Vanderbilt v. Whitney Trial, Week Four, October 1934

Gloria Laura Vanderbilt

Find the previous entries in this trial series, here.

When we last saw the parties, Gloria Morgan Vanderbilt (Morgan) and the sister-in-law who was in court trying to take custody of Morgan’s daughter away from her, sculptor, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, Whitney had just suffered a heart attack.

Well, that’s what her lawyer and the press said. Since she was never hospitalized and was up and about immediately, it is likely that if she suffered anything it was stress due to her upcoming testimony as a witness in the custody case. Then too, perhaps she only wanted to gain sympathy in the eyes of the public. Back then, a 59 year old claiming illness might tug on the heart strings harder than beauty Gloria Vanderbilt struggling to maintain custody of her 10 year old millionaire heiress. Morgan married Little Gloria’s father, Reginald C. Vanderbilt, when she was still a teenager. She was actually younger than his daughter Cathleen (31 at the time of the trial), from his previous marriage.

Because it was still the 1930s, society didn’t censure Reginald Vanderbilt for robbing the cradle. No, they blamed Gloria Morgan for “seducing” a middle aged man and “forcing” him to marry. Fainting a little here and there could only help Gertrude Whitney further poison the perception the trial watchers had of Morgan.

(Original Caption) 6/13/37-Roslyn, L.I., New York: Miss Gloria Vanderbilt pictured at the spring meeting of the United Hunts Racing Association here. The young heiress was among a brilliant society throng of 5,000 who witnessed the most successful session the United Hunts has ever had at Roslyn.

Drama unfolded before the resumption of trial. Monday it was revealed that six days earlier, on October 16, 1934, a crude note was delivered to the Morgan home which read, “If you value the life of your child, do not fail to meet me in front of the Metropolitan Theater in Brooklyn at 10:30 p.m., Friday. I will be waiting for you. If you do not keep the appointment, you will hear from me again.” With Bruno Richard Hauptmann on trial for the kidnapping and murder of Charles A. Lindbergh, Jr. during the very same time period, this note was threatening, indeed, even though it contained no mention of kidnapping or ransom.

It was clearly penned by a Hauptmann copycat, because it had two circles, which is the way Hauptmann identified his ransom notes in the Lindbergh case. Morgan handed the missive over to police and guards were posted outside of her home. Morgan, being no fool, rejected the police’s suggestion that she keep the meeting and go as a decoy to catch the writer. Therefore, they sent a disguised female police officer in Morgan’s place instead. No one showed up and the letter was written off as a crank.

Gloria was in Long Island, at her aunt’s old Westbury estate, nowhere near the 5-story brownstone on E. 72nd Street just off Fifth Avenue, where the note was delivered. The alarmed mother demanded to see her daughter, to assure herself that she was safe. The judge granted this request and Morgan was allowed to travel to Whitney’s home with her two sisters, to spend time alone with Little Gloria. The visit lasted an hour. Morgan’s side reported that the child was happy to see her and said that although she was happy with Aunt Gertrude, she really wanted to be with “mummy” again. Since Little Gloria called Gertrude by the nickname “Aunt Toto,” I’m not sure that her mom’s side was quoting her verbatim, here. They also said that as they departed, Little Gloria exclaimed, “Please come again, mother. Play some more games with me.” How many games could they have played in an hour? Whatever occurred, what is known is that Morgan promptly collapsed after the mother and child reunion.

What was the cause of her fainting? Well, she probably figured that what is good for the goose is good for the gander. If Whitney suffered a heart attack . . . wait. Morgan’s collapse actually preceded her opponent’s “heart attack.” It’s just that the press did not learn of the collapse until the week afterwards. Perhaps, Whitney was only playing catch up and feigned a heart attack to head off news of Morgan’s collapse that she knew would soon be reported.

At any rate, the reason that Morgan fainted was a matter of debate. Whitney’s people said it was because Little Gloria went into hysterics over the fear that she would be taken away from Whitney. While Morgan insisted that she fell victim to a nervous collapse due to the indignity of visiting her own child “under a guard of cordons of police.”

