Vanderbilt Custody Trial Week Four: October 23 to October 28, 1934

Young Gloria Laura Vanderbilt

To read previous installments on the Vanderbilt Custody trial, go here:

Gloria Vanderbilt, Sr. (called by her maiden name “Morgan” herein) collapsed following a recent meeting with her 10 year old daughter. Morgan’s team said that the collapse occurred because she was so upset at having to have court-sanctioned, guarded visits with her own child. The supporters of the paternal aunt trying to take custody of Morgan’s daughter away from her, Gertrude Whitney, claimed that Morgan collapsed because Little Gloria was afraid of Morgan, terrified at the prospect of being forced to live with her.

Whatever the cause of Morgan’s malady, it left her nearly too frail to attend trial during its fourth week. Looking pale, nervous and still shaken, she managed to get there for an hour, escorted by a trained nurse (mon dieu!). The nurse leaned over periodically to administer smelling salts to Morgan. Morgan stayed long enough to hear Whitney’s testimony against her, but when Morgan’s own family (sisters, brother, ex-fiance and the ex-fiance’s current wife) took the stand to speak lovingly of Morgan and her maternal competence, Morgan quickly relapsed and left court. The strain of the trial had burdened her heart and necessitated periodic rests, so sister Thelma took Morgan’s place at the counsel table. I mean, what’s the good of having an identical twin sister if she can’t take your place from time to time? Eva and Zsa Zsa Gabor often stood in for one another and they weren’t even twins!

Prince Hohenluhe (Morgan’s ex-fiance), Lady Thelma Furness (Morang’s twin sister), Harry Morgan (Morgan’s brother), Gloria Morgan Vanderbilt

Lady Thelma Furness was happy to fill in for her absent sis and regaled reporters in the corridor of the Supreme Court with her hot denouncement of Whitney, the “mudslinger.”

Encased in silver fox, Thelma erupted, “Why should people in glass houses sling mud? That woman has always had all she wanted. Why should she want to adopt this child when the asylums are full of lovely children would appreciate being adopted. Why should she want to adopt my sister’s only child?”

“If Mrs. Vanderbilt had four or five children, I could understand her trying to do this because she was fascinated by the child. But why is she trying to do this when my sister has only one child.”

Let’s break this down. Thelma thinks that if Whitney wants kids, she should go asylum shopping for them? I mean, why didn’t she suggest an orphanage or adoption agency? Why did she tell Whitney to go look in an asylum, if she wanted a kid?

Secondly, Thelma thinks it’s ok to rip kids from the arms of their natural mother, so long as the mother has several offspring and can spare one. Don’t take a woman’s only child, but if she has 4 or 5, by all means help yourself! Thelma, by the way, only had one child of her own, William Anthony Furness, 2nd Viscount Furness. When Tony Furness took a vow of celibacy and died without issue in 1995, his family titles became extinct.

Thelma Furness and her son Tony Furness, 2nd Viscount Furness

And I love how Thelma rejected all of Whitney’s nonsense about wanting what was in the best interest of Little Gloria and reduced Whitney’s custody fight down to the fact that Whitney was simply “fascinated” with the little girl, which sounds creepy. Whitney was not around to hear Thelma lambast her, however. She was inside the courthouse with her daughter Flora.

Although the press and public were banned from the courtroom, it is thought that when Thelma took the stand she refuted the claims of Morgan’s nurse and maid, who insisted that Morgan had a wild lifestyle and was unfit to raise her daughter. Thelma also had to oppose her own mother (Laura Morgan) who sided with Gertrude Whitney against the rest of the family and insisted that Gloria, Sr. treated Little Gloria like a “poor orphan”.

