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Gloria Vanderbilt Custody Trial: 1934

"we Are Moving Again—oh What A Life", "trial Of The Century", Suggestions For Further Reading

Defendant: Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney (Mrs. Harry Payne Whitney)
Appellant: Gloria Morgan Vanderbilt (Mrs. Reginald Vanderbilt)
Appellant Claim: Custody of Gloria Laura Vanderbilt, a minor
Chief Defense Lawyer: Herbert C. Smyth
Chief Lawyer for Appellant: Nathan Burkan
Judge: John Francis Carew
Place: New York, New York
Dates of Trial: October 1-November 21, 1934
Decision: Custody awarded to Whitney

SIGNIFICANCE: The claim by her mother that Gloria Morgan Vanderbilt was unfit to have custody because of her debauched lifestyle and cold indifference to her child scandalized both society and the general public. Coming in the depths of the Great Depression, this custody battle within one of the nation's wealthiest families confirmed Americans' worst suspicions about the super-rich, while giving them two months' diversion from their own financial worries.

Gloria Laura Vanderbilt was 1 year old and her mother was 20 when her father, Reginald Vanderbilt, died at 45 in 1925. Cirrhosis of the liver, brought on by countless brandy milk punches, ended Reggie's dissipated life. By then, he had exhausted not only his own body but a $7.5-million fortune inherited at 21 and the income from a $5-million trust fund.

Once all Vanderbilt's creditors and taxes had been paid, his young widow, Gloria Morgan Vanderbilt, ended up with $130,000. But the principal in the $5-million trust fund remained to be shared between his baby daughter and her 21-year-old half-sister. Since the widow was still a minor, the fund was to be administered by New York Surrogate Court Judge James Aloysius Foley.

Shortly, little Gloria's mother petitioned the court for an allowance to cover "monthly expenses necessarily incurred for the maintenance and support of said infant and the maintenance of the home in which said infant resides." The court granted $4,000 per month.

With the allowance, Gloria Morgan Vanderbilt flitted from New York to Paris, London, Cannes, Hollywood, Monte Carlo, Biarritz, and Switzerland. She crossed the Atlantic as often as once a month. In her international set, the pace was led by the Prince of Wales, with whom Gloria's twin sister, Thelma, was having a five-year love affair (it ended when Thelma introduced her friend Wallis Warfield Simpson to the prince, who subsequently gave up the throne of England to marry the divorced Simpson).

Meanwhile, little Gloria was more than overprotected by her grandmother, Laura Kilpatrick Morgan, and by nurse Emma Keislich, who had not missed a day or night with the child since she was hired two weeks after her birth. Together the grandmother and the nurse grew to feel that little Gloria, neglected by a mother who came home intoxicated, toward dawn (if she came at all), was theirs.

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Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1918 to 1940