Known for her fashion design and tumultuous personal life, actress, writer and artist Gloria Vanderbilt became an iconic figure in American popular culture during the 20th century.
Who Was Gloria Vanderbilt?
Gloria Vanderbilt became famous early in life at the center of a battle between her mother and aunt for her custody and multi-million-dollar trust fund in the 1930s. Her fame grew later in life as she ventured into theater, film and fashion, with her jeans becoming a staple of the 1970s designer scene. She wrote several novels and nonfiction works, including It Seemed Important at the Time: A Romance Memoir, and was a noted collagist and creator of multidimensional panoramas featured in exhibitions. Vanderbilt also was known as the mother of broadcast journalist Anderson Cooper.
A member of the affluent and influential Vanderbilt family, Gloria Vanderbilt was born on February 20, 1924, in New York City. Her father, Reginald Vanderbilt, was the great-grandson of Cornelius Vanderbilt, the creator of a railroad empire and one of America’s first millionaires. Her mother, Gloria Morgan, was a young woman who loved parties more than parenthood.
Vanderbilt lost her father, who suffered from alcoholism, to liver disease when she was a toddler, and received a multi-million-dollar trust fund. For several years after her father’s death, Vanderbilt lived abroad with her mother and was often in the care of her maternal grandmother, Laura, and her nurse, Emma, nicknamed Dodo.
Public Court Battle
When she was 10 years old, Vanderbilt made headlines as the central figure in an acrimonious and very public trial followed by the media. Her paternal aunt Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, a sculptor who founded the Whitney Museum, successfully fought for custody of Vanderbilt. The court decided that the young heiress could spend the summers with her mother, and that Dodo, Vanderbilt’s most beloved companion, would have to be let go.
‘Harper’s’ and Hollywood
Coming from the rigid household run by her aunt, Vanderbilt emerged in her teens as a popular young socialite with her own distinct style, appearing in Harper’s Bazaar magazine in 1939. Though quite shy at times, Vanderbilt later headed out to Hollywood, where her mother was already well ensconced in popular social circles. Vanderbilt started dating much older men, including Errol Flynn and Howard Hughes, and in 1941 she married Hollywood agent Pat DiCicco, though she was only 17 at the time.
It was an unhappy union, with DiCicco proving to be an emotionally and physically abusive force. Vanderbilt divorced her husband in 1945. But even before their parting, Vanderbilt had found love again, with renowned conductor Leopold Stokowski. Vanderbilt and Stokowski married shortly after her divorce was complete and had two sons, Stanley and Christopher. Around this time, Vanderbilt discovered her passion for art and studied at the Art Students League of New York. She explored an interest in acting as well, receiving instruction from Sanford Meisner at the Neighborhood Playhouse.
Acting Work and Marriages
In 1955, Vanderbilt appeared on Broadway in the short-lived revival of William Saroyan’s The Time of Your Life, and from the mid-1950s to the early 1960s she was featured in several TV series. She showed promise as a writer as well, publishing the 1955 collection Love Poems. Vanderbilt also made some changes in her personal life, divorcing Stokowski, and, after a short dalliance with Frank Sinatra, marrying film director Sidney Lumet in 1956.
Vanderbilt continued to tackle some acting roles but remained better known for her social life. She was good friends with Truman Capote, among others in the New York intellectual and social elite. After divorcing Lumet, in 1963 Vanderbilt married writer Wyatt Cooper. The couple had two sons together, Carter and Anderson.
Major Personal Loss
In the 1970s, Vanderbilt burst onto the fashion scene. She designed a line of jeans that proved to be hugely popular, with each pair featuring her signature and swan logo. Before long, Vanderbilt branched out into other types of clothing and perfumes. She also suffered a great personal loss during this time when her husband Wyatt Cooper died during open-heart surgery in 1978.
Turning to her own life as a source of inspiration, in 1985 Vanderbilt published the first of her memoirs, Once Upon a Time: A True Story. Tackling fiction, Vanderbilt also wrote several novels, including The Memory Book of Starr Faithfull (1994). Vanderbilt eventually wrote about one of the most difficult experiences of her life in A Mother’s Story (1996), exploring the 1988 suicide of her son Carter Cooper.
Books, Art and son Anderson Cooper
By the early 1990s, Vanderbilt had to contend with financial setbacks, with a former lawyer and former psychiatrist swindling great sums of money from her. The scheme adversely affected Vanderbilt’s home-design business and forced her to sell her property. Almost a decade later, in 2002, her apparel company was bought by Jones Apparel Group.
The year 2004 saw Vanderbilt dishing about her real-life loves in It Seemed Important at the Time: A Romance Memoir, and Vanderbilt returned to fiction with the 2009 erotic novella Obsession. In 2011, she released a collection of short stories titled The Things We Fear Most.
In addition to writing, Vanderbilt enjoyed some success as a visual artist, working in the medium of collage and surreal, multidimensional dream boxes, which were featured in exhibitions held at the New York Design Center in 2012 and 2014. The coffee-table book The World of Gloria Vanderbilt—offering up images from her life—was released in 2010.
In addition to her roster of accomplishments, Vanderbilt was the mother of famed news anchor and television host Anderson Cooper, to whom she was quite close. The two appeared together on his former CNN program Anderson Live, and their lives and relationship were the focus of the HBO documentary Nothing Left Unsaid, which premiered in April 2016. Released in conjunction with the documentary was the joint memoir The Rainbow Comes and Goes: A Mother and Son on Life, Loss, and Love.
Vanderbilt died at her New York City home on June 17, 2019. “Gloria Vanderbilt was an extraordinary woman, who loved life, and lived it on her own terms,” son 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.”