TBT: Little Gloria (Vanderbilt) … Happy at Last (1982)


Gloria Vanderbilt (1924-2019) recently passed away, and the news reports made me realize I didn’t know much about her besides 1. famous last name and 2. jeans. Cue a Wikipedia read, in which I learned about the custody dispute in which her aunt (Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney) tried to take her away from her mother (Gloria Morgan Vanderbilt) in the 1930s… and then I saw it: TV MOVIE BIOPIC. I love nothing more than a good biopic, and since it was filmed in 1982 I was hoping for a high cheese factor, ESPECIALLY when I saw the title: Little Gloria … Happy at Last. Apparently that’s taken from a book written about the custody dispute, so I guess we can’t blame the filmmakers.

Surprisingly, the film has some quality to it: Bette Davis plays Gloria’s grandmother, Alice Gwynne Vanderbilt; Christopher Plummer is her quickly-deceased dad, Reginald Claypoole Vanderbilt; Angela Lansbury plays her aunt, Gertrude Whitney; and Glynis Johns as Mom Gloria’s mother.

1982 Little Gloria Happy at Last

Plummer is dapper and charming.

The movie focuses much more on Gloria’s mother (Lucy Gutteridge) which, thank god, because young Gloria (Jennifer Dundas, who also played the young Anastasia in Anastasia: the Mystery of Anna) mostly just gets to scream annoyingly a lot. It’s decently entertaining, in a soapy 1980s-biopic way, starting with Mom Gloria meeting dad, getting married, having Daughter Gloria, and then the whole custody dispute. Also, you haven’t lived until you’ve seen an older Angela Lansbury 1. erotically carving a statue of a naked man, and 2. getting fluttery and smoochy with her secret lover.

1982 Little Gloria Happy at Last

Plus you get some hilarious cameos by early-80s actors, like Michael Gross (the dad from Family Ties) as a lawyer.

The movie was nominated for a number of Emmy’s: outstanding drama series, supporting actress (Bette Davis), lead actress (Angela Lansbury), art direction, writing — and costume design.

The costumes were designed by Julie Weiss, who’s done some big modern-set movies, like Steel Magnolias, Twelve Monkeys, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and American Beauty; in terms of period pieces, she would go on to design A Woman of Independent Means (1995), Frida (2002), and The Missing (2003).

I weirdly really enjoyed the costumes, despite the fact that I was watching a shitty YouTube version of the movie. There was a lot of glam, and I even started screencapping stuff I liked.

Since it’s an older production, it was hard to find out much about the costuming, but I did find two articles that gave some insight. Weiss was interviewed by Women’s Wear Daily about the film, and the most interesting bits were these:

“‘If I work alone, the best I can do is dress somebody. And I prefer to design from the inside out.’ Which is why, she says, she enjoys and accepts suggestions from the stars involved… ‘An actress like Bette Davis is someone you should listen to… The Twenties were also a time of new freedom for women; they had only recently won the right to vote.’ She especially enjoyed the chance to show a change in fashion with the passage of time, from the free-flowing styles to ‘the slight beginning of a more fitted waist’… Weiss had what she calls ‘a rather limited budget’ and eight weeks before shooting to get the costumes together. Somewhat less than half represent her own designs, the rest ‘a kind of search and seize show’ in which costumes from the period were collected. ‘When we finished adding touches and accessories, every costume was like a collage'” (Pat Lowry, “Home Watch: ‘Little Gloria’s’ Glorious Costumes,” WWD, Aug. 25, 1982).

There’s also an article about Bette Davis and how she related to her fellow cast and crew, in which Davis’s former assistant and biographer recalls:

“I remember Miss D advising the costume designer Julie Weiss that she needed to stick up for herself more. Outfitting this large cast in period clothing was a monumental task and Miss D recommended that she insist on hiring more people to help her.  Miss Weiss said that the producers would not agree to that” (Bette Davis: Tireless Advocate for her Crew).


Gloria Morgan Vanderbilt’s Costumes

The film starts in 1923ish, when 19-year-old Mom Gloria meets Dad:

1982 Little Gloria Happy at Last

She visits his home, and meets his family, in this cream, sheer, lacey early 1920s dress. I really love these froofy styles!

1982 Little Gloria Happy at Last

Some color. Sorry, it’s mostly Shitty YouTube Screencaps.

1982 Little Gloria Happy at Last

She meets Mrs. Vanderbilt in this beaded, tabard-style number. Her hair was ON POINT throughout.

1982 Little Gloria Happy at Last

After hubby’s death (only 1.5 years later), she’s in this gorgeous black? and red satin number that I tried SO hard to screencap. This was the best I got.

1982 Little Gloria Happy at Last

Cream and black to see lawyers.

1982 Little Gloria Happy at Last

More lawyers, nice deco print.

1982 Little Gloria Happy at Last

In court, dressed up to the nines in navy blue with a chic hat and fur.

1982 Little Gloria Happy at Last

Taking the stand in black lace and another great 1930s hat.

1982 Little Gloria Happy at Last

Same hat, different outfit?


Alice Vanderbilt’s Costumes

Bette Davis was the Grand Edwardian Dame throughout.

