There's no need to feel sorry for the former "poor little rich girl," a pawn in a celebrated custody battle, a child who grew up with a lot of money and very little sense of security and love.
That's all in the past, neatly put into perspective. And now at 61, stylish, tall and ultra-thin, Gloria Vanderbilt has come into her own. She's taken her famous name into commerce and the arts, scored nicely in both areas and helped make that old and aristocratic family more famous than ever.
These days it gives the fragile-looking "Little Gloria" a great deal of pleasure to know that on her own she has earned much more money than she ever inherited from the shipping and railroad fortune made by her great-great-grandfather, the doughty Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt.
'Once Upon a Time'
"I am a writer," she said, her low and well-modulated voice showing a trace of steel, "and when you're a writer, you write." That's exactly what she did for four months last year, writing in longhand with a pencil on large, bound books, for sometimes eight or nine hours at a time. The result is the first volume of her autobiography, "Once Upon a Time" (Alfred A. Knopf: $16.95), which was No. 10 on The Times best-seller list this week.
Vanderbilt also has her signature on the back of designer jeans and on bottles of fragrance and bath products, on wallpaper and home furnishings, fabrics and ceramics. The commercial enterprises, she said, now "take care of themselves." The only business she's actively involved with is the Gloria Vanderbilt Glace, a tofu ice cream.
First of Series
She is also an artist with a great flair for color whose works have been shown in one-woman exhibitions, the author of a book of love poetry and two how-to books (one on collages and one on beauty). But this autobiography, the first in what will be a five-book series, is the one she considers "my first book."
She's winding up a promotional book tour. After that it's back to New York and her writing.
The first book, written as a rather breathless first-person narrative, takes her from her father's death in Newport, R.I., in 1925 when she was still a baby, through the custody trial won by her aunt, through the traumas of an unhappy childhood to the visit at age 17 with her mother and her mother's twin, Lady Thelma Furness, at their house on North Maple Drive in Beverly Hills.
Book two, she said, "picks up exactly where the first leaves off. It starts at the party (on the Fourth of July in the Malibu Colony) that's about to happen at the end of the first book." The cut-off age for the second volume is 21 when she receives her inheritance, $4 million. And it will cover her first marriage to Howard Hughes aide and actor's agent Pasquale (Pat) di Cicco.
She believes that she always knew she would write her autobiography. "There was not a day I didn't live it, relive it. I didn't know what form it was going to take."
But then a cousin sent her a snapshot of a round-faced baby with dark, almond-shaped eyes on a sled with a friend in Central Park. The photo of baby Gloria trimmed to show only her face appears in the frontispiece of the book. "I knew that child, I had never lost touch with her, and that's when I knew that I would do the book from the point of view of the child I was. It just clicked into place, and I couldn't wait for Christmas to be over so I could get started." Looking back she reflects, "I must have been ready. I could only write this now. Even five years ago I couldn't have."
The custody battle was between her mother, Gloria Morgan Vanderbilt, and her aunt, the art patron and sculptress Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney. In 1982, Gloria Vanderbilt told a reporter for W, the bi-monthly glossy offshoot of Women's Wear Daily, that she felt her grandmother, Laura Kilpatrick Morgan, had brought on the custody battle because she had not approved of the life style of her daughter, Gloria Morgan. For Little Gloria it was "truly awful. I was treated terribly, and everyone behaved badly." Today she's more reluctant to talk about that episode in her life because, "It's something I will write about in a later book and to comment further is not appropriate at this time. If I talk too much I might not write it."
Writing that first volume, she said, was easy. "It was like automatic writing or striking a vein and letting the blood flow." The second one is "more difficult. I want it to have the same immediacy, but as one gets older one thinks on different levels. There are things about my mother I want to get right, things that were not resolved until later (there was the period between the ages of 20 and 38 when Little Gloria had no contact with Big Gloria). I understand her now as I didn't then. There's a delicate balance in presenting it.