Heiress in Distress: The Gloria Vanderbilt Custody Battle

mother with her child at the kitchen sink

Gloria Laura Madeleine Sophie Vanderbilt passed away at the age of 95 in June 2019. Born the heiress to a fortune built by financier and railroad tycoon Cornelius Vanderbilt, she is perhaps a household name for designing a successful line of women’s jeans. She was an accomplished woman who explored her talents in acting, writing, and the visual arts. She raised four children, which include journalist and news anchor Anderson Cooper.

Throughout her life, Gloria was under the scrutiny of the media. Reporters covered her personal tragedies, her divorces, and her triumphs. But the first major media circus that surrounded her occurred in 1934 when she was just 10 years old. The affair was one brought on by her inheritance and fought by child custody attorneys in the court of law.

A Mother’s Love

The sensational events began when Gloria’s father, Reginald Vanderbilt, died from cirrhosis brought on by his alcoholism in 1925. His wife, 19-year old Gloria Morgan, would have to raise their infant daughter on her own. Young Gloria stood to inherit half of $5 million dollars, approximately $63 million today, when she turned eighteen.  Until then, widowed Mrs. Vanderbilt was to live on a generous but fixed stipend, because her husband had depleted his own finances gambling.

Mrs. Vanderbilt moved with Gloria to Paris, along with a nanny. She also brought along her twin sister and her mother. Still a young woman, Mrs. Vanderbilt spent her time traveling across Europe and enjoying herself alongside royalty instead of raising her daughter. That task fell to the nanny, Emma Keislich. Most nights, Mrs. Vanderbilt would often come home shortly before dawn, if she made it back home at all.

When Gloria suffered from tonsillitis, she and her mother returned to New York to have them removed. Gloria’s paternal aunt, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, suggested that Gloria recuperate with her. Mrs. Vanderbilt readily agreed and returned to Europe. This turned out to be the opening salvo to one of the most publicized events of the time.

The Battle Begins

woman carrying her child

The Vanderbilt family was unimpressed by Mrs. Vanderbilt’s lifestyle. With Gloria living with Gertrude, they had Mrs. Vanderbilt’s stipend cut in half. This forced Mrs. Vanderbilt to return to the United States to win her daughter back in a custody battle that would embroil the whole country.

There were many people who felt that Mrs. Vanderbilt was unfit to raise Gloria. Most shocking perhaps was that Mrs. Vanderbilt’s own mother, having witnessed Gloria’s neglect firsthand, testified against her own daughter.

The media covered every shocking revelation about the scandalous life that Mrs. Vanderbilt was supposed to have led. The court was treated to testimonies about how there were tawdry magazines strewn about the widow’s Parisian apartment, that she was cruel and indifferent to the well-being of her daughter, and that Mrs. Vanderbilt had engaged in a lesbian relationship with her friend, Lady Milford Haven.

Finally, little Gloria herself was called in by the court. The judge asked her in absolute privacy whether or not she wanted to live with her mother. Gloria insisted that she was afraid of her mother and wanted to live with Gertrude. After her testimony, the court ruled that Gloria was to live with her father’s family. Mrs. Vanderbilt would have her every weekend and every July.

Years later, Gloria would admit that Gertrude’s lawyers had coached her on what to say to the judge. After the trial, Gertrude was no longer invested in Gloria’s welfare, although she was cared for. The media circus that surrounded the fight over Gloria Vanderbilt had examined every aspect of her life except one: how she truly felt about her mother. Of her mother, Gloria Vanderbilt would later say that she recalls her as a “beautiful stranger, glimpsed only fleetingly.”

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