The millennial generation knows Anderson Cooper as a CNN news anchor. Their baby boomer parents know that Cooper’s mother is Gloria Vanderbilt and that she was a famous fashion designer in the 1970s. But the parents of the baby boomers knew Gloria before she was the queen of designer jeans. This older generation will remember her as little Gloria, the poor-little- rich-girl pawn in a scandalous celebrity custody trial, a trial that is scrupulously detailed in the entertaining, true-life social history, Little Gloria…Happy at Last, by Barbara Goldsmith.
Little Gloria’s father was Reginald Vanderbilt, an alcoholic, playboy wastrel, and her mother was the beautiful “Glorious” Gloria Morgan. Gloria and her twin sister Thelma, who was the mistress of the Prince of Wales, were known in the society columns of the 1920s as “the Magnificent Morgans.” Raised to be “a prize for a rich, socially impeccable man” by her overbearing mother Laura, Gloria married the much older Reggie but soon discovered that he had gambled away his inheritance and was living on credit. When little Gloria came along in 1924, a Vanderbilt trust fund was established for her. Upon Reggie’s death in 1925, big Gloria was given access to that trust fund until her daughter came of age and used it to live large on two continents as a scintillating member of cafe society.
Poor little Gloria was left in the care of her doting but neurotic nurse Dodo and crazy, controlling grandma Laura. Concerned about little Gloria’s well being (and her inheritance) Laura and Dodo sought out Reggie’s sister, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, and intimated that big Gloria was leading an immoral life that was harming her child. This set the stage for an epic custody trial that was played out in all its tawdry glory before the tabloid press.
The cast of characters is eclectic and eccentric. Although the tale itself is gossipy fun with details about the glamorous lifestyles of the rich and famous, courtroom histrionics and dramatic denouements, ultimately the story is quite sad. At the heart of it is a frightened child surrounded by selfish or indifferent adults who just didn’t understand or were incapable of giving her the love and emotional support that she needed.
The fact that little Gloria Vanderbilt was able to overcome her problematic childhood and become an artist, actress, writer and the socialite wife of men such as conductor Leopold Stokowski and director Sidney Lumet is a testament to her remarkable resilience. Well researched and clearly written, this book is an enjoyable read for anyone interested in social history or courtroom tales.
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