, Gertrude Whitney was already a recognized sculptor, art patron and founder of the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, but what qualified her to take custody of her niece from the child’s biological mother? After all, it had not been Whitney who cared for Little Gloria when her mother was away, from ages 2-9. A nurse did that.
The main difference between Gertrude Whitney and Gloria Morgan was that Whitney was born a Vanderbilt and had the money and influence to support her fight. Gloria Morgan had an allowance from her husband’s estate (an income estimated at $1,600 a year, a small percentage of her young daughter’s annual intake) and her expenses had to be approved by an administrator. Many of the decisions Gloria Morgan lived with were not her own, even her maid, the woman who gave the most damning evidence against her in court, came to her recommended by the Vanderbilts. Morgan was subjected to a double standard and if Whitney’s conduct had been scrutinized and exaggerated in the same manner as Morgan’s was, it is unlikely that she would have been seen as a better guardian. It would have been a toss up, at best.
As the trial commenced on the first Monday in October, word spread of an affidavit that had been signed by Gloria Morgan’s mother, Laura Morgan, declaring Gloria Morgan to be an unfit mother. While her mother turned against Gloria, it should be noted that her three siblings, Thelma Morgan (newly divorced from shipping magnate Marmaduke Furness, 1st Viscount Furness and eventual mistress to Edward, Prince of Wales), Consuelo Morgan (whose first husband was French nobleman, Count Jean de Maupas du Juglart) and Harry Morgan, who also became a diplomat like his father, were staunchly on Gloria Morgan’s side in the custody fight and often showed up in court to lend their support. Their mother, Laura, had a flair for the dramatic and irrational and Gloria Morgan later speculated (in Double Exposure, an autobiography she shared with her twin, Thelma) that Laura wanted to keep the child as near to the Vanderbilt family as possible to increase Laura’s own social standing. The more authority Gloria Morgan had over her daughter, the less powerful the grandmother felt. Gloria Morgan believed that it was because Laura did not want to see the relationship between the family and the Vanderbilts attenuated, that Laura sided with Gertrude Whitney against her own offspring.
From the outset, with the world knowing her mother was scheduled to testify against her in the days to come, the trial started with Gloria Morgan on the defensive, in the eyes of the public. The negative view of Gloria Morgan was quickly reinforced when nurse Emma Sullivan Keislich took the stand. She had cared for Little Gloria since she was two and Keislich claimed she did so without much input from the mother.
Keislich only 46, was described in newspaper accounts as buxom or portly. Keislich boasted that she had been a children’s nurse for 25 years, caring for many prestigious babes, including President Grover Cleveland’s grandchild. When she first took the position with the Vanderbilts Reginald Vanderbilt was still alive. Both Keislich and Gloria Morgan openly wept when the late Reginald Vanderbilt’s name came up in the testimony. Keislich said Reginald Vanderbilt spent a lot of time with his daughter, but Gloria Morgan was seldom around. “No, I don’t think she was a devoted wife or mother at all. She was always out and he was almost always with the child.”
Following Reginald Vanderbilt’s death, Keislich described Gloria Morgan’s hedonistic life, hobnobbing in France and America with celebrity friends, like Constance Bennett (of Topper film fame) and with some who were more than friends.
“Very often she was out all night. That was her life. I could hear her come in at 6 in the morning,” Keislich said of her employer.
“What about cocktail parties, if there were any.”
“Plenty!” Keislich exclaimed. But then Keislich was forced to admit that she didn’t actually witness any of those coctail parties. Still, she declared, In Gloria Morgan’s house, “the men had all the kinds of liquor they wanted.”
Did Gloria Morgan Vanderbilt ever play with her daughter, hold her, teach her games or watch her activities?
Who were Morgan’s friends?
“Well, there were Constance Bennett, the movie actress and her South American man friend, Prince Hohenlohe was there all the time. Then there was a man named Fairy, from a hotel in Monte Carlo.” Keislich added that the man “was not of the gentleman type.” This was typical of most of the testimony given. The details besmirched but were not specific enough to inform a listener why exactly they should think poorly of the person so loosely described.
Prince Alfonso Maximiliano Victorio Eugenio Alejandro María Pablo de la Santísima Trinidad y Todos los Santos zu Hohenlohe-Langenburg was a business man who promoted Spanish resorts in Marbella and Costa de Sol. He was the oldest son of a Madrid Prince. Keislich claimed that he was around the household so often, he was like family.
Whitney’s attorney, Herbert C. Smyth, asked, “To what extent was Prince Hohenlohe there all the time?”
