On the second day of the Vanderbilt v. Whitney custody trial, October 2, 1934, Gloria Morgan Vanderbilt’s (Morgan) attorney, Nathan Burkan, vowed to undo all of the damage Morgan’s former nurse caused to Morgan’s character on the first day. Morgan had a social life. She went out with her friends and she invited friends to her home, but did that make her a bad mother? How was she any different from Gertrude Whitney, the paternal aunt seeking to take Little Gloria away from her mother? What made Whitney the better parent?
Gertrude Whitney, 59, had 3 children of her own, all of them grown. How had she been as a mother, Burkan queried? “I am going to ask Mrs. Harry Payne (Gertrude) Whitney what kind of luck she had bringing up her own children. I will show she was not so hot as a mother herself.” I’m not sure that the best way to defend your client is to say that the opposing party is just as bad. It would be better to deny that Morgan was a bad mother and focus on her good qualities. However, neither strategy actually worked for Burkan.
When the hearing started, Judge Carew placed the burden of proof on Gertrude Whitney, on the ground that it is the mother’s natural right to have custody of her child. He said it must be proved beyond all peradventure that Mrs. Vanderbilt was unfit before she would be denied custody. I would think that Burkan’s best move was to focus on Vanderbilt’s time with her daughter alone and not dwell on Morgan’s alleged foibles as a person, accordingly. But the witnesses against Morgan were better at steering the course of questioning than Burkan was.
When it was his turn to examine Little Gloria’s malicious nurse, Emma Sullivan Keislich, Burkan only gave her more opportunity to deride Morgan, her former employer.
Keislich elaborated on her affidavit that had been filed a week earlier, in which she claimed that Morgan showed Little Gloria how to make cocktails. “Mrs. Vanderbilt devoted practically no time whatsoever to the child. Mrs. Vanderbilt endeavoured to show Gloria how to make a cocktail and tried to force the child to drink orange juice although all liquids are forbidden by the doctor.”
A “no liquid” diet prescribed by a doctor? That seems strange. It actually sounds lethal. What’s more, I know that orange juice is acidic but Gloria was 9, not an infant. Surely, trying to get a child to drink her orange juice is not a sign of bad parenting.
Keislich explained the cocktail lessons occurred when Little Gloria was on a four day visit with Morgan to which she had begged not to go. Morgan put Gloria on cocktail duty. “She taught her how to shake them. She poured the gin while the child was there. She showed her how to pass cocktails around.”
On another of Little Gloria’s ill-fated visits with her mother, Keislich said an explosion occurred on a gas range when Morgan’s guests were cooking late at night. Little Gloria wanted to be removed from her mother’s home and threatened to jump out of the window twice. Keislich also reported that Morgan’s male visitors were flashily dressed.
At Morgan’s home, Keislich said Little Gloria found a “disgusting” Parisian magazine with symbols on the cover. “Oooh, what does this mean,” Gloria asked her. I am wondering myself. I understand that the nurse considered the magazines lewd, but her testimony was so vague, I’m unsure of the exact nature of obscene details with which she hoped to shock the world.
Keislich claimed that Morgan visited her daughter at the Whitney estate when Gloria was ill and accused, “So you had to get sick?” Morgan visited Gloria for one hour at Christmas, “That was the longest visit she ever paid Gloria there.”
At one point, Burkan presented a series of letters written by Little Gloria herself in which she cheerily expressed love and affection for her mother. Keislich dismissed the missives as “mere form” and said she herself told Little Gloria to write them, to be polite.
“Isn’t it true that the child wrote letters in the same vein to both her mother and aunt?” Burkan pressed.
“Gloria feared her mother, but it was her duty to write to her. She was taught to. I told her to write ‘love.” It was mere form.”
“Did you say that Gloria loves her mother?”
“No, she never did. Mrs. Vanderbilt was not a good mother.”
Burkan sought to undermine Keislich by asking whether she left behind a gin bottle when she was last at Morgan’s house. Keislich simply denied that she did.
