ONCE UPON A TIME by Gloria Vanderbilt
Kirkus Star


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Gloria Vanderbilt has refashioned her tortured early life as a child's telling of a child's story--""But It had, It had, It had happened""--and, recollection or re-creation, much of it is stunning. In a nightmare she is in her crib, screaming to go to her dying father. She is in Paris, Monte Carlo, Biarritz, safe and happy in the Caravan with Nancy Morgan (her maternal grandmother) and Dodo Elephant (her nurse), while beautiful Mother-Gloria comes and goes, elusive and alluring. With Nancy and Dodo she takes a ship to America, locus of her father's family and Money, her inheritance. At Old Westbury, the Capital of Whitney country, there awaits Aunt Gertrude: ""pants and high-heeled shoes,"" and hat! A dazzling, commanding presence, as unreachable as Mummy. Then, on an Edenic summer visit to married relations with children (her first intact, affectionate family), the worm enters. ""I knew they had a plan. Not only a plan but plans within plans""--to which she is an accomplice, terrorized by whispers of separation from Nancy and Dodo, writing letters under direction (back in England, as a tot: ""MY MOTHER IS A RARE BEAST""). Now, overhearing the dread words (""get rid of the nurse""), she becomes a co-conspirator, fleeing from her mother--""If I stayed still enough, the motor would start. If I held my breath, the front door would not open. . .""--and, in ""the perfect order of Aunt Gertrude's Country Capital,"" feigning illness at sight of her mother, memorizing What to say to the judge: ""Because it was up to me--I could save us."" The ordeal of the Custody Trial over, she hears from a lawyer (""Judge Carew decided it would be in your best interests"") that Dodo Elephant is banished. From that agony, can there be a recovery? Can the writer sustain, to maturity, an intense, keenly observant (details of dress and decor), necessarily growing-and-changing child's voice? The Little Gloria who feels herself an Impostor will discover, in her early teens, that she has a half-sister as old as her mother; she will find an exotic style of her own (""Egyptian, I said proudly"" to Diana Vreeland), have her photo taken for Harper's Bazaar, go to parties with her mother and hear a beau say she's ""ravishing"". . . but never pry a word about her father from anyone, or break through to Aunt Gertrude (an exquisitely balanced relationship), or cease longing to have her mother to herself, even as she proclaims her freedom. The voice flattens out in adolescence, to simulated 1940s-teen. A first love affair evaporates on consummation. The literary form seems finally an artifice, an impediment to adult insights. But it is hugely successful as a vehicle for a child's sense of impotence, dispossession, betrayal. And there is no sentimentality or self-pity anywhere.

Pub Date: May 1st, 1985
Publisher: Knopf