Crisis averted, Whitney rallied from her weekend heart attack and, though also suffering from laryngitis, she showed up to testify in closed court on Monday, October 22, 1934. As she entered the building, her throat was protected from the cold by a heavy silk muffler. The Whitney and Vanderbilt supporters not only sat on opposite sides of the courtroom, they even parked on opposite sides of the building outside. Whitney explained to the court why she would be a better guardian for Little Gloria than the child’s mother, but the content of her testimony was not disclosed to the press. Although, in the unbiased opinion of her attorney Herbert C. Smythe, “She was a wonderful witness.”

Meanwhile, word was that Whitney’s side had extended a settlement offer to Morgan. It was never made public, but the details were reported in the press and they evolved. The leak said that the settlement proposed Whitney would drop her case and do nothing further to oppose Morgan’s writ of habeas corpus to regain custody of Little Gloria. Further, Morgan would be entitled to continue receiving $48,000 a year from Little Gloria’s estate ($978,000 per year in today’s money). Additionally, all of Whitney’s witness’ claims that Morgan was an unfit mother would be expunged. In exchange, Morgan would withdraw her application to become custodian of Little Gloria’s money. Morgan’s counsel denied that there had been any settlement overtures and said that trial would proceed as scheduled. Whitney’s attorney never denied that there was a settlement offer, but suggested that it failed. He left Carew’s chambers, following a 15 minute conference, and informed the assembled reporters, “No settlement.”

Regarding the expungement of previous testimony in trial, everyone knows you cannot unring a bell. Not only did the courtroom hear the allegations against Morgan, but the world did, as her drinking, partying, sex life and child neglect were repeated exhaustively in newspapers, in both the United States and Europe. Unless Whitney could “expunge” the thousands of printed articles that smeared Morgan, no court retraction would be sufficient.

Settlement murmurs over and girded for battle, Morgan’s lawyers prepared a brutal cross-examine of Whitney. Attorney Nathan Burkan intended to question her regarding the use of nude models for some of her sculptures. Where are my smelling salts! Two artists, Frederick Hazelton and Frederick Soldwedell were scheduled to testify against Whitney. Burkan vowed to explore Whitney’s private life, as she had done to Morgan.

In addition to Morgan’s siblings and princely ex-fiance (and his wife, who also praised Morgan’s character), Burkan listed other luminaries who would take the stand, like film actor Thomas Meighan, though Burkan declined to describe the witness’ expected testimony. Burkan also named Captain Jefferson Davis Cohn, a british publisher and horsebreeder; A. C. Blumenthal (Alfred Cleveland Blumenthal) a theatrical promoter and real estate developer; and a couple of cowpunchers (cowboys) as future witnesses.

Actor Thomas Meighan, witness for Gloria Morgan Vanderbilt

Dr. Oscar M. Schloss was called to the stand by Judge Carew, himself. Schloss had attended to Little Gloria two years before the trial, while she was still in Morgan’s care. Schloss admitted that he was not a “dispassionate witness.” He said of Little Gloria, who was only 8 when last he saw her, “There was a strong nervous element in her illness. Her nervousness led her to magnify her physical condition. I know of no concrete thing she was fearful of.” This indicates that Whitney’s claim that Little Gloria was sickly and Morgan neglected her delicate health needs was untrue. Dr. William P. Lawrence, who took over Little Gloria’s care for Mrs. Whitney, once Whitney had custody, took note of Dr. Schloss’ opinion in his diary (which was admitted into evidence). “Talked with Schloss. Thought there was little physical, all psychological with nurse.” This finding was confirmed by “Little” Gloria herself, once she became an adult. She said that her nurse and maternal grandmother made her so afraid of leaving them that the idea of her mother regaining custody terrified and made her physically ill. While there is no doubt that Little Gloria’s grandmother and nurse loved her and was deeply loved in return, it is clear that they emotionally abused her by not only playing on her fears, but creating them.

With settlement off the table, the Judge announced that he wanted to talk to 10 year old Gloria himself. He said he was anxious to speak with her in the presence of both Whitney and Vanderbilt. I’m not suggesting the Judge was a dummy. Maybe child psychology was not as big a deal in 1934 as it is now. But was using common sense a thing? To get at the root of what would be best for Little Gloria, wouldn’t it be better for Judge Carew to interview her outside the presence of Whitney, Vanderbilt and any other intimidating adults, rather to have them sitting there listening? In fact, forcing a child to appear in the presence of both and denounce one relative, to please the other, seems like cruel and unusual punishment. We’ll see what transpires.

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