Finally, exasperated, Burkan called Keislich a “paid spy” who was planted by Gertrude Whitney to find dirt on Gloria Morgan. He asked if Keislich came to the trial with the deliberate intention of ruining Morgan’s character. Keislich’s response was quick and tart. Looking to the seat where Gloria Vanderbilt sat with her older sister Consuelo Thaw, Keislich said:
“She has no character. She has no good name to destroy and neither has her sister. I can’t hurt them any more. I can’t give them the name they have.” Keislich sneered and Thaw smiled, to mock the insult.
When the adult Gloria Vanderbilt wrote about this time in her life, she says that Keislich was desperate to stay with her young charge at all costs and she felt that if Morgan got custody, she would not allow Keislich to remain with Little Gloria. You think? For her part, young Gloria had been with Keislich constantly since the age of 2. The child was closer to Keislich than to her mother and the thought of losing her nanny terrified her. It was not that Little Gloria wanted to be with her aunt, more than her mother. She wanted to be with the person who would never separate her from Keislich. Unfortunately for Little Gloria, Keislich’s behavior on the witness stand was so hateful that the Judge ultimately concluded that she was a venomous, unstable influence on the girl and had her fired as part of his ultimate ruling. Thus, despite her machinations, in the end Keislich was indeed separated from the person she loved most, which seems fitting justice for her, but not for the child.
Back to the trial: Burkan’s case had been dealt a heavy blow by Keislich’s testimony, but things were only about to get worse. Maria Caillot, took the stand. Caillot was the quintessential French maid and spoke English with a heavy accent. She had worked in the Morgan household in Europe for five years, although she accompanied Morgan and Little Gloria to the United States for visits. By the time of trial, Caillot’s job with Morgan had terminated and Caillot resided in New York (where Whitney lived). Caillot had been recommended to Morgan by Gertrude Whitney and it showed. Caillot’s bias was clear.
Caillot said that, neglecting her daughter, Morgan often stayed in bed until 2 or 3 p.m.
“Did she appear to have a hangover on such occasions?” Whitney’s attorney asked.
“Better say that in French,” Whitney’s attorney suggested.
“I can’t,” said the judge. He rephrased.
“Did you ever see her drunk?”
“Yes, sir. Sometimes.”
“I don’t remember.”
“More than once?”
“Many, many times?” At this point, the judge’s questions had become as ridiculous as Herbert Smyth’s, Whitney’s attorney’s, were. Instead of reining such nonsense in, Judge Carew perpetuated it. Caillot answered.
“Not many, many times, but many times drunk.” One has to wonder what the numerical difference is between “many” and “many, many.”
“Was she under the influence of liquor as often as once a week?” Outraged, Burkan jumped to his feet and remonstrated the judge himself.
“You’ll have my witness saying my client was drunk every day if you keep on like that.”
Morgan herself stood up and glared at Caillot, but then sat down again without saying a word and Caillot smirked.
Caillot said that Morgan slept all day and her Paris home was the scene of endless cocktail parties. Her nightly entertainment lasted into the wee hours of the morning.
Caillot said Morgan paid no heed to Little Gloria or her health, which Caillot described as “delicate.”
“Did you ever see Mrs. Vanderbilt go out walking with the child?” Smyth asked.
“Did you ever see her reading to the child?”
“Did you ever see her teaching her games?”
Caillot said that blaring bands played at Morgan’s parties all night long.
“Was there ever more than one band at these parties?”
“Sometimes three bands.”
There was a band relay, with one replacing another to provide continuous music, keeping the entire house awake. Judge Carew merrily pointed out that if Morgan was at home partying all night, “Then, Mrs. Vanderbilt wasn’t out every night.”
Referring to testimony from Nurse Keislich and statements in Laura Morgan’s (Gloria Morgan’s mother) affidavit that Morgan had not put any thought into finding a suitable home for her child to live, Smyth asked, “Did you notice anything about there being rats in the house?”
