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Barbara Goldsmith dead; writer who chronicled high-society contretemps was 85

Barbara Goldsmith, a best-selling writer who chronicled high-society contretemps including the custody dispute over “poor little rich” Gloria Vanderbilt in the 1930s, unveiling the wealthy and famous as often empty and unhappy, died June 26 at her home in New York City. She was 85.

The cause was congestive heart failure, said her assistant Jeremy Steinke.

Goldsmith was a founding editor of New York magazine, a contributor to publications including Vanity Fair and the New Yorker and the author of four nonfiction books. Her work combined historical sleuthing and social commentary, and it reflected both her experience -- and wariness -- of wealth.

A daughter of a moneyed real estate investor, Goldsmith said she recognized early on the drawbacks, even dangers, of fame. She said that like Vanderbilt -- the railroad and shipping heiress who became a maven of designer jeans -- she was scarred by the kidnapping and murder in 1932 of aviator Charles Lindbergh’s young son.

“I used to go to bed at night and wait for the sound of the ladder plopping against my bedroom window,” she once told the New York Times. “I’ve since found that a lot of people who grew up during the Depression had these same fears, because of the Lindbergh baby’s kidnapping.”

Goldsmith became fascinated by the Vanderbilt case four decades after the fact, while researching her first book, “The Straw Man” (1975), a novel that turns on the contested estate of a New York art collector. Working in a library, she stumbled upon 8,000 pages of court transcripts from the 1934 custody challenge that made 10-year-old Vanderbilt one of the most famous children in the United States.

The case involved the girl’s widowed mother, Gloria Morgan Vanderbilt, and an aunt, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, who ultimately obtained custody. Their war over “little Gloria,” which riveted Depression-era Americas with lurid revelations of the family’s dissolution, became the subject of Goldsmith’s best-selling volume “Little Gloria ... Happy at Last” (1980).

Goldsmith said that she trekked to seven countries for the book and interviewed 300 sources, although not Gloria Vanderbilt, who declined to participate. The book became a 1982 TV miniseries featuring Angela Lansbury, Christopher Plummer and Maureen Stapleton.

“’Little Gloria’ is like a Bruegel canvas, teeming with characters and events all moving in different directions,” Brigitte Weeks, a Washington Post editor, wrote in a review of the volume. “But even though she gives us a ten-course banquet of Vanderbilts and Whitneys, we are left -- hard to believe -- wanting more.”

In her research, Goldsmith learned that Cornelius Vanderbilt, the family’s shipping and railroad magnate, had once advised aspiring investors to “do as I do, consult the spirits!” He was confident that his stock was on the rise, he had remarked, because a “Mrs. Woodhull said so in a trance.”

Intrigued by the reference, Goldsmith spent a decade researching the life of Victoria Woodhull, a fortuneteller and suffragette who in 1872 launched a quixotic campaign as the first woman to run for president. The result of Ms. Goldsmith’s study was the book “Other Powers: The Age of Suffrage, Spiritualism and the Scandalous Victoria Woodhull” (1998).

In 1987, Goldsmith published “Johnson v. Johnson,” an account of the fight over the estate of J. Seward Johnson, an heir to the riches his family made in the pharmaceutical business. After his death in 1983, his children challenged his will, which left nearly his entire $500 million estate to his third wife, Barbara Piasecka, a Polish immigrant four decades his junior who had been one of their domestics.

The trial, which Goldsmith covered for Vanity Fair, became a cause celebre and ended with an out-of-court settlement.

“I’ve come to view it as a contest rooted in emotional issues,” she wrote, “feelings of unrequited love, unfinished business, denial, and loss of honor. J. Seward Johnson’s behavior toward his children -- his patterns of rejection and divisiveness -- ultimately led them into a courtroom seeking to find what they had never had from him: recognition, a sense of worthiness, and a measure of a father’s love. Perhaps restitution for this loss came to be equated with money. But money was all that was left.”

Barbara Joan Lubin was born in New York City on May 18, 1931. She graduated in 1953 from Wellesley College in Massachusetts and began her career profiling celebrities for Women’s Home Companion and the New York Herald Tribune. When the latter was shuttered in the 1960s, she provided seed money to spin off the newspaper’s Sunday supplement and establish New York magazine.

In 1968, the magazine’s inaugural year, Goldsmith penned a profile of the Andy Warhol model Viva. In the article, titled “La Dolce Viva,” the woman was shown in haunting nude images by photographer Diane Arbus and revealed by Goldsmith as penniless and addled by drugs.

Before running the article, which was guaranteed to roil advertisers with its explicit nature, the editor, Clay Felker, showed it to Tom Wolfe, another of the magazine’s writers. Wolfe was enthralled and declared to Felker, “I don’t see how you can not run it.”

As predicted, advertisers rebelled, but the episode became famous in the magazine’s history.

Goldsmith’s most recent book was “Obsessive Genius: The Inner World of Marie Curie” (2005), a biography of the Polish-born physicist who became the first woman to receive a Nobel Prize. Goldsmith’s experience in historical archives, where she handled old papers that crumbled at the touch, inspired her to lead a campaign to persuade private and government publishers to print books and documents on acid-free paper.

Her marriages to C. Gerald Goldsmith, an investment banker, and Frank Perry, a filmmaker, ended in divorce. Survivors include three children from her first marriage, Andrew Goldsmith of Beverly Hills, California, Alice Elgart of New York City and John Goldsmith of Santa Monica, California; and six grandchildren.

Goldsmith described herself foremost as a “social historian.”

“The reason I write books,” she told the Times, “is an obsession to see that our society straightens out. We live in a world that is interested only in images and not reality, and I want to shatter those images -- real heroes lead very tough, ascetic lives. But Americans are beginning to want to see behind these images, and I want to fight for this.”

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