From our archives: The secret lesbian history of the Vanderbilts in ‘Nothing Left Unsaid’

The Vanderbilts have long been recognized as an American institution, so it’s telling that homosexuality is a part of their family history. The Liz Garbus-directed documentary Nothing Left Unsaid, which premiered on HBO in 2016, focuses on Gloria Vanderbilt, mother of out CNN anchor/reporter Anderson Cooper, and the life she’s lived in the public eye, mostly due to her difficult childhood which involved a highly-publicized custody battle fought by her mother, Gloria Morgan Vanderbilt.

“You know, it was interesting. I always knew one of the things that is talked about in the film and in the book as well is that my mom’s mom was accused of being a lesbian at the height of the Depression, at the height of this custody battle,” Anderson said during a panel about the film at TCA. “And it was so shocking and so disturbing, the court was shut down. Reporters were banned. And people knew something it was worse than a murder, almost, back in 1932.”

Gloria Morgan was 17 when she married Reginald Claypoole Vanderbilt, and 18 when she gave birth to Anderson’s mother in 1925. Reginald died suddenly that same year, leaving Gloria a young widow and single mother. As Nothing Left Unsaid explores, Gloria Morgan enjoyed traveling, leaving her new child with a nurse and later taking her to Europe, where she was often taken care of by aunts and uncles. This wasn’t completely unheard of at the time, but when Gloria Morgan entertained a relationship with a German man, her mother and late husband’s sister, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, began to plot against her. They eventually prompted an investigation into Gloria Morgan’s parenting and a very public custody trial that had her defending her life’s choices, including her very close friendship with Nadezhda de Torby, the Marchioness of Milford Haven.

According to reports from the time, Gloria vehemently denied these claims, made by a maid on the side of the prosecution, who claimed she caught Gloria and Lady Milford Haven kissing. Gloria Morgan reportedly took the stand, wiping her face with a handkerchief, crying out, “It’s just so utterly false. I’m overwhelmed!” Character witnesses were called to support Gloria’s heterosexuality, including a male companion, but the Supreme Court eventually decided she was an unfit mother, lesbian rumors being a factor that was “so detrimental..and the evidence to support it so insubstantial that she was entitled to unqualified and complete exoneration.”

There’s no real telling if Gloria Morgan and Lady Milford Haven were truly ever romantically involved; Gloria was certainly interested in the movers and shakers of the sexually uninhibited artists and thinkers of Paris at a time where it would have been more welcomed, but not in America, and certainly not for mothers. Interesting, though, that lesbianism and bisexuality were very much a part of the family outside of Gloria; as Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney herself also had secret relationships with women, all of which are detailed in Barbara Goldsmith’s Little Gloria, Happy At Last. It was Gertrude who won custody of then 10-year-old Gloria in the end.

Gertrude was an artist—a sculptor—whose work can be seen on public display throughout the world. Selected works include Founders of the Daughters of the American Revolution and the Women’s Titanic Memorial, both in Washington, D.C. She was also the founder of the Whitney Museum in New York City, and a famous figure of her time. (More than 1200 people attended her funeral.)

In the 1982 NBC mini-series adaptation of Little Gloria, Angela Lansbury starred as Gertrude. Her lesbianism is only hinted at in Part 1, when a female model says she has an itch and Gertrude asks if she can “scratch it for her.”

During the trial in Part 2, the French maid is called upon to testify, and she says she saw Gloria Morgan kissing Lady Milford “like a lover.” The court goes into an uproar, so the judge decides to keep the rest of the trial private, only enticing the public and the press further. Later, Gloria Morgan tells her lawyer she and Lady Milford were just friends: “It’s a pack of malicious lies…What I do in the privacy of my own home is nobody’s business.” On the stand, Gloria Morgan maintains she’d never had any such a relationship with a woman.

“In those days, of course, that was considered strange,” Gloria says in Nothing Left Unsaid. As was the fact that Gloria Morgan had sexually explicit books of art around her home. Even Gertrude was taken to task for the nude sculptures she created, both male and female.

Gloria Vanderbilt, now in her 90s, is a painter, too, though she is more widely known for being the “poor little rich girl” at the center of the tragic trial that ended up separating her from both her mother and her beloved nanny, Dodo, who raised her up until the age of 10. They later reconnected when Gloria was 21, and had Dodo come live with her, supporting her financially.

Gertrude went on to pen an autobiographical novel with lesbian themes in 1932, Walking the Dusk, using the pseudonym L.J. Webb. Her writing was never considered as great as her art, and while she was generally well-liked and respected, Gloria remembers her as “remote and cold,” but that they loved one another very much.

Anderson Cooper said he wasn’t aware of his grandmother’s assumed lesbianism until he was 12, and it weighed into his coming out process as a young man.

“I never really knew the details of it. And I always kind of felt maybe that would color the way my mom thought about me,” he said. “But I grew up with so many gay friends of my mom’s in our house, growing up. I knew she would be fine with it. So for me, I came out in high school to my friends. I came out in college to my mom. And, you know, she’s been cool with it from the get-go. So it wasn’t none of that was really an issue, but there is this interesting history with my mom’s mom, which I didn’t know much about, which I learned a lot about in the film.”

What’s not brought up in Nothing Left Unsaid, but surely helped drive publicity to the film, was Gloria Vanderbilt’s own Sapphic relationships, which she brought up in an interview with People.

“I, myself, when I went to Farmington went through a brief so-called lesbian relationship with a girl in school,” she said, surprising Anderson, who had no idea. “We all did. It was very prevalent. I mean, you know… Cynthia, her name was. And she came once to visit my aunt in New York on holiday, and we had this sort of lesbian relationship. And it felt so great, you know. It felt so good. And yet, this was before the thing I knew about my mother, and yet I thought, ‘No this is something that is not really what I want.’ It was very brief, you know. I was 13. And so I think many, many, almost everybody goes through at one point, whether they turn out to be forever and ever what they—of course the thing is now we realize there is no difference. I mean love is love; it’s what it is. It’s great.”

How times have changed.

Nothing Left Unsaid is available on HBO.