If it had been written by anyone else, I wouldn't have blinked at the content. But it's not anyone else; it's my mom, and reading her description of her current boyfriend as the "Nijinsky of cunnilingus" was kind of shocking.

Anderson Cooper, Vanderbilt's son (and celebrated CNN Anchorperson)
on reading her autobiography It Seemed Important At The Time: A Romance Memoir.

The fame you earn has a different taste from the fame that is forced upon you.

— Gloria Vanderbilt: heiress, socialite, artist, fashion designer.

Gloria Laura Vanderbilt DiCicco Stokowski Lumet Cooper is an astounding woman. Despite setback after setback, trial and unthinkable tribulation, she's managed to keep a delightfully optimistic outlook on life.

One would hazard a guess that the name "Vanderbilt" would evoke imagery of high society, money and a carefree, privileged life. For some who survived the disco age of the late 1970s, Gloria Vanderbilt's name was the one sewn on the rear pocket of millions of pairs of very tight-fitting jeans. These statements are true. However, things aren't as rosy as they appear.

Ms. Vanderbilt spent most of the 1990s pursuing her psychiatrist and her attorney in court for a conspiracy which successfully defrauded her of millions via a phony tax shelter. Worse, she sold homes in Manhattan and on Long Island, New York to pay millions in back taxes to the IRS that hadn't been paid by the attorney. Now deceased, there won't be any recovery from the attorney. She was paid a token $300,000 by the New York Bar Association from its funds for victims of fraud by its members.

She's far from homeless and far from penniless, but just imagine having the rug pulled out from under you like that. She's not a young woman, either; Ms. Vanderbilt was born in 1924.
 

What Could Be Worse Than Losing It All, Materially?

Losing one's health, perhaps. But imagine the horror of watching, helplessly, as your 23-year-old son hauls himself over the 14th floor balcony of your apartment and falls to his death. Ms. Vanderbilt witnessed this, and rather than destroy herself went on living, clinging desperately to new friends made at a suicide survivors' support group. Her son, Carter Vanderbilt Cooper, had just awakened from a nap and his jump has been attributed to a violent and frequent reaction to an asthma prescription he'd been taking.

Just a little over a year after her horrible loss, she published her first work of fiction, Never Say Good-Bye: A Novel. The work received lackluster reviews. She did better in 1994 with the also fictional The Memory Book of Starr Faithfull. A review by Kathleen Hughes in Booklist not only sums up the book but sums up Vanderbilt's life in a rather dramatic fashion: "Vanderbilt has persuasively re-created the life of an introspective child and the tormented woman she later became. The novel works both as an absorbing portrait of the sumptuous lifestyle of the privileged classes in the 1920s and 1930s and as the sad chronicle of an anguished life that slowly spiraled into madness." The "madness" part doesn't apply in the case of the very-much-together Ms. Vanderbilt.

By 1996, she published the story of her son's death and her road to recovery, A Mother's Story. Her most recent work, It Seemed Important At The Time: A Romance Memoir has received critical accolades and is selling briskly. A candid (uhm, very candid) recollection of her myriad flings with celebrities the likes of Frank Sinatra, Howard Hughes, her marriages, and engaging anecdotes including one about a date with (married) CBS Chairman William Paley that ended up with Paley chasing her around a sofa and she leaving.
 

The Poor Little Rich Girl

Gloria is the great-great-great granddaughter of the original "robber baron," "Commodore" Cornelius Vanderbilt, who made his immense fortune in railroads and shipping. Her father, Reginald Claypoole Vanderbilt was over twice the age of his wife, Gloria Morgan. Little Gloria, sadly, was in swaddling clothes when her father and mother embarked on their annual European cruise. Instead of a father and mother figure, she was left to be raised by her nanny, Emma Keislich, who was affectionately called "Dodo" by the family; and her grandmother on her mother's side. Her father's older sister, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, founder of the Whitney Museum of American Art kept a watchful eye over the little girl and a powerful force in shaping her future.

The Roaring '20s took its toll on the high-living Reginald Vanderbilt, and by the time little Gloria was just over a year old, he'd died of alcohol poisoning. By the time of his death, he'd managed to pretty much spend his inheritance of fifteen million dollars (remember, this is 1920s dollars)! Little Gloria and her mother were left with a modest trust fund, but not modest enough to keep the newly-widowed Gloria senior from taking up what some would call a bohemian existance in Paris. The baby merely got in the way of her mother and her aunt, Lady Thelma Furness, who were addicted to the lurid underbelly of Paris nightlife. Their behavior was chronicled by the social columns in great detail, much to the shock of Gertrude Whitney and the British Peerage (the very married Lady Furness preceded Wallis Simpson as the very public mistress of Edward, Prince of Wales).

By the early 1930s, Gloria Senior became tired of motherhood and dropped little Gloria off with her Aunt Gertrude while she went back to being the toast of Paris. The press, ever seeking sensation, bestowed the moniker "poor little rich girl" on Gloria, a dubious distinction she shared with her peers, heiresses Doris Duke and Barbara Hutton. To add to the sensation, Gloria had arrived from Paris shortly after the kidnapping of Charles Lindbergh's baby son. She was subjected to "copycat" kidnapping threats. Little Gloria was plagued with nerves and was tremendously shy (a trait that friends told People magazine many years later she carried into maturity).

