The ‘Trial of the Century’: Gloria Vanderbilt’s Turbulent Childhood Amid Custody Battle
In 1934, amidst the headlines of the Great Depression era, a young girl named Gloria Vanderbilt found herself at the center of a sensational custody battle that would be dubbed the “trial of the century.” The dramatic saga of her early life, marked by neglectful parenting and familial strife, would shape her future and thrust her into the unforgiving glare of public scrutiny. With custody battles now veiled in privacy, the media frenzy that engulfed this case stands as a relic of a bygone era.
Gloria Vanderbilt, who passed away at the age of 95, once revealed that her traumatic childhood set her on an unending quest for love throughout her life. Born in 1924 to her mother, Gloria Morgan Vanderbilt, and father, Reginald Claypoole Vanderbilt, the young girl, often referred to as “Little Gloria,” entered a world fraught with opulence and turmoil.
When Gloria’s parents tied the knot in 1923, her mother, Gloria Morgan Vanderbilt, was a 19-year-old socialite, renowned for her beauty and social standing alongside her identical twin sister, Thelma. In stark contrast, her father, Reginald, aged 42, grappled with alcoholism and the reckless squandering of the family fortune. Little Gloria arrived in the world a year later, followed by the tragic death of her father from cirrhosis of the liver and other alcohol-related complications.
At just 18 months old, Gloria inherited her father’s substantial $5 million trust fund, an amount equivalent to approximately $63 million in today’s currency. She shared this wealth with a half-sister from her father’s previous marriage. To support her daughter, her 21-year-old mother received a generous allowance from the trust fund.
Gloria Morgan Vanderbilt relocated to Paris with her daughter and a nanny, embarking on a whirlwind social life that took her across Europe. Her toddler daughter was often left in the care of others while she attended to her social calendar. By the summer of 1934, mother and daughter had returned to New York, and Gloria Morgan Vanderbilt initiated legal proceedings to gain sole control of her daughter’s inheritance.
The custody battle took a dramatic turn on September 25, 1934, when Gloria Morgan Vanderbilt accused paternal aunt Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney of “spiriting” her daughter away while she was feeding birds in Central Park. Whitney countered with a lawsuit for full custody, leading to a judge’s decision to place the 10-year-old Gloria in Whitney’s care while the case unfolded.
The courtroom drama intensified when Gloria’s own mother, Laura Kilpatrick Morgan, filed an affidavit stating that during their time in Paris, her daughter had been largely neglected, with Gloria Morgan Vanderbilt devoting herself to her own pleasures and rarely tending to her child’s needs. Shockingly, it was alleged that Gloria Morgan Vanderbilt had attempted to teach the young girl how to mix cocktails during that period.
The nanny added to the mounting evidence against Gloria Morgan Vanderbilt, describing her late-night carousing with a film actress, the presence of lovers who stayed overnight, and the casual display of magazines featuring nude images of men and women throughout the house.
These accusations rocked the courtroom and even led to the involvement of the German aristocrat Prince Gottfried of Hohenlohe-Langenburg, who set sail for New York to defend his name in the unfolding scandal. As the trial took unexpected turns, it was suggested that Gloria Morgan Vanderbilt might have had a lesbian relationship, prompting the judge to clear the courtroom and urge privacy for the sake of the young girl’s future peace and self-respect.
Little Gloria’s mother, however, insisted on a public defense. Her twin sister, siblings, and friends rallied to her side, condemning the accusations as outrageous. The prince testified that Gloria Morgan Vanderbilt’s life revolved around her daughter.
Despite the tumultuous courtroom battles, Gloria Vanderbilt ultimately sided with her aunt Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, revealing in private testimony that she had felt lonely in her mother’s care and desired to remain with her aunt. As an adult, Gloria disclosed that Whitney had coached her on what to say during the trial.
The judge ultimately awarded primary custody to Whitney, granting limited visitation rights to Gloria’s mother. While Whitney’s household provided stability, it was not without its challenges, as strict rules and stifling conditions left Little Gloria feeling constrained.
Gloria Vanderbilt’s tumultuous upbringing foreshadowed a life marked by fame, fortune, and personal trials. Her journey, which led her to pursue her own path and make her mark in various fields, including fashion and art, serves as a testament to her resilience and determination in the face of early adversity.