At the moment of her death this past June, it could fairly be said that Gloria Vanderbilt, at the age of 95, had been a celebrity longer than anyone on earth. My forthcoming book, Adventures of a Jazz Age Lawyer: Nathan Burkan and the Making of American Popular Culture, recounts the remarkable events, including the custody battle of the century, that first made Gloria Vanderbilt famous.
Her mother, Gloria Morgan Vanderbilt, was a famous beauty, a darling of society pages. Her father, Reginald Vanderbilt, a great-grandson of the railroad baron Cornelius, was the very model of an international bon vivant. Few men have been as lionized in life or eulogized in death for their sheer profligacy quite like Reggie was. When he died in the fall of 1925, one front-page obituary was headlined “Millions Employed in Gaiety by Sportsman Extraordinary.” Within weeks it became widely known that the trust fund that supported Reggie’s lifestyle would pass not to his widow, but to his eighteen-month-old daughter. Months before Princess Elizabeth was born, as a long-shot heir to the British throne, “Little Gloria” was already famous as the world’s richest toddler. Her mother, with no resources of her own, was dependent on an allowance granted by the legal guardians of the girl’s inheritance.
Little Gloria truly exploded into the national headlines in September 1934. By then her mother, acting in accordance with some rather quacky medical advice, had left her for two years at the Long Island estate of Reggie’s formidable sister, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, society doyenne and eponym of a then-fledgling museum of American art. During that time, Little Gloria’s affections had been thoroughly alienated, and her mother had committed the unpardonable sin of being linked in New York’s tabloids with a married, Jewish man with show business connections. When Gertrude Whitney refused to return the girl to her mother’s custody, a sensational legal battle ensued.
The Whitney legal team spared no expense to prove that Gloria was a neglectful and unfit mother. Former servants, and even her own mother, testified to her long absences from home, her prurient interest in erotic literature, her meretricious relations with married men, and, most damning of all, her “morbid affection” for other women. So scandalous were the allegations that the judge banned the public and the press from the courtroom, forcing reporters to watch what one called “a haughty pantomime” through small windows in the courtroom doors.
Despite the pummeling the elder Gloria was taking from the witness stand, the trial judge was reluctant to deprive a natural mother of custody. The outcome, he said just before Little Gloria herself arrived to testify in his chambers, was “on the lap of the gods.” Gertrude’s lawyers had rehearsed the girl’s testimony to a fare-thee-well, and she did not flub her lines. But it was on cross-examination that Little Gloria exhibited a steely sang froid beyond her years, sealing her mother’s fate.
Her mother was represented by Nathan Burkan, one of New York’s most well-known and savvy trial lawyers, and the “Jazz Age Lawyer” of my title. Burkan tried various tacks to show that Little Gloria’s ill feelings toward her mother were of recent vintage and the result of undue influence. He went through a large pile of affectionate letters she had written to her mother. “Did you hate your mother then?” he asked her repeatedly. “Yes,” she answered, saying she wrote them out of fear. Was she lying when she wrote them? “Yes.” An adult would have been shamed into giving Burkan at least some small concessions. Little Gloria, the transcript shows, stood her ground. Hadn’t her mother given her a dog? “He was getting quite old, and then he died.” Hadn’t she knitted her a sweater? “The sweater was too small. It was about up to here (indicating).”
Then Burkan showed Little Gloria a letter she had written thanking her mother for the sweater. Pointing to the postscript, which the veteran trial lawyer had evidently overlooked, the ten-year-old, spontaneously and unrehearsed, administered a coup de grâce:
Little Gloria: And look! She doesn’t even tell me where she is.
Burkan: “P.S. Where are you now?”
Little Gloria: Yes.
Burkan. She didn’t even tell you where she was?
Little Gloria: No.
The court granted custody of Little Gloria to her Aunt Gertrude. Like many a child caught in the middle of a custody dispute, she had a troubled adolescence. Eventually, some degree of rapprochement with her mother was reached, and it was while visiting her mother in Hollywood as a seventeen-year-old that Little Gloria met her first husband. But when Little Gloria turned twenty-one in 1945―by then already in her second marriage, to sixty-three-year-old conductor Leopold Stokowski―she cut off her disapproving mother. The allowance her mother had formerly received, she told the press, “is now going to blind children and to help feed children who are homeless and starving in many countries.”
In her late-life memoir The Rainbow Comes and Goes, written with her son Anderson Cooper, Gloria Vanderbilt traced her drive to succeed to a tabloid news photo of herself she had accidentally seen during the custody trial, captioned “Poor Little Rich Girl.” The fear that the phrase would stick to her forever, she wrote, “made me determined to make something of my life.”