Poor Little Rich Girl: The Custody Battle For Gloria Vanderbilt And Her Trust Fund
August 12, 2022
Long before her name was on the back of your jeans or her son, Anderson Cooper, was giving you the news, Gloria Vanderbilt was a child caught in the middle of one of the most sensational custody battles of the 20th century. Little Gloria, heiress to the Vanderbilt fortune, was just ten years old in 1934, when her influential aunt and fun-loving mother went to court to fight for custody of the child ... and control of her sizable trust fund.
Cornelius Vanderbilt amassed an enormous fortune as a shipping and railroad magnate during the Gilded Age, and the Vanderbilt family built several huge, impressive mansions along New York City's Fifth Avenue. Upon his death in 1877, Vanderbilt's fortune was valued at $100 million, which surpassed the amount of money in the U.S. Treasury at the time. Vanderbilt's grandson, Reginald, received his $15.5 million trust fund on his 21st birthday and celebrated by gambling away $70,000 of it that same night.
In addition to his gambling addiction, Reginald was a heavy drinker. When he was 42 years old, his doctors warned him to quit drinking, but instead, he married a beautiful 17-year-old socialite named Gloria Morgan. Their daughter, Gloria Vanderbilt, was just 18 months old when her father died in 1925 from cirrhosis of the liver. His teen widow was stunned to learn that her husband had blown his entire inheritance, leaving her penniless, but the smallest Vanderbilt had a trust fund, and the family could live on its interest until the girl turned 21.
Gloria Morgan Vanderbilt
Morgan Vanderbilt spent the next several years traveling lavishly and partying with royals while her daughter was cared for by a live-in nanny. Questions about her mother's fitness arose when Vanderbilt developed tonsillitis at eight years old and her aunt, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, offered her grand New York City mansion to the girl during her recovery. Morgan Vanderbilt rushed back to her party girl life in Europe and didn't see her daughter for months. The alarmed Whitney cut off her sister-in-law's access to Vanderbilt's trust fund, reasoning that it wasn't appropriate to spend the girl's money when she wasn't caring for her or paying her expenses, prompting Morgan Vanderbilt to storm back to New York to reclaim her daughter. Whitney was reluctant, however, to hand her back over to a woman she'd become convinced was an unfit mother.
Vanderbilt vs. Whitney
Vanderbilt vs. Whitney began on October 1, 1934, with Whitney's lawyers painting little Gloria as a sickly young girl who was starved for attention and presenting testimony from associates that her mother drank heavily, stayed out late, slept around, and interacted little with her daughter. Several testified to witnessing Morgan Vanderbilt kissing and cuddling her friend Nadejda Mountbatten, strongly hinting that the besties were actually in a lesbian relationship. Vanderbilt herself told the judge she was afraid of her mother, though years later, she claimed to have been coached by her aunt's lawyers.
With the evidence piling up against her, the only argument remaining to Morgan Vanderbilt was that she was little Gloria's natural mother. After seven weeks of testimony, the judge awarded custody of Vanderbilt to Whitney but permitted visitation with her mother. If the arrangement was unsatisfactory for little Gloria, she certainly grew up well enough. She eventually became an artist, author, model, and fashion designer, credited with sparking the designer jeans fashion craze.