Life with the matriarch Vanderbilt proved good for Gloria, who made friends with her cousins, attended school regularly, and began to enjoy a semblance of a normal childhood. One thing Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney couldn't abide was the antics of Gloria's mother. She decided to petition a court for permanent custody of Gloria, and had Gloria's mother's monthly allowance reduced from $4,000 to $750. It was eventually settled at just under $2,000 (remember again, these are 1930s dollars). The party was over for Gloria Morgan Vanderbilt and Lady Furness. To add insult to injury, while the legal wranglings over the little girl were going on in what was called "The (Custody) Case of the Century" and muck was being flung back and forth, Lady Furness asked her best friend Wallis Simpson to be a companion to the Prince while she was away. It turned out that she was quite the companion; the Prince abdicated the throne and all that, but it's another story...

The trial went on for weeks. Gloria senior was no match for Mrs. Whitney and her array of white-shoe lawyers. Sources for this story accuse Gloria Morgan Vanderbilt of being a lush, child abuse, and even having a lesbian affair with a member of Peerage. The judge finally ruled in favor of money rather than maternity and custody of Gloria was awarded to Gertrude.

All the acrimony, accusations and kidnapping threats, combined with Gertrude's firing of the beloved nanny, Dodo, gave the ten-year-old psychiatric disorders, a stutter and nightmares. Despite literally having "everything money could buy" at her fingertips, her Aunt Gertrude was very busy attending to her duties as a proper socialite, as well as her work as a sculptress of note. All the little girl had were servants to hand out the occasional praise and hugs. During this time Gloria attended the prestigious Miss Porter's School in Farmington, Connecticut.
 

Gloria Sets Out On Her Own

On a trip to Hollywood during World War II, Gloria met and fell in love with a talent agent named Pat DiCicco. Aunt Gertrude was aghast. In fact, she died four months after the wedding. Gloria did not get a penny of the Whitney money. DiCicco proved to be an abusive husband, and the pair divorced after only a few years of marriage.

Gloria's next husband was the conductor Leopold Stokowski. Their marriage lasted ten years and ended in a custody battle over their two sons. Husband number three was director Sidney Lumet. When Gloria filed for divorce after seven years, he attempted suicide.

Gloria found the love of her life in Wyatt Cooper, the writer, to whom she was married for 14 years until his death of a heart attack. The marriage produced two sons, Carter, aforementioned, and Anderson Cooper, one of the top broadcasters for news network CNN.

Upon turning 21 in 1945, Gloria was old enough to have her trust fund turned over to her, to do with as she saw fit. She was now worth a little over $4 million. Now, this was a drop in the bucket compared to the money she came from, but again, that's four million 1945 dollars.
 

A Creative Genius

Gloria matriculated at the Art Student's League in New York, and soon her talent gained admiration on many fronts. She gave one-woman shows of works of art in pastel, watercolor and oils. The "poor little rich girl" had finally found a way to express herself, and express herself well. Beside her work in the visual arts, she wrote poetry, and pursued acting for a time, earning significant roles on Broadway.

By 1968 the Hallmark corporation had adapted and licensed Gloria's drawings for its cards and paper products. Better, textile manufacturing firm Bloomcraft also paid to have Gloria's distinctive works printed and woven into fabrics. She was now earning a modest living that was rewarding and self-affirming.

Her artistic efforts turned to discipline of commercial art, and her designs for linens, china, glassware and flatware were licensed and marketed with great success. Fashion eyewear, perfume and clothing were next. Her most famous exposure on the fashion scene came when the Murjani Corporation worked with her to create the first line of "designer" jeans (their most popular brand name up to that time had been the chintzy sounding "Lucky Pierre" line of blouses). Gloria Vanderbilt's distinctive signature could be found adorning the rear pocket of anyone willing to hand over $100 or more for "a little bit of Vanderbilt." Gloria herself appeared in television commercials for the clothes. The line soon expanded to dresses and fragrances also.

Always her own woman, she befriended a wide variety of society folks, and mixed charity balls with evenings at Studio 54, where she met and befriended the likes of Andy Warhol and Truman Capote. Cafe Carlyle Club performer Bobby Short was another constant companion.
 

Still Going Strong

Her abovementioned candid recollection of her love-life is selling well. She's very close to her son, Anderson. And life's good for a woman who at this writing is 83 years old. Gloria Vanderbilt is an example for women everywhere that optimism and iron will go far toward becoming a complete, independent person. Sure, her life's the stuff books are written about (3 so far by authors other than herself). But she's come out the other side of the frenzy no worse for the wear.
 

SOURCES:

  • Gloria Vanderbilt's Corporate Website: http://www.gloria-vanderbilt.com/ (Accessed 7/25/07)
  • CBS Interview about her autobiography: It Seemed Important at the Time: A Romance Memoir July, 2005: http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2004/11/05/sunday/main654006.shtml (Accessed 7/25/07)
  • NNDB.com: http://www.nndb.com/people/971/000022905/ (Accessed 7/25/07)
  • "Divas: The Site:" Gloria Vanderbilt, by Blair Schulman: http://www.divasthesite.com/Society_Divas/gloria_vanderbilt_a.htm (Accessed 7/25/07)
  • "Talking Sex with Mom" by Anderson Cooper, CNN April, 2005 http://www.cnn.com/2005/US/09/28/talking.sex/index.html (Accessed 7/25/07)
  • IMDB.com: http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0888742/bio (Accessed 7/25/07)
  • Bookrags.com: http://www.bookrags.com/biography/gloria-vanderbilt/ (Accessed 7/25/07)
  • Trivia-Library.com "Excesses of the Rich and Wealthy" http://www.trivia-library.com/c/excesses-of-the-rich-and-wealthy-the-vanderbilts.htm (Accessed 7/25/07)
  • Quotes: http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/authors/g/gloria_vanderbilt.html (Accessed 7/25/07)
  • Biographybase.com http://www.biographybase.com/biography/Vanderbilt_Gloria.html (Accessed 7/25/07)

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