Gloria Vanderbilt, 1924–2019
The ‘poor little rich girl’ who built a fashion empire
Gloria Vanderbilt lived a life of tragedy and triumph worthy of the Great American Novel. At age 10, in 1934, the heiress was thrust into the spotlight in a custody trial that gave Depression-era America a glimpse of the lives of the ultrarich. Vanderbilt was taken from her beloved nanny and placed with an icy aunt; she later said the rest of her life was “a restless search for love.” Married four times, she also had affairs with Errol Flynn, Marlon Brando, and Frank Sinatra. Vanderbilt finally found happiness with husband No. 4, writer Wyatt Emory Cooper—father of her youngest son, CNN journalist Anderson Cooper—but the marriage ended with his death at age 50. All that heartbreak made the beautiful Vanderbilt a gossip column favorite; she used that celebrity to turn her name into a brand that she slapped on linens, perfumes, and a line of figure-hugging jeans that became a $150 million–a-year business. “I have no respect for anyone who has self-pity,” Vanderbilt said in 2000. “Nobody is spared in life.”
She was born in New York City to Reginald Claypoole Vanderbilt—an alcoholic, gambler, and great-grandson of railroad baron Cornelius Vanderbilt—and his wife, Gloria Morgan, “a teenage socialite less than half his age,” said The Washington Post. Following Reginald’s death at age 45 in 1925, little Gloria was left with a nanny while her mother partied her way across Europe, funding her adventures with her daughter’s $2.5 million trust fund. Scandalized, paternal aunt Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney sued for custody of the girl. “Lurid testimony riveted the nation during the nearly two-month trial.” A nurse described Gloria’s mother as a cocktail-crazed dancer; “a French maid raised the specter of lesbianism.” Custody of young Gloria—called a “poor little rich girl” by the tabloids—eventually passed to Aunt Gertrude, who sent the child to her Long Island estate while she remained in the city. At age 17, Vanderbilt dropped out of school to join her mother in Beverly Hills.
She “was soon a glamorous figure on the Hollywood party circuit,” said The New York Times. She had flings with film stars and Howard Hughes, and in 1941 married actors’ agent Pasquale di Cicco, who beat her frequently. Following their divorce in 1945, the 21-year-old Vanderbilt married conductor Leopold Stokowski, 63, with whom she had two sons. Vanderbilt was 30 and a budding stage actress when she left the controlling Stokowski, inspired by an affair with Sinatra, who, she said, “created a kind of magic.” She married film director Sidney Lumet in 1956, and soon after their relationship ended, in 1963, she wed Cooper, with whom she had two sons, Carter and Anderson.
Vanderbilt adored Cooper, said the Los Angeles Times. He taught her, she said, “what the loving parenting I’d never had could be like.” Cooper died in 1977 after a series of heart attacks, the same year she launched her “high-fashion jeans tailored for women with normal, not model-thin, bodies.” The elegant heiress starred “in an advertising blitzkrieg that showed off her denim-clad derriere,” and by 1979 her line had surpassed Calvin Klein jeans in sales. Tragedy struck again in 1988 when she witnessed her 23-year-old son Carter leap to his death from her own 14th-floor terrace. It was, she wrote in her 1996 memoir, A Mother’s Story, “the final loss, the fatal loss that stripped me bare.” But she remained a redoubtable force, and in 2009 the 85-year-old Vanderbilt published a steamy novel, Obsession. Asked about the book, her son Anderson said, “The six most surprising words a mother can say to her son are ‘Honey, I’m writing an erotic novel.’”