Gloria Laura Vanderbilt was only 10 when she became an unwilling tabloid sensation. It was 1934, and she was the subject of a nasty custody battle between her widowed mother and her aunt, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney. Depression-era Americans eagerly read about the acrimonious trial, which was open to the press until the day a maid accused Gloria’s mother of having an affair with a relative of the British Royal Family in court. Newspapers dubbed Gloria “the poor little rich girl,” kicking off a wave of media attention that followed her until her death on June 17, 2019.
Gloria, a society heiress who later launched a fashion empire built on designer jeans, was born on February 20, 1924 to Gloria Morgan and Reginald Claypoole Vanderbilt, great-grandson of the famous railroad tycoon. Reginald was a heavy drinker and gambler who was 24 years older than the teenage Gloria Morgan. By the time Reginald died from cirrhosis of the liver, he had blown through his money and racked up lots of debt. His 18-month-old daughter Gloria stood to inherit part of a family trust fund when she reached age 21, but until then, she and her mother would live on interest payments.
Over the next several years, Gloria Morgan lived in opulent style on those payments. The Swiss-born socialite went back to Europe, where her twin sister lived as mistress to Edward, Prince of Wales. Gloria Morgan moved in the same royal circles and briefly became engaged to the German prince of Hohenlohe-Langenburg. When her daughter got tonsillitis, she took Gloria back to the U.S. for an operation, then left the girl to recover with her aunt Gertrude on Long Island while she went back to Europe for several months.
This is where things started to come to a head. The Vanderbilt family and Gertrude in particular already disapproved of Gloria Morgan’s lifestyle, and now that she wasn’t living with her daughter, the family cut her interest payments in half. The mother returned to New York City and tried to get her daughter back, but Gertrude objected on the grounds that she was an unfit mother. In 1934, the women went to court to fight for custody.
Tabloid newspapers in New York City were already known for their sensational coverage of millionaires’ sordid behavior, such as in 1926 when a famous 51-year-old multimillionaire married a 15-year-old high school student. They had also covered salacious court cases, like the trial for the 1927 murder that inspired Double Indemnity. And because the Vanderbilt vs. Whitney case provided all of this, it became a major story in the tabloids.
On the witness stand, Gloria Morgan’s former nurse painted her employer as a "lazy, loose, erotic woman" who was "indifferent to rats and vermin that swarmed in her house and cruel to her child,” wrote a journalist for the New York Daily News. She added that the testimony, which continued for five hours, “was a blistering tale no skin lotion could soothe."
But soon, an accusation by Gloria Morgan’s French maid caused the judge to eject the press from the courtroom. When a lawyer asked if she had ever witnessed improper conduct from Gloria Morgan, she said yes, and explained: “Mrs. Vanderbilt was in bed reading a paper, and there was Lady Milford Haven beside the bed with her arm around Mrs. Vanderbilt’s neck—Lady Milford’s arm around Mrs. Vanderbilt’s neck—and kissing her just like a lover.”
At first, the courtroom fell silent. But soon, the commotion was too loud for the lawyer and the maid to speak over. The judge threw everyone “except the parties in the case” out, and announced the case would henceforth be held in private.
Besides the testimony from the nurse and the maid, some of the statements against Gloria Morgan came from young Gloria herself. This surprised her mother’s lawyers, who produced loving letters from Gloria to her mother in court. In Gloria’s memoir, The Rainbow Comes and Goes, she wrote that Gertrude’s lawyer had coached her to say she was afraid of her mother. After several weeks of testimony, the judge awarded custody of Gloria to her aunt, Gertrude, while giving her mother weekend visitation rights.
“I had no relationship with her at all and I just worshiped her from afar,” Gloria Vanderbilt later said of her mother in a 2016 interview with her son, Anderson Cooper. “I felt no connection at all. I felt like an impostor.” In addition, Gloria said she wasn’t close with her aunt. It was her nanny, Dodo, who became a kind of mother figure in her life.
Growing up, Gloria was troubled by the media’s continued attention. “As a teenager she tried to avoid the spotlight, but reporters and cameramen followed her everywhere,” Cooper said in a statement to CNN when she died. “She was determined to make something of her life, determined to make a name for herself, and find the love she so desperately needed.”
Nearly fifty years later, the story of her custody trial became a bestselling book by Barbara Goldsmith called Little Gloria…Happy at Last. Soon after, it became a TV miniseries starring Angela Lansbury as Gloria’s aunt. But by that point, Gloria had found success in fashion with a line of dark, tight-fitting jeans whose back pockets were embroidered with her name. She expanded her business by releasing home goods and fragrances, and also wrote several books. When she died at age 95 in 2019, she was most remembered for these accomplishments.