Picks and Pans Review: Once Upon a Time

updated 05/27/1985 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/27/1985 AT 01:00 AM EDT

by Gloria Vanderbilt

Here is an autobiographical version of one of the most famous childhoods in America. The tabloids invented the phrase "poor little rich girl" to describe Gloria Vanderbilt. Her wastrel, sportsman father died when she was an infant; her mother took up with all sorts of idle royal personages in Europe. Her grandmother and nurse persuaded Gloria to charm her father's formidable sister, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, who then went to court with a battery of lawyers to get the child away from her "unfit" mother. All that is familiar. Barbara Goldsmith told it in Little Gloria...Happy at Last. But now, recounted in weird baby talk prattle by Vanderbilt, everything seems fresh, emotion-laden, shocking, sad, mesmerizing. To Little Gloria, future kings were casual encounters: "Once I wandered down the hall into his room, where he sat up very straight and tiny in a high bed having breakfast on a tray. He wasn't wearing a crown, and he said good morning to me prim as you please." The "he" was the Prince of Wales, a good friend of Gloria's aunt. Despite the royal shoulder-rubbing, Gloria was always the outsider, desperate to be loved. Her adolescence was an agony of insecurity and unhappiness: "All the boys wanted to dance with me, and two of them had the nerve to pinch the skin exposed by the midriff to see if it was real. Ha, ha—some joke!" Finally she is 17, and her always elusive mother gives a party for her in Hollywood. The big decision is whether or not to invite both Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons; the marginal royalty of Europe has been replaced by movie stars and gossip columnists. In the next volume (Vanderbilt plans five), it is hoped, Ms. V. will explain how on earth such a bright woman got mixed up with those jeans manufacturers. (Knopf, $16.95)

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