By WILLIAM GRIMES
Barbara Goldsmith in 1998. Credit Jack Manning/The New York Times
Barbara Goldsmith, a founding editor of New York magazine and the author of “Little Gloria … Happy at Last,” a best-selling account of the bitter 1934 custody battle over Gloria Vanderbilt, died on Sunday at her home in Manhattan. She was 85.
The cause was heart failure, family members said.
In 1974, Ms. Goldsmith was doing research at a law library for a novel about the art world, “The Straw Man,” when she chanced upon four fat volumes labeled “In the Matter of Vanderbilt.” They contained 8,000 pages of court transcripts from the custody case that pitted Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, Gloria’s aunt, against the child’s mother, Gloria Morgan Vanderbilt, with a $2.5 million trust fund the glittering prize.
It was one of the great headline-hogging trials of the age, and Ms. Goldsmith threw herself into the subject with abandon. For the next five years, she pored over the court records and conducted more than 300 interviews in seven countries. The result was a 650-page whopper, published in 1980, full to bursting with scandal, betrayal, extravagance and wealth beyond the dreams of avarice.
The book, which Newsday called “moth-to-flame reading,” was turned into an NBC mini-series in 1982, with Angela Lansbury, Christopher Plummer and Maureen Stapleton.
Ms. Goldsmith went on to write several more well-received books, notably “Other Powers: The Age of Suffrage, Spiritualism and the Scandalous Victoria Woodhull” (1998), about the women’s rights advocate who in 1872 became the first woman to run for president of the United States, and “Obsessive Genius: The Inner World of Marie Curie” (2005).
Ms. Goldsmith was born Barbara Joan Lubin on May 18, 1931, in Manhattan and grew up in New Rochelle, N.Y. Her father, Joseph, was a founder of the nationwide accounting firm Eisner & Lubin and a real estate investor. Her mother, the former Evelyn Cronson, was a schoolteacher and, with her husband, a philanthropist.
After graduating from New Rochelle High School, she enrolled in Wellesley College, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in English and art history in 1953.
Barbara Goldsmith’s “Little Gloria … Happy at Last,” published in 1980. Credit Dell Publishing Co.
In 1954, she married C. Gerald Goldsmith, an investment banker. The marriage ended in divorce, as did her second marriage, to the filmmaker Frank Perry, who died in 1995. Ms. Goldsmith, who also lived in East Hampton, N.Y., is survived by two sons, John and Andrew; a daughter, Alice Elgart; and six grandchildren.
After college, she worked for Art News as a critic before becoming an editor at Woman’s Home Companion. The magazine did not have an entertainment section, so she set about creating one, contributing interview-profiles of Clark Gable, Audrey Hepburn, Cary Grant and other stars.
Later, at Town & Country, she started a series called “The Creative Environment,” for which she interviewed important figures in the arts, including I. M. Pei, Marcel Breuer, George Balanchine and Pablo Picasso.
After being introduced to Clay Felker by Harold Hayes, the editor of Esquire, she began writing for The New York Herald Tribune, where Mr. Felker was an editor. When the newspaper went out of business in 1966, Ms. Goldsmith lent Mr. Felker $6,500 to acquire the name of its Sunday supplement, New York, which he transformed into New York magazine, with Ms. Goldsmith as one of the founding editors.
Having done Mr. Felker a good turn, she nearly scuttled his new publication with her 1968 profile of Viva, the Andy Warhol superstar. “La Dolce Viva” depicted its voluble subject as befuddled, destitute, dissolute and promiscuous. An accompanying nude photo by Diane Arbus reinforced the general impression.
“Between my prose and Arbus’s photos, half the readers wanted to cancel their subscriptions, and the other half thought it was the best thing ever,” Ms. Goldsmith told The East Hampton Star in 2001.
Worried, Mr. Felker had shown the article to Tom Wolfe, his star writer. “I was standing up when I started reading — and found I was unwilling to interrupt myself long enough to sit down,” Mr. Wolfe wrote in New York magazine in 2008. He told Mr. Felker, “I don’t see how you can not run it.” Half the advertisers fled the magazine, and Mr. Felker barely survived a revolt by his investors. Mr. Wolfe included the article in “The New Journalism,” his 1973 anthology.
Barbara Goldsmith working on her book “Little Gloria...Happy at Last” in 1980. On her desk are volumes containing transcripts of the Gloria Vanderbilt trial. Credit Jill Krementz, All Rights Reserved
Ms. Goldsmith accepted a position as senior editor at Harper’s Bazaar in the early 1970s but soon left to write “The Straw Man,” a novel of intrigue and perfidy in the art world. It was her only work of fiction.
In addition to her books on Woodhull and Curie, she wrote “Johnson v. Johnson” (1987), a blow-by-blow account of the legal battle between the children of J. Seward Johnson Sr., heir to the Johnson & Johnson pharmaceuticals fortune, and his third wife, the former Barbara Piasecka, a Polish immigrant who had been hired as a chambermaid to Mr. Johnson’s second wife. At stake was a will that left his widow, known as Basia, the bulk of Mr. Johnson’s $400 million estate.
Ms. Goldsmith became a crusader for acid-free paper while researching “Little Gloria.” “The books and newspapers from before 1850 were in fine shape, but some of the newer ones came apart in my hands,” she told Newsweek in 1989.
That year, responding to a lobbying campaign by Ms. Goldsmith, 2,500 authors and 40 publishers signed a declaration promising that they would, whenever possible, use acid-free paper for all first printings of quality hardcover trade books “in order to preserve the printed word and safeguard our cultural heritage for future generations.” At the same time, the National Endowment for the Humanities, responding to the campaign, increased its book-preservation budget by $20 million.
From 1987 to 2015, Ms. Goldsmith underwrote the Freedom to Write Award, given by PEN to authors facing political persecution.
In writing “Little Gloria,” the one interview Ms. Goldsmith failed to land was with Gloria Vanderbilt. She waved Ms. Goldsmith aside in a brief telephone conversation, saying that she would feel uncomfortable talking about the subject and that she intended to write her own book, which she did. “Once Upon a Time: A True Story,” appeared in 1985.
No matter, Ms. Goldsmith insisted. “I didn’t write a biography of Gloria Vanderbilt,” she told The Washington Post. “I wrote a social history about a time of opulent waste in America that will never come again, where people gave dinner parties with sand on the table and you’d dig for jewels and come up with an emerald.”