Read previous trial installments, here.
The third week of the Vanderbilt custody trial ended with both a whimper and a bang.
After week one, the trial testimony remained closed both to the public and the press. Neither the witnesses nor the attorneys were allowed to disclose what occurred in the proceedings. After Gloria Vanderbilt’s maid accused her of having a love tryst with a titled Brit, Lady Milford-Haven, a gag order issued.
Still, the judge, John Carew, had taken to providing summaries of his own to the press, initially. That too stopped. Thus, the media had to focus on activity surrounding the trial, rather than actual testimony.
Gloria Morgan Vanderbilt’s twin sister, Thelma Furness , finally arrived in New York on October 15, 2021. Along with elder sister Consuleo Thaw, the trio made an elegant show of entering the Manhattan Supreme Court building. Vanderbilt wore a black hat, silk dress and fox fur. Lady Furness wore brown and Consuelo wore gray tweed. To what extent did the sisters coordinate their attire? Certainly, to clash would have been almost as much of a crime as losing custody of one’s daughter. Did Thelma (future consort to King Edward VIII) and Consuelo dress demurely, so as not to upstage Gloria?
Gertrude Whitney, ( Vanderbilt by birth who was, even then, a respected art patron, sculptor and socialite) was seen giving Gloria Vanderbilt Sr.’s (herein called “Morgan”) witnesses Prince Gottfried Zu Hohenlohe-Langenburg of Germany and his wife Princess Maria Rita of Greece, the cold shoulder as she haughtily walked by them, suggesting that a rich Vanderbilt was more an aristocrat than titled Europeans, any day. The first witness presented by Morgan’s attorney was her former butler, Harry Wright. Then, Thomas Gilchrist, co-guardian of Little Gloria’s estate testified.
On October 19, 1934, the trial was delayed, while Judge Carew met with attorneys for both parties behind closed doors. This gave rise to rumors that a settlement in the case was imminent, but Morgan’s attorney, Nathan Burkan, hotly denied that. “They can’t settle with us,” he insisted.
Whitney’s attorney Herbert Smyth added, “Minds cannot agree. It is difficult to bring all interested parties together.” Thus, the trial ended for the week with sources saying that Whitney’s attorneys had offered a compromise: Whitney would return custody of Little Gloria to Morgan, if Morgan would forfeit her bid to become custodian of Little Gloria’s fortune.
Clearly, if true, this settlement offer shows that the custody battle was motivated by money. Oh, not Morgan’s interest in it, but by the Vanderbilt family’s interest in keeping it. They did not want Morgan to control her daughter’s finances. Was it because they suspected Morgan incapable of doing so? Did they think Morgan would raid her daughter’s inheritance, leaving the child with nothing? If that was the case, why not just sue her to manage the money. Why threaten to take the child, to gain leverage over the mother? Furthermore, although all of the Morgans led an extravagant lifestyle, there was no evidence that Gloria Morgan would try to rob her daughter. It seems as if Whitney was just being possessive over what she considered Vanderbilt property. They didn’t want the girl Reginald Vanderbilt married, when she was only 17, to have what they thought of as theirs. Morgan wasn’t worthy, wasn’t good enough.
The week ended and Whitney was scheduled to testify Friday. She promptly had a “heart attack” on Saturday. Yes, she was reportedly recovering at her Fifth Avenue home, from a heart attack believed to have been brought on by the nervous strain of the court battle. Seriously? If it had really been a heart attack, with her means, wouldn’t Gertrude Whitney have gone to a hospital for treatment, even if only just to err on the side of caution? The heart attack drama, and its timing, conveniently put a sympathetic focus on Whitney just before she was about to take the witness stand and concurrent with her attorney’s attempt to force a settlement with Morgan.
Meanwhile, a surrogate court was preparing to partition the $21,250,000 ($428,000,000 in today’s money) trust left by Little Gloria’s grandfather, Cornelius Vanderbilt. Little Gloria’s father had a life interest in a quarter of the money, but upon his death the trust would be divided among living family members (including Gertrude Whitney and her brother, the younger Cornelius Vanderbilt III), with Little Gloria getting 1/8 of that estate and her half-sister (Reginald’s older daughter) also receiving 1/8.
Next, the fourth week of the trial begins on October 22, 1934.