Gloria Laura Vanderbilt, born February 20, 1924, in New York City, came from a long line of wealthy and famous people. She was a descendant of shipping baron Cornelius Vanderbilt. In her mother's family were diplomats and judges. Vanderbilt's father, Reginald Vanderbilt, a rail-road heir, horse breeder, playboy, and alcoholic gambler, died when his daughter was 17 months old. Vanderbilt's mother, Gloria Morgan Vanderbilt, was a renowned beauty who took her daughter to live in Europe after her husband died. Her mother loved the cities and beaches of Europe and moved around quite a bit, living in Paris, Monte Carlo, Biarritz, and London. She socialized with many men, including a married businessman and a German prince, a member of the Mountbatten family, to whom she became engaged. Young Gloria spent much of this time with her grandmother, Laura Kilpatrick Morgan, and nurse, Emma Keislich, whom she called "Dodo."
Morgan became determined that her granddaughter would not live in Germany and plotted to have the girl live in America with her aunt, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney. At the age of ten, Vanderbilt became the subject of a bitter and public custody battle between her mother and her aunt. The battle captured the imagination of the American people, who read avidly about the proceedings in the daily newspapers. A newspaper article in the Daily News described Dodo's testimony: "For five hours Mrs. Gloria Morgan Vanderbilt … listened to a tight-lipped nurse denounce her with virtuous relish as a cocktail-crazed dancing mother, a devotee of sex erotica, and the mistress of a German prince." Custody of "Little Gloria" was given to Vanderbilt's aunt, but she could see her mother on weekends and for the month of July. Gloria spent the next seven years living on the east coast with her aunt.
Soon after Vanderbilt married the conductor, Leopold Stokowski. Stokowski had the reputation of being a ladies' man and had been involved with the actress Greta Garbo. He had been married twice. He and Vanderbilt lived quietly, in a small flat, for the first few years of their marriage. They had two sons, Stanislaus and Christopher. After five years of marriage, Vanderbilt began to see an analyst who advised her to express herself. She rented a studio where she wrote poetry and painted. She also began taking acting lessons and performing professionally for a short while. The Stokowskis divorced after ten years of marriage and fought a custody battle over their sons. Vanderbilt won. Vanderbilt later married Sidney Lumet, a television director. They remained married for seven years; when she ended the union, Lumet attempted suicide. Vanderbilt's fourth marriage to Mississippi writer, Wyatt Cooper, lasted 14 years, until Cooper's death in 1978, after a series of heart attacks. The couple had two sons, Carter and Anderson.