Behind the 19th Century courthouse in White Plains, New York stood a small wooden carriage house. According to James Feinmore Cooper, the lawyers of the day could be found behind this old structure rehearsing witnesses. From this spot, the term “woodshedding” came to be applied to the practice of attorneys preparing people for courtroom testimony.
The ethics of woodshedding runs a gamut, from preparing witnesses (a professional responsibility) to scripting them (ethically inappropriate). The tension lies in balancing the lawyer’s duty to clients and the case with the obligations to the court.
The conflict plays out in my October Trial of the Month.
Cornelius Vanderbilt died in 1877. The fortune he left behind was estimated at $100 million, an amount exceeding the U.S. treasury of the day. His great-grandchildren included Gertrude and Reginald. They were a study in contrasts. Gertrude became an art patron while Reginald Claypoole Vanderbilt lavished his attentions on racehorses and alcohol.
At age 42, Reginald married a teenage socialite, Gloria Morgan. Shortly after his wife gave birth to a daughter, Reginald died of liver cirrhosis. As a hard-drinking spendthrift, he had torn through his inheritance. His daughter, also named Gloria, would inherit her share of a family trust but not until she became 21 years of age. Before then, she and her mother must live off the interest payments.
During the 1920’s, the trust still provided enough income for the young widow to immerse herself in the society of Europe and the United States. She traveled with her daughter and a nanny. When little Gloria needed her tonsils removed, Aunt Gertrude offered her home to recuperate. Mom delivered the child and nanny. Then, she returned to Europe.
The Vanderbilt family did not think highly of Mom-Gloria’s lifestyle. With little Gloria in the United States, they reduced her allowance because she wasn’t supporting the trust beneficiary. Gloria Morgan filed a court petition seeking official guardianship. (She hadn’t been a legal adult when Gloria was born). Aunt Gertrude opposed the guardianship claiming that Gloria Morgan was an unfit mother.
The trial began October 1st, 1934 in a Manhattan courtroom, that year’s “trial of the century”. Newspapers were king in this era before television or the internet. Anderson Cooper, Gloria’s son, called his mother’s custody trial, “the O.J. case of its day, except bigger, because nothing like it had ever happened before.”
Julia McCarthy a reporter for the Daily News wrote, “For five hours Mrs. Gloria Morgan Vanderbilt…listened to [her] nurse denounce her with virtual relish as a cocktail-crazed dancing mother, a devotee of sex erotica, and the mistress of a German prince…[A] blistering tale no skin lotion could soothe.”
The defense, for their part, produced numerous letters written by young Gloria in which she told her mother how much she loved and missed her.
After seven weeks of testimony, the Judge ruled in favor of Aunt Gertrude, awarding custody of little Gloria to her and allowing her mother weekend visitations. He based his decision, in part, on his in-chambers interview with the child. Lawyers and family were not present at the private hearing. Gloria told him that she feared her mother.
Some have speculated that the highly publicized Lindbergh abduction of 1932 terrified little Gloria. In a child’s mind, her mother’s attempts to pry her from her settled home potentially equated with a kidnapping.
In her 2016 book with Anderson Cooper, The Rainbow Comes and Goes, however, Gloria Vanderbilt reported that Aunt Gertrude’s attorney, Frank Crocker, schooled her during a series of private lessons on what to say. On the day of her interview with the judge, Gloria writes, [I] “went over the lines I’d rehearsed with Crocker again and again. I hoped to God I wouldn’t forget anything.”
Woodshedded, it seems, in the back of a limousine.
Gloria Vanderbilt later said of her mother, “I had no relationship with her at all and I just worshiped her from afar.”
We must not forget that the story relies upon memories from eighty years previous about a highly stressful time. Gloria Vanderbilt’s psychological journey included LSD therapy in the 1960’s to help explore her subconscious. The full account is more nuanced than can be laid out here. Vanderbilt’s story, however, provides a cautionary tale about an attorney using a private moment within the adversarial system not to achieve truth but rather to improperly benefit a self-serving end.
We know Gloria Vanderbilt for many things: a celebrity son and a fashion empire built on designer jeans. Today, we remember the poor little rich girl and her place in the October Trial of the Month.
For a fuller account, see https://www.townandcountrymag.com/society/tradition/a8013/gloria-vanderbilt-custody-trial/