Vanderbilt v. Whitney Trial: Gloria, Sr. Takes the stand and collapses, 10/29 – 11/2, 1934

Gloria Morgan Vanderbilt

Week 5 and the game that shaped 10 year old Gloria Vanderbilt’s life and destroyed a relationship between mother and daughter, plays on.

It’s not that Little Gloria would have grown into a stable and wise adult if she had not been taken from her mother. Gloria, Sr. (we’ll call her by her maiden name, Morgan) grew up, self-indulgent, tempestuous, and spoiled. Gloria, Jr. was likely destined to inherit those traits, no matter what. But unlike her offspring, throughout her life, Morgan enjoyed strong ties with her sister Consuelo and brother Harry, not to mention her twin sister Thelma, with whom she was joined at the heart.

Gloria Morgan Vanderbilt and Thelma Morgan

Sure, their mother was crazy, but the four Morgan children formed a supportive base for each other.

Consuelo Morgan Thaw

Little Gloria never had a base. Due to the nurse’s unstable conduct during trial, Gloria was separated from the nanny who raised her and lived with an aunt who was not disinterested in her, but was far from nurturing or attentive. Gloria’s maternal grandmother Laura had been a mainstay in her life. Laura sided with Whitney against her own daughter, but once Geraldine Whitney gained custody, she was no more inclined to open her house to Grandma Laura than she had been to invite Gloria Morgan in. Laura had strained her relationship with her own four children and lost touch with little Gloria, too.

It would have been better for Gloria to grow up with an imperfect mother and an undivided maternal family, than with neither. Sure, Gloria and Morgan developed a relationship over the decades to come, but they didn’t share a bond. That was severed by this trial.

Morgan’s twin, Thelma was also mother to an only child. Although, she led a life as frolicsome as her sister’s (and as Geraldine Whitney’s, the other party in the custody battle and an artist who drank and debauched just as freely as she accused Morgan of doing), Thelma was close to her adult son. Morgan was denied such a relationship with Gloria and history repeated itself when Gloria grew up to be a distant mother to her oldest children, although very loving towards the youngest two (one of whom is CNN’s Anderson Cooper). The point is, loneliness breeds loneliness and the seeds of lasting estrangement sprouted during this historic trial.

Gloria Laura Vanderbilt, the heiress grown up

On Tuesday, October 30, 1934, Morgan finally took the stand to give testimony proving that she was not an unfit mother, as accused by her sister-in-law, Geraldine Whitney. Claiming to be suffering from a heart ailment, Morgan was accompanied to court by a trained nurse each day, along with a retinue of family and friends. She draped herself in black, swathed in a chic coat, with a fur-lined collar protecting her throat. Wan, she exuded frailty, which is not the vibe I’d think you’d want to put out to regain custody of your active 10 year old, but maybe she figured she needed to give the appearance of being too weak to engage in the drunken orgies of which she’d been accused.

The press was barred from the courtroom, having been excluded by the court a month earlier. The judge said he wanted to silence the press after a maid’s witness testimony suggested that Gloria Morgan had engaged in a lesbian affair. But by closing the court after that scandal erupted, the judge denied Morgan the right to have her defense heard by the world, just as the accusations against her had been.

With the proceedings being held in the judge’s closed chambers, reporters had to resort to peeking in the court window, to see the events unfold. They could watch the dramatics, without benefit of sound. Before, Morgan, the press was treated to Prince Gottfried Zu Hohenlohe Von Lagenburg, Morgan’s ex-fiance, shouting and gesturing emphatically during his own testimony. When Gottfried left the stand, he was not allowed to disclose what he’d said. Gottfried married someone else when his engagement with Morgan ended. When asked if his wife, who was also in the courtroom, had learned anything about him that she hadn’t known before, Gottfried said, “I don’t think so. We tell everything beforehand.”

In contrast to Gottfried’s gesticulations, Morgan took a more sedate approach, when being examined on direct by her attorney, Nathan Burkan. However, when he presented her with a picture of her daughter, tears began to stream down her face.

