For previous installments on the Whitney v. Vanderbilt custody trial, go to the Tried section of the website.
As she headed into this custody trial, I’m sure Gloria Morgan Vanderbilt (“Morgan”) knew that she’d be dragged through the mud. She simply didn’t know in which direction. She probably believed that Whitney’s attorney would attack her as an absentee mother and she prepared to justify the time she spent away from Gloria. She likely did not anticipate that she’d be accused of all manners of debauchery: drinking, wantonness, lesbianism, child neglect and excessive parties and would be left scrambling to defend her character following just two days of trial.
After the judge abruptly adjourned proceedings when Morgan’s maid claimed to have entered Morgan’s boudoir to see her kissing another lady, a titled lady, like a lover, Morgan hurriedly rallied her troops. Prince Hohenlohe, Constance Bennett, and Lady Milford-Haven, all named as attendees at Morgan’s wild parties, issued supportive press releases and discussed acting as witnesses on her behalf.
Cables flew across the pond as Morgan asked her siblings to come stand with her. Her twin sister, Thelma Morgan Furness, recalled in the twins’ joint autobiography Double Exposure that Gloria suddenly told her that a ship was leaving the UK for America that night and she needed Thelma to be on it. Thelma, of course, dropped everything to sail to her sister’s side and their brother also departed for America with his wife. Thelma took the Golden Arrow train for London to catch the liner Empress of South Hampton.
Older sister Consuelo was already in court with Gloria. The family likely thought Consuelo’s moral support would be sufficient. That was before the slings and arrows were shot and first came from the Morgan’s own mother, Laura, who penned a malicious affidavit attacking her daughter, even before the trial started.
Laura Morgan’s statement said in part, “Little Gloria was like a poor orphan. She was not wanted. I recall one day in Biarritz where we spent several summers. I took Gloria to my daughter and she deliberately pushed her away and insisted I take her away.
“On another occasion when little Gloria happened to get near her, my daughter pushed her away. Little Gloria screamed and cried and pleaded with me not to let my daughter hurt her. At this particular time, Gloria was a very sick child [by medical accounts, the child was healthy, with a tonsillectomy being her most serious health event] suffering with a fever and a cough.”
Discussing Morgan’s absences from Gloria when she traveled abroad, Laura Morgan’s affidavit said, “I do not know of any instance during this time, and in fact any time, in which my daughter expressed concern over the baby’s welfare or showed any mark of affection for her.”
Laura Morgan says that Morgan wanted to fire Little Gloria’s nurse (which Morgan did, because the nurse was plotting against Morgan and actually stole the child from Morgan’s care and took her to Whitney’s home, without Morgan’s permission) and Laura Morgan (being the one who had hired Nurse Keislich years ago) objected to Keislich’s firing. Morgan persisted in doing it. Laura recalled her daughter saying, “I don’t care if she (Gloria) cries and for all that she can bawl until her eyes bulge and drop out of their sockets.”
In the affidavit, Laura Morgan also berated her daughter’s lifestyle, particularly the time she spent with Prince Hohenlohe. Laura Morgan declared Gloria Morgan’s relationship with Prince Hohenlohe to be indecent. Thelma Morgan commented to the press that her mother’s conduct was “incomprehensible.”
“I cannot understand mother’s attitude at all. She was present (At Biarritz) all the time when Prince Hohenlohe was there. If there was anything wrong, why didn’t she get out?” Thelma Morgan said she was going to do everything she could “to stop this nonsense.”
For his part, Prince Hohenluhe said he would come to America to clear both his and Gloria Morgan’s name. He explained that he had been engaged to Morgan, but it was a perfectly chaste engagement, nothing untoward happened between them and their entire relationship was cloaked in propriety. Morgan broke off the engagement because she was concerned for Little Gloria’s welfare. That’s how loving a mother she was. The Prince said that now, Morgan was the dearest of friends with both himself and his new wife and he might head to New York to support her.
“I certainly will do so, if it is necessary to make a personal appearance. My present wife certainly will go with me if I go to New York. My relations with Mrs. Vanderbilt were as follows:
“We were engaged to be married for more than two years. On the wish of Mrs. Vanderbilt, the engagement never was made public. Consequently, my friendship with her and my frequently being at her houses in Paris and Biarritz are being explained. The engagement came to an end, as far as I can see, purely on the grounds of the child and her future life.”