Gertrude Whitney and Lara Morgan (Morgan’s mother)

For her part, Gertrude Whitney was on the stand for four days. Her lawyer said she was “bearing up beautifully, beautifully.” Reporters listened outside of the court window to catch what little sound they could. At one point she spoke loudly enough for them to hear her exclaim, “I did not! No! Never!” It is unclear to which accusations Whitney was responding, but Whitney, being a well-known sculptor, Morgan’s attorney Nathan Burkan let it be known that he would be attacking Whitney’s character and her own love life, just as Whitney had done to Morgan. For starters, Burkan was going to expose Whitney’s (appalling) habit of using nude models in her art work. As Burkan addressed her, Whitney was several times seen moving to the edge of her seat to make angry replies to Burkan, emphasized with excited gestures.

One Philadelphia artist’s model titillated the press with what she could say about Whitney. Lillian Lagier (formerly Lillian Proctor an ex-Follies dancer) said, “I knew Mrs. Whitney when I was an artist’s model. After reading accounts of the trial, it occurred to me that Mrs. Vanderbilt might be interested in my testimony.” Lagier got to know Whitney when she was engaged to Robert Winthrop Chanler, a wealthy artist who died. Although Burkan could never make his accusations on the record, what he was trying to do through salacious hints, was let the public know that it was absurd for Whitney to disparage Morgan for alleged lesbianism when Whitney herself was widely rumored to have engaged in same sex affairs.

Lillian Lagier

Lagier later sued A. C. Blumenthal, a wealthy New York real estate operator. Blumenthal was reported to be Morgan’s lover at the time of the trial and the person who introduced Morgan to attorney Nathan Burkan. It was Blumenthal, for whom Lagier made the trip to New York to testify for Morgan against Whitney. In 1938, Lagier said Blumenthal still owed her $950 for expenses and sued for reimbursement. Lagier also demanded return of letters artist Chanler (who began wooing her when she was 17 and he was 44) wrote to her, which Blumenthal was holding in his possession. It is not known what connection these letters had to the Vanderbilt case, but Lagier used to model for Whitney at Whitney’s Greenwich Village studio and Chanler was a great friend of Whitney’s. He designed the stained glass windows in Whitney’s studio and was known for the licentious life he lead, a life which Whitney was said to admire and emulate. Lillian Lagier was in a great position to discuss the ribald artist indulgences that both Whitney and Chanler enjoyed.

One of Chanler’s letters to Lagier, written when she was still a teen, read, “There is no end for me. There may be a great sorrow for me if I love you and then I’ll be a wreck and a monument to your power. God bless you, dear one. If I become a wreck, the birds and the butterflies and the winds will leave me with memories of you and I’ll make other men jealous in the glory of my disaster.” It turns out that there was an end to Chanler. He died in 1930. To the extent that Lagier tried to sully Whitney before the Vanderbilt court, she apparently did not succeed.

In addition to Lagier, Morgan’s chauffer brought in a movie projector, so he could show family films made in Europe, which presumably contained reels of a happy Little Gloria with her mother, giving lie to Whitney’s claim that the child had been neglected by Morgan. Earlier in the week, Whitney’s lawyer had introduced still photos showing a smiling Little Gloria posing on Whitney’s Old Westbury Long Island estate. So, the film projector was offering tit for tat.

Then, came maid Olga Wright, who had worked for Morgan before dramatic maid Maria Caillot had. Wright contradicted Caillot’s claims that Morgan was an unfit mother. Olga Wright was married to Harry Wright, the former Morgan butler who said that Little Gloria had received excellent care while with her mother.

Though banned from the courthouse, reporters could look in through the window of the white tribunal and see Judge Carew and the witness. They noted that he was paying rapt attention to Olga Wright’s testimony and often asked questions. This is almost farcical. Why call it a closed courtroom when reporters are looking through the window and listening at the keyhole? Why not pull a drape, if you truly want privacy?

Little Gloria Laura Vanderbilt

What happened on the witness stand took second stage to the visitor in Judge Carew’s chamber, Little Gloria Laura Vanderbilt herself. Her appearance took reporters by surprise, since it had not been announced before. She arrived with her aunt, the trial attorney, Herbert Smyth and Frank Cracker, attorney for the Whitney estate.

