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The Vanderbilt custody trial

The biggest news item in the October 4 1934 edition of the Toronto Daily Star was the Gloria Vanderbilt custody trial. Young Ms. Vanderbilt was 10 years old at the time and heiress to half of a $5 million trust fund left to her when her father passed away in 1925. Since she was 18 months old when she received her inheritance, management of the trust fund went to her mother, Gloria Morgan Vanderbilt.

In 1934, the elder Ms. Vanderbilt’s sister-in-law, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, sued for custody of the child, claiming that her mother was unfit to be a parent. Ms. Whitney won the suit; the elder Ms. Vanderbilt was granted occasional visitation rights but lost access to the trust fund.

There were a number of articles and photographs related to the custody trial in that day’s paper. The front page included a photo of actress Constance Bennett, who was prepared to serve as a character witness for Ms. Vanderbilt:

An article on the front page of the paper, continuing into page 2, mentioned support for Ms. Vanderbilt from Ms. Bennett and others:

The others included “the blue-blooded marchioness of Milford Haven”:

Another supporter was Prince Gottfried Zu Hohenlohe-Langenburg:

And, last but not least, there was Lady Furness, Ms. Vanderbilt’s twin sister:

The Daily Star also printed a photograph that was part of the case for the prosecution, as it were, showing Ms. Vanderbilt “dining out” with A.C. Blumenthal, a theatre producer:

The quotaton marks in “dining out” were presumably meant to insinuate that the two were a couple. I’m impressed by the sheer quantity of glasses at the table!

All of the leading protagonists in this drama have Wikipedia pages, of course:

  • Gloria Morgan Vanderbilt (1904-1965) tried to obtain custody again in 1936; the New York State Supreme Court granted her more time with her daughter, but did not give her custody. She received a $21,000 annual allowance from her daughter until 1946; at that time, her daughter cut her off, suggesting that maybe she should get a job. She passed away in 1965 of cancer.
  • Ms. Vanderbilt’s twin sister, Thelma Furness (1904-1970), started off her life by forming a motion picture company in 1923 that would create films in which she would star. She appeared in movies between 1922 and 1925. She later became a mistress of the future King Edward VIII; this ended when she introduced him to Wallis Simpson.

Wikipedia quotes photographer Cecil Beaton as describing the Morgan twins as

…alike as two magnolias, and with their marble complexions, raven tresses, and flowing dresses, with their slight lisps and foreign accents, they diffuse a Ouida atmosphere of hothouse elegance and lacy femininity. … Their noses are like begonias, with full-blown nostrils, their lips richly carved, and they should have been painted by Sargent, with arrogant heads and affected hands, in white satin with a bowl of white peonies near by.

My oh my! The twin sisters, sometimes called “The Magnificent Morgans”, appear in a brief video here, in which they appear to be watching somebody model clothes for them.

Continuing:

  • Gloria Vanderbilt (1924-2019) outlived her mother by over half a century. She went on to become an actress, a fashion model, and a fashion designer. She was the mother of television personality Anderson Cooper.
  • Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney (1875-1942) was a sculptor and supporter of women in the arts. She would not have needed her niece’s money: she inherited a $72 million estate when her husband, Harry Payne Whitney, passed away in 1930.
  • Constance Bennett (1904-1965) was the daughter of two actors and the older sister of two others. She appeared regularly in movies until the mid-1940s and occasionally after that. She was married five times; her last marriage, to John Theron Coulter, was the one that lasted. Mr. Coulter later became a brigadier general, which meant that Ms. Bennett was buried in Arlington National Cemetery when she passed away from a brain hemorrhage.
  • Nadejda Mountbatten, Marchioness of Milford Haven (1896-1963) was the daughter of Grand Duke Michael Alexandrovich of Russia, who was murdered by the Bolsheviks in 1918. During the custody trial, a maid of Ms. Vanderbilt claimed that she and the Marchioness were lovers, which she denied.
  • Gottfried, Prince of Hohenlohe-Langenburg (1897-1960) was reportedly engaged to Ms. Vanderbilt during 1927-1928, but later married Princess Margarita of Greece and Denmark. Her brother, Philip, who was 16 years younger than the princess, married Queen Elizabeth II.
  • Alfred Cleveland Blumenthal (1885-1957) was a real estate developer, theatre producer, and one-time speakeasy owner. He was married to actress Peggy Fears at the time of the photograph appearing in the paper, so perhaps he didn’t particularly want his picture taken.

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