Gloria Vanderbilt, a woman famed from birth as the last of a Gilded Age clan of millionaires, as the subject of a toxic 1934 child custody trial, as an early inventor of designer jeans, and lately as the mother of CNN’s Anderson Cooper, has died.
She was 95, Cooper confirmed in an on-air obituary Monday.
“Gloria Vanderbilt was an extraordinary woman, who loved life, and lived it on her own terms,” Cooper said in a statement. “She was a painter, a writer, and designer but also a remarkable mother, wife, and friend. She was 95 years old, but ask anyone close to her, and they’d tell you, she was the youngest person they knew, the coolest, and most modern.”
Over nine decades, most of them in the public eye and sometimes not in a good way, Vanderbilt’s storied name could have been followed by any number of epithets ranging from sad little Gloria to shy young beauty. She was, by turns and sometimes at the same time, an artist, author, actress, fashion model, designer, creative force, philanthropist, lover and socialite.
She was the mother of four sons and wife to four men, who suffered double tragedies when her fourth husband died suddenly and one of their sons died.
Her relationships included the late photographer and filmmaker Gordon Parks, movie star Marlon Brando and singer/actor Frank Sinatra, eccentric billionaire Howard Hughes, and writer Roald Dahl.
She was an heiress to Vanderbilt millions who made more millions decades later through her eponymous fashion brand, especially the jeans stamped on the derriere with her signature.
Her name made headlines from the moment she was born Gloria Laura Vanderbilt in 1924, daughter of Reginald Claypoole Vanderbilt, a rich and idle equestrian and a grandson of robber baron and railroad magnate Cornelius Vanderbilt. Only 18 months later she was fatherless, after alcoholic Reggie died of cirrhosis of the liver at age 45.
She was left in the care of her 19-year-old mother, “Big Gloria” Morgan Vanderbilt, who with twin sister Thelma Morgan Furness preferred a life of constantly crossing the Atlantic on luxury liners, spending her daughter’s trust fund money and partying in Europe’s gathering spots for the rich and glamorous. Often she had her baby daughter in tow.
By the age of 10, Vanderbilt was “Little Gloria” and dubbed the “poor little rich girl” by the press after her paternal aunt, artist Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, fought her mother for custody in a court case that was a tabloid sensation for months in 1934, thanks to its salacious overtones (was “Big Gloria” a lesbian?) and its family feud details (Big Gloria’s own mother testified against her).
Poor little Gloria indeed. Once cold Aunt Gertrude had won, she stashed her niece in luxury at her Long Island estate in Old Westbury, and pretty much ignored her for years. Her mother remained elusive; she had only limited visitation rights, to prevent her allegedly scandalous lifestyle from influencing little Gloria.
Gloria’s relationship with her mother suffered irreparable damage, a victim of this first-ever tabloid scandal case. It wasn’t helped by the nanny who largely raised her and despised her mother enough to testify against her, too. When Gloria came of age and took control of her multi-million-dollar trust fund, Mom was cut off, and it wasn’t until much later that the two reconciled (she died in 1965).
In between, Vanderbilt began studying acting, started painting, appeared in theater productions (her first, in “The Swan,” inspired the logo she later used as a fashion designer) and got married – four times.
She was 17 when she went to Hollywood in 1941 and married Pat DiCicco, an agent who also had a reputation as a mobster. They divorced in 1945. (He died in 1978.)
Within weeks, she married conductor Leopold Stokowski (he died in 1977). This marriage lasted 10 years and produced two sons (and three grandchildren): Leopold Stanislaus “Stan” Stokowski, 68, and Christopher Stokowski, 67, who was long estranged from his family.
Her third husband was the late director Sidney Lumet; they married in 1956 and divorced in 1963.
She married author Wyatt Emory Cooper a few months after her third divorce, in December 1963. Their 15-year union ended with his death in 1978 while he was undergoing open-heart surgery. Their elder son, Carter Vanderbilt Cooper, committed suicide at age 23.
“I love to talk about Carter, because for me, it brings him alive again,” Vanderbilt said in an interview with USA TODAY in 2016. “People talk about ‘bringing closure,’ but in my opinion, there’s never closure.”
In the 1970s, Vanderbilt’s name became synonymous with a lucrative fashion brand, starting with scarves and moving on to the signature tight-fitting jeans that made her even more famous than ever. Eventually her swan logo appeared on apparel, perfume, linens, shoes, leather goods, and even liqueurs. All of this she promoted vigorously with public appearances, one of the first designers to do so.
In more recent years, Vanderbilt has been best known for exhibits of her art and for her writing, which includes books on art and home decor, four volumes of memoirs and three novels, such as “Obsession: An Erotic Tale.”
She’s also been the subject of numerous books, including the best-selling 1980 tale of the custody trial, “Little Gloria…Happy at Last,” by Barbara Goldsmith, and a 2010 tome chronicling her life, “The World of Gloria Vanderbilt,” by Wendy Goodman.
The Goldsmith book was the basis of a 1982 NBC TV movie by the same name that was nominated for six Emmy Awards and a Golden Globe Award.
But the book that has gotten the most attention recently is the memoir Vanderbilt and Anderson Cooper wrote together, “The Rainbow Comes and Goes: A Mother and Son on Life, Loss and Love,” which reached No. 4 on USA TODAY’s Best-Selling Books list in 2016.
The book is an exchange of correspondence between mother and son, between a survivor of an early press frenzy and a player in what has become a frenzy-a-day media mob. It was also a companion volume to the 2016 HBO documentary, “Nothing Left Unsaid: Gloria Vanderbilt and Anderson Cooper,” which covers her storied life and their family history.
Together they made the rounds of TV shows to promote it, as well as a sit-down with USA TODAY. His mother, Cooper said, has had a “much more interesting life” than his.
She “was dating Errol Flynn at 17, and (later) Marlon Brando and Howard Hughes and Frank Sinatra. Compared to my mom, I’ve led a pretty tame existence.”
Plus, she approached life and loss in a different way from her son, who, since the death of his father when he was 10, became more concerned about “preparing for the next catastrophe, which I always think is right around the corner.
“My mom believes the next great opportunity is always around the corner.”