Morgan denied that she had abandoned her daughter, but explained that, two years earlier, the child was “spirited away” by those in league with Geraldine Whitney, sister of Morgan’s dead husband, Reginald Vanderbilt. Gloria said “she wanted to see the pigeons in central park”. When she left her mother’s home for that adventure, she was driven away to Geraldine Whitney’s house on Long Island, without Morgan’s knowledge or permission. Morgan’s access to the child had been limited ever since.

Though she seemed exhausted after a day on the stand, Morgan was hopeful. When asked what she would do with Gloria, if she regained custody Morgan answered, “I shall send her to the Sacred Heart Academy, where I went myself.” Of course, 1934 was a different time and news that Morgan intended to ship the kid off to boarding school, as soon as she was returned to her arms, shocked no one. Living away from home, children were expected not only to learn academics, but to develop socially, in a controlled environment. Morgan was part of an upper class where boarding school was expected. The Sacred Heart Academy was Catholic and one of the only factors that seemed to weigh against Geraldine Whitney’s bid to keep Gloria was that Whitney was protestant and might divert Gloria from her Catholic faith. The public felt that Morgan had the right to decide her own child’s religion, even if she was stripped of all other parental privileges.

After chatting with the press, Morgan moved to the elevator and looked around for her two sisters, saying, “Where are the rest of my chicks?”

The next day of testimony proved more grueling for Morgan. Judge Carew would not let the press into the courtroom, but he sometimes offered them summaries afterwards, which indicates that he was not opposed to salacious testimony. He simply wanted to be the one distributing it. Carew told the media that Morgan denied one of her maid’s many allegations, that she had been intimate with Prince Gottfried. Of course, Morgan was an unmarried widow in her late twenties and Gottfried had been her fiancĂ©, but they were forced to deny having sex out of wedlock, in order for Morgan to keep her child. Carew relayed that, although Gottfried had been seen with Morgan in his pajamas, he’d worn those to the beach. They were swim pajamas, not sex pajamas, I guess.

Prince Gottfried

After hours of having to put up defenses to claims slung by hypocrites, Morgan was drained. During the lunch break Morgan was seen slumped over the counsel table despondent, for twenty minutes after they adjourned. Her brother Harry and a nurse tried to rouse her. Her attorney, Burkan, explained, “She’s very ill.”

The next day, Morgan’s sister assured the press that Morgan “felt much better.” Prince Gottfried and Harry Morgan were standing at the doors when Morgan entered the judge’s chambers. Gottfried bowed low and kissed Morgan’s hand, while her brother kissed her cheek.

When one reporter asked Morgan if she could bear the strain of cross examination, she replied “I will collapse only when they give me my baby.” That resolve was short-lived because Morgan promptly collapsed on the stand during her third day of testimony and had to be led to an anteroom. Geraldine Whitney and her daughter were present for their adversary’s breakdown, but did not acknowledge it. They stared straight ahead, unbothered. At that point, the Court postponed trial yet again.

When met with the suggestion that Morgan was faking illness to avoid cross-examination, her brother Harry denied it. “My sister is bearing up well under the strain. She does not dread the cross-examination because she has nothing to conceal and only has the truth to tell. So she really hasn’t any cause to worry.” But yet she keeps fainting!

In Morgan’s absence, the judge took time to speak to the two guardians of Gloria’s $2,800,000 estate ( worth $57,800,000, today). Carew was deciding whether two letters concerning Morgan’s finances and personal evidence should be admitted into evidence. Morgan’s attorney fought against their admission. It was thought that the letters would somehow cast Morgan in a negative light, but one of the financial guardians took pains to deny that he had ever opposed Morgan’s custody of the girl. He asked Judge Carew to correct the incorrect impression that he had given testimony corroborating the conclusion that Morgan was an unfit mother.

Another week of trial neared its close and if Gloria Morgan thought that being questioned by her own attorney was distressing, when cross-examination starts, she’s in for a bumpy ride.

For previous entries in the Vanderbilt trial blog go here.

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