Written by: Jennifer Kathleen Gibbons
Be it a saleswoman spritzing Vanderbilt perfume on someone’s wrists, bookstores having her latest book in their window, or her name written on the back of countless blue jeans, when I was a kid, Gloria Vanderbilt was everywhere.
Every pair of those jeans had her trademark swan on them. Truman Capote once said she was one of his swans–a woman who knew how to dress, talk, and do everything well.
Gloria Laura Vanderbilt was born in Manhattan on February 20, 1924. After her father’s death–the railroad heir Reginald Claypoole Vanderbilt–her mother left the states and went to Paris. Little Gloria (her mother was also Gloria) was raised by her Irish nanny Emma Sullivan Kieslich, who was nicknamed Dodo. Little Gloria’s aunt Gertrude was upset about Big Gloria’s spending habits, so she sued for custody. During the trial, Little Gloria was coached to say she wanted to live with her aunt Gertrude, because then Dodo would come with her. Aunt Gertrude won custody, but the judge ruled Dodo had to be let go. So, at the end of it all, Little Gloria lost her biological mother and the mother who pretty much raised her.
After Gloria grew up, she and Dodo found each other again and reconnected. Big Gloria, however, remained estranged from her daughter the rest of her life. The press dubbed her the Poor Little Rich Girl.
Gloria attended private schools and made two life-long friendships: Carol Grace Marcus and Oona O’Neill. Their friendship was documented in Aram Saroyan’s book Trio. They had several things in common: they were debutantes, they didn’t know their fathers (Marcus’ father was unknown and O’Neill’s father Eugene O’Neill rarely saw his daughter) and eventually, they all married men that were older than they were and famous: Oona married Charlie Chaplin when she was eighteen and he was fifty-three; Carol married author William Saroyan who was seventeen years older, then after their divorce she married Walter Matthau; and Gloria wed conductor Leopold Stokowski. All three of them were, as poet Ted Berrigan once wrote: “feminine, marvelous and tough.” Carol and Gloria even made an appearance in Truman Capote’s Unanswered Prayers, which had the two women had lunch in the New York restaurant La Cote Basque where they gossiped about their friend Oona O’Neill Chaplin and JD Salinger, and Gloria failed to recognize her first husband Pat DiCicco.
Needless to say, Capote was disowned by this particular swan.
Gloria tried acting lessons and, in the process, also dated Howard Hughes and Frank Sinatra. After she divorced Stokowski, she married director Sidney Lumet. That marriage didn’t last either. But one marriage did: the one to writer Wyatt Cooper in 1963. They had two sons: Carter and Anderson. In recent years, she became known as “Anderson Cooper’s mom,” a title she probably enjoyed much more than the Poor Little Rich Girl. It was in this marriage she found happiness, and several creative outlets. An artist, Wyatt convinced his wife to try and go into the fashion business. After all, a former model and sartorial tastemaker, she was considered one of the most fashionable women in the world, so it would be a sure fit. It was. By the end of the decade, every woman wanted Gloria Vanderbilt jeans. She did commercials to promote her brand using cabaret pianist Bobby Short in the spots.
In 1978, Wyatt Cooper died during open heart surgery. She knew she had to keep going, if for nothing else for her sons. Still tragedy wasn’t done with her yet. In the summer of 1988, her son Carter came to her apartment, upset about a recent breakup. On July 22nd, she found Carter about to jump from her New York apartment terrace. After pleading with him to come in, for her and for Anderson, he jumped anyway. She would later tell Anderson, “I thought the worst thing that ever happened to me was when I was nine (the year of the custody battle and Dodo taken away from her), but that wasn’t the worst. The worst is to lose a child.” She also was a victim of her lawyer and therapist who stole money from her and she had every reason to retreat, to give up.
Yet she didn’t. She had her surviving sons to live for, her grandchildren, and new work. She continued on with her artwork. She wrote a memoir about Carter’s suicide, then several novels. She co-wrote a memoir with Anderson. She provided the artwork/cover for Carol Marcus Matthau’s memoir, Among the Porcupines. She even shared her artwork/pictures on Instagram.
When Anderson Cooper announced her death on CNN this morning, he said this about his mother: “She never stopped believing in love.” It reminded me of the Rufus Wainwright song “April Fools”: You will believe in love, and all it’s supposed to be.
Gloria Vanderbilt had every reason not to believe in love.
Yet she did anyway.
And it probably saved her life.