A Vanderbilt's childhood

Once Upon a Time: A True Story, by Gloria Vanderbilt. New York: Knopf. Illustrated. 320 pp. $16.95. Apparently the first in a series of memoirs of Gloria Vanderbilt's fairy tale/nightmare life, ``Once Upon a Time'' tells the story of the author's first 17 years. It is an impressionistic, almost childlike exercise in naive writing, but the choice of style serves her purpose. Vanderbilt wants the reader to understand what it felt like to be the ``poor little rich girl'' at the center of the maelstrom of publicity around the custody trial where young Gloria denounced her own mother.

Unlike previous books on the subject, ``Once Upon a Time'' makes no attempt to take us through the maze of courtroom drama and backstage intrigue. It does not need to, for it can confirm what others could only conjecture: that little Gloria was pressured -- nay, forced -- by her overbearing grandmother and misguided nanny to attack her mother's morals. One can only marvel that a child exposed to such unique pressures and travails so early in life has managed to emerge into the sensitive and sensible woman who has written this book.

Merle Rubin reviews books regularly for the Monitor.

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