“Yes, I saw rats in the house. I saw rats on a tray on the table.”
“How about the attic [where Caillot claimed Little Gloria had to sleep, in order to escape the noise from her mother’s parties]?”
“Yes, there were some rats there, too.”
Caillot said when they visited New York, there were champagne parties in the daytime and hard liquor at night. Broadway producer A. G. Blumenthal “came nearly every day” to visit Morgan and when they left New York, Blumenthal was on the voyage from New York to France in 1933. He was constantly in Morgan’s presence and occupied a state room only a few doors from Morgan’s.
Caillot recalled hearing a man’s voice in the bedroom when she served Morgan champagne. Judge Carew asked how Morgan was dressed when Caillot came to prepare her for dinner, “She was in negligee.”
Caillot also described how “very dirty books were left about the house.” Caillot said they were books she would be “ashamed to look at.”
Smyth pushed her, asking whether the illustrations in the book contained both sexes. Judge Carew stopped him, “What difference does it make if they depict one sex, two sexes or three sexes. They can be dirty just the same.”
On cross-examination, Caillot admitted that Morgan had fired her, but she did not know why. Hmm, I’d like to hazard a guess. Caillot insisted that she had intended to quit, before she was fired, anyway.
Burkan seemed to feel that he was making headway in discrediting Caillot and his questions gained confidence. He questioned Caillot about one of Morgan’s friends, Marchioness Milford-Haven and Caillot agreed that Milford-Haven was “a fine decent lovely lady.” Nadejda Mikhailovna Mountbatten, Marchioness of Milford Haven, was a member of the Russian Imperial Family. Milford-Haven was married to a German prince, George of Battenberg, at the time of the trial. Morgan and Milford Haven spent the summer together in Cannes.
“You saw nothing improper in her conduct the entire two months, isn’t that true?” Talking about walking someone down the garden path. I see no reason why an attorney for Morgan would ask a hostile witness such an open-ended question. It actually seems like he was setting Caillot up, giving her the ammunition needed to blast his own client. But I suppose that is just Monday morning quarterbacking. Caillot does remember something odd when she brought Morgan her breakfast in Cannes one morning.
“Yes, I remember something, it seems to me very funny.” She says, Morgan was reading the newspaper. “And there was Lady Milford-Haven beside the bed with her arm around Mrs. Vanderbilt’s neck, kissing her just like a lover.”
Everyone was aghast. Most papers decided not to print what had been said, as if the sentence itself were pornographic. Burkan couldn’t believe this testimony had come out of nowhere. It hadn’t. Caillot said she had relayed it to Smyth. Then why hadn’t Caillot mentioned the Milford-Haven incident when questioned by her own attorney.
“So, you told Mr. Smyth about it and he forgot to ask you when he was questioning you before?”
Smyth interjected, jumping up. “Oh, no I didn’t. But I didn’t think it proper to bring out any matter of that sort.”
While gossipmongers would have made much of such testimony on their own, Judge Carew’s frenzied reaction only fanned the flames. He raised his hand, quickly closed down the court, forced everyone out and dramatically declared that the rest of the trial would be closed to the public.
“In view of the nature of this testimony, the future sessions of this case will be taken in private.”
Burkan might have mitigated the shock value in Caillot’s statement, by keeping a calm head and prodding along with his questioning, Judge Carew denied him that opportunity by flying off the handle in dramatic fashion. He said the trial would be adjourned until Friday, October 5, 1934.
Outside, Morgan informed the press, “Every story they’ve told about me is a pack of lies. There is not a word or a syllable of truth in anything they have said about me. I’ll have plenty to say when I get my day in court.”
Morgan’s sister Consuelo added, that the testimony was “pointed piffle maliciously arrived at — stories so ludicrous that they were more ludicrious than lewd.”
Burkan vowed to fight against a closed trial. He said that it should be kept open because his client had not been heard by the public. He promised to send across the Atlantic for Lady Milford-Haven to refute Caillot’s story.
Until next time …