“Mrs. Vanderbilt and myself remained on the best of terms. She also became a great friend of my present wife, which friendship also continues to exist between Mrs. Vanderbilt and my parents. As a matter of fact, Mrs. Vanderbilt was here recently to visit me and my whole family. As far as the allegations of the nurse are concerned, they are too ludicrous to require comment. The nurse’s testimony regarding Gloria’s treatment by her mother was one falsehood from beginning to end.”
He laughed at the nurse’s attempt to make him seem like a toy boy, when, on the witness stand, she described him as being about 25 or 26 years old. “I am 11 years older than that. I was born on March 24, 1897.”
Ever gallant, the Prince says, “I shall insist on giving evidence unless court procedure for some reason debars me. I am not going to let people sling mud at me. Mrs. Vanderbilt was always most devoted to Gloria. In fact, it was her devotion to Gloria which led to the termination of our engagement for she felt if she married me and lived in Europe, it would mean Gloria miss the American environment to which she was accustomed and that it might jeopardize the child’s financial affairs.”
Film star Constance Bennett also praised Morgan’s maternal prowess, calling her “an ideal mother. If all mothers were as good as she, it would be a good thing for America.” Bennett called the testimony against Morgan “lies” and promised to testify that Morgan was an “ideal and perfect mother.” However, Bennett hedged that her first priority was to her husband, the Marquis Falaise de la Coudraye who was soon to enter a nursing home in Hollywood. She was going to leave with him for the Pacific Coast, but described herself as willing to return to New York.
Lady Milford-Haven told the press that the maid’s allegations that she and Morgan were caught in a romantic kiss were “a set of terrible, malicious lies. I am going not to see my husband and my lawyer. I cannot say definitely whether I shall go to the United States. What I can say is that I shall stand by Mrs. Vanderbilt to the end.” Decades later, an adult Gloria Laura Vanderbilt confirmed that Lady Milford-Haven and her mother had been lovers. In fact, Morgan told Gloria, Jr. that Milford-Haven was the greatest romance of her life. Of course, that does not mean that Maria Caillot’s testimony was true and even if it was, the child was not in the room when the women supposedly shared a passionate kiss. But in 1934, the allegation of lesbianism, without more, was enough to brand Morgan an unfit parent.
After Judge Carew declared that the rest of the trial would be held in private, Morgan’s attorney, Nathan Burkan, objected. Then word came that the trial postponement would continue until the following Monday. This caused the press to speculate that the parties might settle, but sensing they had the upper hand, Whitney’s attorney nipped that rumor in the bud, “I do not think a settlement out of court is likely.”
As the media whipped itself into a frenzy during the pause in trial, Judge Carew flip-flopped as to his next move. After Burkan stressed the need to have a public hearing to clear Morgan’s name, Carew seemed to relent and said, on October 3, 1934, that he was disposed to admit the press and to continue the hearings in public, since a part of the record damaging to Morgan had already been made public.
But then, he Carew changed his mind again and disclosed that after consulting with several justices of the Supreme Court, they agreed with him that it would be proper for him to close the hearings. Even judges give in to peer pressure, it would seem. Carew said his aim was “solely to shut off scandalous public discussion of the testimony.” Too late for that, I reckon, 90 years later.
Judge Carew feared that in the future, the testimony might prove embarrassing to Little Gloria. Wrong again, young Gloria was not embarrassed by the testimony once she became an adult. She was contemptuous of the way the court and the homophobic public snatched a child away from its mother for reasons having nothing to do with Morgan’s competence as a parent. Vanderbilt grew up feeling that her mother was indeed inattentive and self-involved, but her Grandmother and nurse were unfair and unethical. Although she loved and conspired with them in terminating Morgan’s custody (because she was only 10 and wanted to appease them), Gloria Vanderbilt realized that what happened was a travesty of justice. That is what history should find embarrassing.
Timing is everything. During the adjournment the guardians for the late Reginald Vanderbilt’s estate petitioned to keep Morgan’s allowance from the estate (her only source of income) at $48,000, which is the same as it had been the previous year. Today, $48,000 would be valued at $1,250,000. Learning that Morgan received this much in support from her daughter’s fortune and had no independent source of income made Little Gloria look all the more the victim to the ravenous public.
Nathan Burkan girded to silence this drumbeat of hostility towards his client. The trial was to resume on Monday, October 9, 1934 and he was calling as his first witness, Laura Morgan, a woman determined to destroy her own daughter.