“All afternoon and most of the night.”
“Did you ever see the prince in Mrs. Vanderbilt’s bedroom?”
“That’s a very delicate question. I got up when Mrs. Morgan (Laura, Gloria’s mother) awakened me and looked into Mrs. Vanderbilt’s room. The door was ajar.” This statement is curious. Did Mrs. Morgan awaken Keislich for the sole purpose of looking into Gloria Morgan’s bedroom? If so, these two had such prurient tastes that they should have been far more toxic influences on Little Gloria’s upbringing than Gloria Morgan was. What’s hilarious is Keislich didn’t even try to make up an excuse for spying on her employer. She didn’t pretend she was up getting a glass of water. No, she and Gloria Morgan’s mother were only there as voyeurs.
Keislich said that she and Grandma Morgan went to peep into Gloria Morgan’s bedroom between 2 and 3 a.m.
“How long were you there watching them?”
“Five or six minutes. She seemed to have been crying.”
“What was Prince Holenlohe doing?”
“He was beside her. He had on pajamas and she was in night clothes.” Keislich admitted that this was the only time she found the two of them together in such intimate attire.
Gloria Morgan listened to the account, sometimes gesturing, sometimes smiling at the absurdity, or pursing her lips and shaking her head, wearing a black suit, small hat and a silver fox across her shoulders. Gertrude Whitney sat in the second row, looking severe and dignified.
Keislich said of the Prince, “He was there all afternoon and went out later and returned at night while we were in Paris. I saw them together daily for two years. We went to Biarritz and he lived in the same house. He had a room on the same floor as hers, across the hall. He was there all summer in the house at Biarritz. In the afternoon in Paris he used to read to her every day. The books around there weren’t very good books.” Again with the innuendo. Were the books profane, violent, sexually explicit. What wasn’t “very good” about them in the staid nurse’s opinion. Her open-ended conclusions leaves her audience free to insert their worst imaginings and project them onto Gloria Morgan.
“Little Gloria is a very wealthy child and where there is money there is greed, managing and manipulating.” Keislich opined like a sage.
In addition to the “vile books” that littered the house, Keislich said she once saw a French magazine on the table, with a nude couple on the cover. There was no safe place for Little Gloria to play, except for the bedroom which she shared with Keislich herself. Poor kid.
Then, playing the surefire church card, Keislich said that Gloria Morgan (who had been raised Catholic) never listened to Little Gloria’s prayers and never took her to Sunday school. Asked if Gloria Morgan ever attended mass, Keislich said she did not and that Little Gloria was baptized a Protestant. Of course, Catholics were frowned upon and discriminated against in 1930s America, so I’m not sure this last point weighed against Gloria Morgan.
Gloria Morgan’s attorney objected to little avail. He said that Keislich was nothing but a paid spy who was fired by Gloria Morgan days earlier, after she stole the little girl from Gloria Morgan and took her to Gertrude Whitney’s studio in Greenwich Village. Keislich now lived with the Whitneys in Long Island, with Gloria Morgan. Keislich said she only took the girl to Whitney because Little Gloria begged her. The child was so unhappy that she threatened to jump out the window, rather than stay longer with Gloria Morgan and she actually went to the window.
“Do you believe the child would carry out her threat to jump out the window?”
“Yes. I believed something desperate would happen and will happen,” Keislich affirmed.
For her part, an adult Gloria Laura Vanderbilt admitted that she indeed made threats, but says, in hindsight, it was only because her beloved grandmother and nurse poisoned her against her mother and she wanted to please them.
Keislich relished the visible impact her testimony had on the courtroom and was emboldened. At one point, she started to interject when the two parties’ attorneys began to bicker. The judge silenced her, saying, “My dear Madam, your teeth were placed in your mouth to clamp your tongue down.”
Indeed, Justice John F. Carew was quite a character himself. Gloria Morgan’s attorney declared it was wrong to allow Keislich to slander not only Gloria Morgan, but Constance Bennett, too: “this testimony is going too far. It is outrageous to have this go out to the press of the country and for this witness to put into the record that an outstanding screen star was present with her Argentine lover.”
Carew shot back that Keislich had corrected herself and said that the Argentine man was not with Constance Bennett after all, Carew observed, “Every once in a while someone else has an Argentine lover. Anyhow, I never heard of Constance Bennett.”
Next up, Day 2, Nurse Keislich is cross-examined and the maid takes the stand.
Related: Read the Vanderbilt/Morgan history leading up to the custody trial.