Judge Carew spent 3 hours with the child, who came in smiling, wearing a long dark coat, with a blue linen dress underneath.

The entire 6th floor of the courtroom where Carew’s chambers were located was vacated, during Little Gloria’s visit, so that Little Gloria would feel comfortable, but there were 9 police officers stationed in the corridor and court attendants guarded the doors, so how comfortable could she be?

Only attorneys for both sides, the judge and a stenographer were present in the chambers with Little Gloria and Carew. Carew, who had five children of his own, spoke to Little Gloria conversationally. She sat next to him on a leather-backed swivel chair, from which she swung her legs and was heard to giggle.

She said that she couldn’t remember much about the time she spent with her mother in London and Paris (which was now over two years ago). She just knows that her mother was away a lot. They moved often and she had no one to play with, except for her nurse. If you’ve seen Nurse Keislich, you’ll remember that she does not exactly look like the ideal hopscotch partner.

By contrast, the Whitney estate was practically an amusement park. Little Gloria had cousins of her own age to play with and even had a pony. From Black Beauty to Seinfeld we’ve been told many times that a child with a pony is destined for joy. If you’ve read any of Little Gloria’s books, you’ll know that life with Gertrude Whitney was not exactly a barrel of laughs. Little Gloria loved and respected her aunt, but she was not, in fact, having the time of her life playing with cousins. In saying otherwise, she was putting on a show for the judge, so that she could stay with her nurse, the only real mother she had ever known. Being with her nurse and her maternal grandmother was her main goal, not being with Whitney. But that is not what she told the judge.

She emphatically told Carew that she did not want to leave Whitney. She said she did not dislike her mother, but had simply seen very little of her. This at least softened claims by Keislich that the girl was terrified of her mother and suicidal at the thought of living with her.

Little Gloria said she loved school and spoke knowledgeably about the classes she was studying. She also recited “Now I lay me down to sleep,” which was no feat. Hey, the kid was 10 years old. Two year olds know that prayer. But Carew was checking to see that she was getting the appropriate religious instruction. Little Gloria was baptized as an Episcopalian after her birth, which was her father’s faith and his sister Gertrude Whitney’s. But when he died, she was baptized a second time as Catholic, which was her mother’s faith. Whitney said she had no objection to raising Little Gloria as a Catholic, so that cut off any attempt Morgan might make to keep custody of her child on religious grounds.

Judge Carew was testing Little Gloria to make sure she was no stranger to Catholicism. She recited the Hail Mary for the Roman Catholics and the Lord’s prayer for the Episcopalians. Judge Carew declared her prayers to be letter perfect. At the end of their session, Little Gloria whispered the name of her choice for custodian. “The child has a definite choice,” an unnamed witness to the exchange said. That choice, Aunt Gertrude Whitney, was only revealed when the press ferreted out leaks about what had transpired, later.

When asked about Little Gloria’s insistence that she did not want to live with her mother, Attorney Burkan replied, “If a child says it doesn’t want to go with its mother, that’s the strongest reason why it should go there, to be taught the emotions of filial love and devotion.” Gee, I’m not sure that’s the way custody decisions work, Burkan, and the statement almost sounds threatening.

Morgan’s attorney said that Morgan “has trouble with her heart.” But that trouble was apparently transient because she was not reported to have a weak heart in the 30 years she lived after the trial. She ultimately died of cancer. Though she was still ailing following Little Gloria’s meeting with the judge, Morgan’s representatives vowed she would take the witness stand on her own behalf “if she has to be carried into court with fourteen doctors in attendance.” Considering the histrionics that both Whitney and Morgan have put on in this case, the idea of fourteen doctors wheeling Morgan into court on a gurney hardly seems outside the realm of possibility. Stay tuned.

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