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
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
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
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.
- Gloria Vanderbilt's Corporate Website:
- CBS Interview about her autobiography: It Seemed Important at the Time: A
Romance Memoir July, 2005:
- NNDB.com: http://www.nndb.com/people/971/000022905/ (Accessed 7/25/07)
- "Divas: The Site:" Gloria Vanderbilt, by Blair Schulman:
- "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)
http://www.bookrags.com/biography/gloria-vanderbilt/ (Accessed 7/25/07)
- Trivia-Library.com "Excesses of the Rich and Wealthy"