Vanderbilt v. Whitney 10/10 – 10/13/1934

Young Gloria Vanderbilt with her aunt Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney

Read previous posts on the Vanderbilt trial here.

The butler did it. At least he tried to. Gloria Morgan Vanderbilt’s (herein called “Morgan”) maid attempted to put the last nails in Morgan’s coffin by repeating on cross-examination what she had said on direct: that Morgan enjoyed wine, women and song too much to be a good mother. But the next witness somewhat softened the maid’s vitriol, by painting a much more respectable picture of his employer’s lifestyle.

Butler Charles Zaug testified behind closed doors. Lawyers and witnesses were under gag orders and threatened with contempt if they spoke to the press, but Judge John F. Carew summarized the testimony for reporters himself. Carew spoke of the Butler with what could almost be called admiration, feeling that the man was a man of impeccable style and clarity. “Mr. Zaug declared that the conduct of his mistress was beyond criticism and that her guests were always ‘perfect’ ladies and gentlemen.”

Yes, there was drinking and dancing until 1 am, but never past 2 am and no neighbors ever complained of the noise. The butler said Morgan only once took a drink before breakfast and usually rose late, but upon relaying this the judge cheekily added, “Lawyers do that occasionally.”

When asked who was with Morgan when she had that one drink before breakfast, the judge tauntingly said, “a lady.” This comment seems terribly indiscreet, since the Judge claimed to have closed the courtroom due to scandalous talk of her mother’s lesbianism which might embarrass young Gloria later in life. Knowing that his summaries would be interpreted salaciously, the judge seemed to contribute to the so-called scandal.

The butler never saw anyone excessively drunk in Morgan’s home. Zaug had been employed by Morgan for 2 years. He was still on her payroll and thought his salary came from Little Gloria’s estate. He had served Morgan as a staff member in Morgan’s rented New York home on 72nd street, but the day after the trial began, Morgan moved to the Sherry Netherland hotel.

Theodore Beasley, the Morgan chauffer who had been fired by her sister Thelma, after taking Little Gloria and her nurse to Gertrude Whitney’s house, without Morgan’s permission, testified about the places he drove Morgan and identified her escorts. He took his employer to restaurants, cabarets and motion picture theaters. In fact, she attended films “quite a good deal.” The judge would not name the people who were chauffeured by Beasley along with Morgan, “They were a lot of people who are obviously and unquestionably respectable and I don’t see why their names should be mentioned.”

Beasley discussed driving with nurse Keislich, when taking Little Gloria away from her mother and, unlike the nurse, did not describe the child as being hysterical, when she left.

Gertrude Whitney and Laura Morgan (Morgan’s mother and Little Gloria’s grandmother) were not in court that day, but Morgan and her sister Consuelo were.

The judge revealed that he had granted Gertrude Whitney interim custody of the child, until the trial ended and permanent custody could be determined. The judge explained that it was customary to make a temporary award in custody cases, pending a final settlement.

When asked if it was possible that he might award custody to neither Whitney nor Morgan, the judge, considering himself somewhat of a wit said, “I haven’t thought, but read Iolanthe. That problem is resolved beautifully there.” The Gilbert and Sullivan play was in theaters and Carew told reporters to book a front row seat.

That’s an odd comparison for the justice to make, because in Iolanthe when the Lord Chancellor is asked to decide which suitor will marry Phyliss, he has trouble deciding because he is in love with Phyliss himself. If Judge Carew is suggesting his self-interest in the Gloria Vanderbilt custody case is too personal for him to judge fairly, then I might be inclined to agree.

When the judge recommended Iolanthe to reporters he said, “there you’ll learn the procedure when the Chancellor [who would be his counterpart] has pretty young girls in the chancery.” What?

In Iolanthe, it is suggested that Phyliss’ suitors duel to decide who gets her hand. I would like to see Morgan and Gertrude Whitney duel. I have a feeling that Whitney would have won, even though she was older (53) and not as quick, I think she would probably have possessed superior dueling strategy. However, the Iolanthe suitors decided that their friendship was more important than marrying Phyliss. Therefore, both gave her up. I doubt that that solution would have worked for Whitney and Morgan! The two suitors then urged the Lord Chancellor to marry Phyliss himself and he nearly does. I’m sure that Judge Carew would not flinch at the prospect of raising Little Gloria and her millions himself, either.

The mortals in Iolanthe all leave for fairyland when they learn that henceforward peers would be recruited from “persons of intelligence,” leaving no place for them, no doubt. Another self-revelatory message from Judge Carew, perhaps. Similar to the peers, Carew served in the House of Representatives as a Democrat, from New York from 1913-1929. I cannot fathom how Iolanthe applied to the Gloria Vanderbilt case in Carew’s mind, but would love to know what he thought of King Solomon’s solution to a custody battle.

Justice John F. Carew

It was at this point, already 10 days into the trial, that the judge decided what was best for the child’s welfare should be his concern, rather than just construing the matter as a writ of habeas corpus demanding possession of the little girl back from Whitney. “The issue brought to my court was between Mrs. Vanderbilt and Mrs. Whitney and my duty is to decide upon Mrs. Vanderbilt’s petition for a writ of habeas corpus. But it is true that the future welfare of the child is now in my hands.” Wow. Did that only occur to him just now? When pressed again as to whether he might award custody to a third person he said, “I am not considering the possibility right now.”

The judge said that he was getting letters about the case from “nuts”. “The case has stirred up all the lunatics in the country.” He even received letters to be delivered to Morgan. “I’m becoming almost a postoffice station.”

Nut or not, Senator William Borah, who served as a Republican from Idaho for 33 years also weighed in, criticizing the 1% in a way today’s GOP never would. Borah said that the case, which highlighted the Vanderbilt’s excessive wealth, was “an indescribable mess comparing with conditions in Rome in the days of old. They don’t know how many millions the child has. But one can only question how many other children there are equally worthy who have no place to lay their heads.”

A young Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney

Little Gloria, by contrast, had many places, many mansions, in which to lay her head. The chore was choosing one. Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney’s case was drawing to a close. The court took a day off with Morgan’s attorney Nathan Burkan to start presenting his case on October 15, 2021, the following Monday. He intended to call Laura Morgan, Gloria Morgan’s rather malicious mother, to the stand first and I’m not sure why he would do that. I would think he’d want to first establish Morgan’s good character, before giving her parent an opportunity to tear it down.

Left is Cornelius Whitney and his mother Gertrude. Top right is Cornelius. Bottom Right is Evan Burrows Fontaine, the dancer who accused Cornelius of being the mother of her child, in a lawsuit.

But overall, it’s not clear that Burkan was as astute a counselor as he should have been. Remember when he threatened to reveal that Gertrude Whitney was not such a hot mother herself? Well, his plan to do that was to show that her 35 year old son, Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney, was being accused of being the father to the illegitimate child of a dancer, Evan Burrows Fontaine. Burkan said that Burrows’ claim is evidence that Gertrude was not a suitable person to bring up Little Gloria. His aim was to blame Whitney for her thirty-five year old son’s misdeeds. If he didn’t have any better ideas than that, maybe he should have just ended the trial then and there, declaring, “Your honor, we call no witnesses.” But that was not to be.

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