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April 26, 1987|Lisa Mitchell

BLACK KNIGHT, WHITE KNIGHT by Gloria Vanderbilt (Knopf: $18.95; 229 pp., illustrated). Two years ago, Gloria Vanderbilt published "Once Upon a Time: A True Story," in which she described her unsettling childhood. Its recurring theme showed a sensitive child craving love, living with repeatedly dashed hopes. "Black Knight, White Knight" begins where the first volume left off. Little Gloria at 17 is visiting her elusive mother in Beverly Hills. Suddenly she tastes a new kind of power: Handsome movie stars are ringing her phone off the hook.

If only she could marry, she wouldn't have to return east to the strict, cold world of her legal guardian, Aunt Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney. And with someone of her own, maybe her mother's insensitivity wouldn't hurt quite so much. When her madly adored Howard Hughes--who said he wanted to marry her ("he does he does"), "dropped off the face of the earth," she marries Pat (Pasquale) De Cicco--Hollywood playboy/gambler, Hughes henchman and ex-husband of the mysteriously murdered actress, Thelma Todd. Though Gloria's mother suggests that Pat is a procurer for Hughes, the union with her daughter is encouraged.

Humiliated, intimidated and beaten, Gloria sticks it out for three years. For in true fairy-tale fashion, how could she leave until she is rescued? Her White Knight is the brilliant, thrice-wed, 63-year-old conductor, Leopold Stokowski. Since Gloria gets her identity from the smiles of the man she loves, "to become him" is all she desires. And, as long as he remains her sun, moon and stars, their marriage is utter bliss. Wait. His cold, angry silences are as bad as De Cicco's blows.

As in her first book, Vanderbilt transports herself--and us--to and through her past in the most present tense. Who can resist reading about privilege and pain? But it goes deeper. Gloria Vanderbilt grows, survives and has a lot to offer anyone who ever tried living off of someone else's smiles.

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