1982 Little Gloria Happy at Last

At least 10-20 years out of fashion, in mourning for her son.

1982 Little Gloria Happy at Last

Her hair was kind of weird – it looks Edwardian here, but from the back the sides were rolled in a very 1940s way.

1982 Little Gloria Happy at Last

More black, more Edwardian.


Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney’s Costumes

Angela Lansbury’s character was rich and an artist (she went on to found the Whitney Museum in New York), which meant her wardrobe was shockingly fabulous.

Angela Lansbury, Little Gloria ... Happy at Last (1982)

Ok, this outdoor luncheon outfit isn’t so exciting, especially in black and white.

1982 Little Gloria Happy at Last

But check out the print on this dress…

1982 Little Gloria Happy at Last

The detail around the neckline!

1982 Little Gloria Happy at Last

Super chic black-and-white for court.

1982 Little Gloria Happy at Last

I. LOVED. THIS. DRESS. The print is amaze-balls, and I loved the solid black contrast!

1982 Little Gloria Happy at Last

Clear image, no color.

1982 Little Gloria Happy at Last

More court, more chic – check out the smocking!


Laura Kirkpatrick Morgan’s Costumes

Gloria’s mom (Glynis Johns — The Sword and the RoseMary Poppins) is Anglo-Argentinian. She’s more nouveau riche than the Vanderbilts, and a total busybody.

1982 Little Gloria Happy at Last

Cream with interesting details around the neck and hips.

1982 Little Gloria Happy at Last


1982 Little Gloria Happy at Last

I don’t remember this outfit on screen, but it’s so interesting I had to include it.

1982 Little Gloria Happy at Last

Looking elegant.

1982 Little Gloria Happy at Last



Gloria’s Sisters’ Costumes

Mom Gloria had two extra-chic sisters, luckily for the costume designer and us.

1982 Little Gloria Happy at Last

Love the red pint and the ruffled neckline.

1982 Little Gloria Happy at Last

The print with the solids!

1982 Little Gloria Happy at Last

Great color, such a Madonna face.


And One Rando…

A French girl who served as Mom Gloria’s maid, and testifies in court, had such a great hat I had to screencap it:

1982 Little Gloria Happy at Last


Watch out, this sent me down a rabbit hole of TV movie biopics! There will be more in this vein soon…


About the author



Kendra has been a fixture in the online costuming world since the late 1990s. Her website, Démodé Couture, is one of the most well-known online resources for historical costumers. In the summer of 2014, she published a book on 18th-century wig and hair styling. Kendra is a librarian at a university, specializing in history and fashion. She’s also an academic, with several articles on fashion history published in research journals.

10 Responses

  1. Elizabeth K. Mahon

    I read the book by Barbara Goldsmith when it came out. I highly recommend it, it’s fascinating, especially that Big Gloria’s twin sister Thelma was the mistress of the Prince of Wales before Wallis Simpson. In fact, she’s the one who told Wallis to look after the little man while she swanned off to America, I think during the custody battle. Also, Big Gloria may have had an affair with the Russian Marchioness of Milford Haven who also happened to be Prince Philip’s aunt by marriage.

  2. Saraquill

    That lace hat with the folded up brim reminds me of the 1990s. Never thought I’d see one in a 1982 film.

  3. Barb D

    I remember liking this when it first aired. Wouldn’t mind seeing again now that I appreciate costuming more.

  4. Susan Pola Staples

    I also read the book when it came out. And I wondered how the biopic/miniseries would deal with the lesbianism. Looks like from the costume angle, it’s worth a re-watch.

    Just cannot get over the fact that Gertrude Whitney’s several affairs were considered okay for a Guardian and a presumed lesbian affair wasn’t. Patriarchy strikes back with the double standard.

    BTW, I’m reading a Biography, Madame Fourcade’s Secret War, it’s about Marie-Madeleine Fourcade, who ran and was the boss of one of France’s most important Resistance organizations. Now this would make a good film/miniseries.

    • Roxana

      Both women’s reputations were attacked. It’s difficult to know what charges had any truth behind them.

  5. Lynne Connolly

    Sondheim’s “Send In The Clowns” was written for Glynis Johns. You have to listen to her version, it’s the best ever.
    Gloria was the mother of Anderson Cooper of CNN, and he was very broken up by her death. She sounded like a helluva woman.

    • MoHub

      Let us not forget Glynis Johns in Mary Poppins. No one else could have sung “Sister Suffragette” in quite the same way.

  6. Roxana

    The Morgan’s were not nouveau riche, as they lacked the riche. What they were was successful social climbers armed with three beautiful daughters who married well, usually more than once. Gloria Morgan seems to have been the best picker of the lot.
    Laura Morgan by all accounts started the whole shemozzel as seems to have been mentally ill.
    Sadly Gloria Morgan’s chief interest in her daughter seems to have been monetary, to be fair she had no other source of income, and she certainly never meant the child any harm.
    The last thing Gertrude Whitney wanted was to take. responsibiliyr for a child but she was convinced by Laura that her dead brother’s only daughter was in imminent danger of her life and she had to intervene.
    It took young Gloria decades to recover from the damage caused by all this.