I wish I could find a shareable version of Richard Avedon’s starkly chic portrait of Gloria Vanderbilt wearing Mainbocher for Harper’s Bazaar. Fortunately, Gloria herself posted it on Instagram.
Vanderbilt died Monday aged 95 from stomach cancer. She was born into fame thanks to her father, a wealthy and dissolute great-grandson of 19th-century robber baron, who died from the effects of his heavy drinking when Gloria was 18 months old and her mother, also named Gloria, was only 19. Beautiful Gloria senior enjoyed a jet-setting lifestyle, often letting little Gloria’s care fall to the beloved nurse the child called Dodo. Her mother’s inattention resulted in a nasty, headline-generating battle for custody when Gloria was 10, brought by her disapproving aunt, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, the founder of the Whitney Museum. Newspapers referred to young Gloria “the poor little rich girl.”
This was during the Great Depression when, as History.com points out, stories about millionaires behaving badly sold newspapers like hotcakes. The tabloids certainly hit the jackpot when mom’s French maid testified about what was considered “improper conduct”:
“Mrs. Vanderbilt was in bed reading a paper, and there was Lady Milford Haven beside the bed with her arm around Mrs. Vanderbilt’s neck—Lady Milford’s arm around Mrs. Vanderbilt’s neck—and kissing her just like a lover.”
I always imagine the press reaction was …
Unfortunately for the tabloids, this was so ESCANDALOSO that the judge threw everyone out of the courtroom and conducted the rest of the case in private. The outcome: Gertrude won custody and dismissed Dodo; Gloria senior got weekend visitation rights; and Gloria the younger never left the public eye. She started modeling at age 15, then became an artist, actress, fabric designer, and writer. She had affairs with glamorous stars including Frank Sinatra, Marlon Brando, Errol Flynn, and Howard Hughes. She also married four times — the first time when she was 17. She was so extra: When the divorce from her abusive first husband was finalized, the next day she married famous conductor Leopold Stokowski. Stokowski was 40 years older than her. Her love life was always like …
Gloria became famous to me personally around 1980, when I was about to turn 13 and she was the designer-jeans queen with a namesake brand stitched with a swan logo on the front pocket and her signature sprawled across the back pocket. We were all about skin-tight designer jeans then — so tight you had to lie on the floor to zip them up. There was the Jordache look, Brooke Shields letting nothing come between her and her Calvins, Guess’s ankle-zip style, and Gloria Vanderbilt modeling her own label. (I started with Jordache and Gloria, but became devoted to those Guess ankle-zips by 1985.) Ah, youth! The right pair of jeans seemed like the key to happiness then. I often wish I could re-experience that feeling, because life was a lot simpler when nirvana could be attained through the perfect denim.
Alas, that swan-logo denim eventually brought Gloria herself a lot of unhappiness — she was bilked out of millions by her lawyer and psychiatrist. Then, in 1988, she suffered a far worse blow when her 23-year-old son, Carter Vanderbilt Cooper, leaped off the terrace of her 14th-floor New York City apartment right in front of her. She carried the pain of that loss with her the rest of her life, yet she still lived that life to the fullest. As CNN personality Anderson Cooper — Carter’s brother and the youngest of Gloria’s four sons — said of his mother, “She trusted too freely, too completely and suffered tremendous losses, but she always pressed on, always worked hard, always believed the best was yet to come.” The part about pressing on and working hard isn’t empty talk: Gloria wrote more than a dozen books, including memoirs and an erotic novel published when she was 85. She did a documentary with Anderson and, at his urging, joined Instagram when she was 93, posting herself from her iPad. Her posts included her art and old photos …
… as well as this emotional tribute to Carter Cooper on the 30th anniversary of his death last year.
View this post on Instagram
Thirty years ago today, before my eyes, I lost Carter Cooper. My son. My life. My hope. In the years since, his brother, my beloved Anderson, has been by my side, giving me love and strength. Carter is close and alive within me, as he was from the beginning, and as he always will be.
On Monday, it was Anderson Cooper’s turn to pay tribute to Gloria, which he did in a video aired on CNN. (You can read the transcript here.)
In his eulogy, Anderson says that after Gloria learned of her terminal illness this month, she was silent for a moment, then said, “Well, it’s like that old song. Show me that way to get out of this world, because that’s where everything is.” Here’s the song performed by Peggy Lee. There’s nothing I can write that’s better than this.
- Town & Country’s article about Gloria’s sons, including her two with Stokowski, one of whom was estranged from the family for decades.
- Time Magazine’s obituary.
- The Hollywood Reporter calls her an “heiress with a knack for reinvention.”
- The Guardian called her the “original influencer.”
- Vogue mentions that Truman Capote’s Holly Golightly character was rumored to be based on Gloria.
- An interesting thing about the Los Angeles Times obit: Its author, Elaine Woo, is identified as a former staff writer. That sometimes happens because news organizations prepare obituaries of notable people so far in advance of their deaths.
- Photos from Harper’s Bazaar.
- Photos from Vogue
- W interviewed Gloria in 2009 when Obsession — the erotic novel — came out. Great quotes!
- A 2014 interview by T.J. Wilcox in Interview Magazine. Engrossing anecdotes — Gloria says Holly Golightly was a composite character — and impressive positivity.