Heiress to one of the richest American dynasties, Gloria Vanderbilt has seen it all. Fame, fortune, love, and tragedy. JOHN VON SOTHEN retraces the destiny of the woman who inspired Breakfast at Tiffany’s and designer jeans, while harkening back to a lost age – when America once had royalty.
There must have been a moment when the last dinosaur walked the earth, the final link to a time many in the future could never imagined existed. At 94, Gloria Vanderbilt, may be the last of her species.
For nearly a century now, Vanderbilt has been defined by her name, one associated with American wealth and opulence, industry and power, but also ruin, tragedy, and the worst affliction to hit any great family, extinction.
At the time of her birth, the Vanderbilts were the richest family in the world. They even had more money than the US government. And their subsequent making and spending of that wealth would reach a scale unseen since 18th century Versailles.
In a way, the Vanderbilts were “Aristocracy a l’Americain,” whose self-made fortune in shipping and railroads would be lost as fast as it was made. And the family who once hoped to become the Rothschild or Hapsburg dynasty of the US would soon disappear into obscurity, leaving behind young Gloria as the last one standing.
However Gloria Vanderbilt’s story is not just one of a family whose rise and fall is a metaphor of America, but of a modern day woman, one whose long life bridges multiple generations and speaks volumes of the current age we’re living in.
In many respects, her life is a fairy tale. At the age of five she was one of the wealthiest people in America. She once dated Frank Sinatra and married the director, Sidney Lumet. She acted along side Rita Heyworth, had two children with the famous conductor Leopold Stokowski. She posed for Vogue, Cosmopolitan, and Town and Country. She was the first woman to design a successful line of luxury jeans in her name. She wrote novels. She painted, and she was even the muse of famous photographer Richard Avedon, artist Salvador Dali and writer Truman Capote.
Gloria Vanderbilt in May 1962. Photographer: Paul Schutzer/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images licensed by Vanity Fair France.
Yet in other ways, her life is classically tragic. She lost her father before she could walk. She was taken from her mother at the age of ten in a bitter custody battle. She lost her husband, Wyatt Cooper, early in what was her first stable marriage, then later witnessed her twenty year-old son Carter commit suicide in front of her, jumping from their Park Avenue apartment. All along the way, Gloria would watch as Vanderbilt mansions were sold, the companies they created died off, replaced by a modern America whose Kennedys and Gateses and Zuckenbergs had no use and no interest in the years of splendor she grew up in, a time historians called the “Gilded Age.”
As her son, the CNN correspondent Anderson Cooper, once said, “My mother is an emissary from a distant star.” And if you didn’t meet her in real life, quietly sitting on the couch in the corner of her New York apartment, you wouldn’t believe people like this even existed.
To best understand Gloria, we must first comprehend the wealth and importance of her family.
Originally Dutch, the Vanderbilts had come to America as early as the 17th century, when New York was first a Dutch colony known as New Amsterdam. And for hundreds of years, they did very little other than eke out a meager existence like many of the early American settlers.
But their fortunes would suddenly change with Cornelius Vanderbilt, a brazen young boat captain, whose idea to transform his oyster boat into a ferry that serviced Staten Island and Manhattan would eventually lead him to buy a second boat, then a third, then a fourth. Before long, Vanderbilt had become wealthy, and by the time he exited the shipping business twenty years later, the Vanderbilts owned more ships than the US Navy.
Like many self-made men, Vanderbilt’s energy was borderline psychotic. At the age of 60, he embarked on a second career with railroads, applying the same ruthlessness and competitiveness that served him in shipping. Rates were cut and competitors were bought out, allowing Vanderbilt to consolidate local railroads under one company with one standard service. Soon Cornelious Vanderbilt controlled more railroads than anyone in the country, making the Vanderbilts the wealthiest family in America. At the time, there was no income tax, which even added to the Vanderbilt’s colossal fortune. At their apex, the Vanderbilts would have more money than the US government and the greatest personal family fortune in the world.
Although Cornelius’s heirs proved to less adept at building the fortune, they were certainly talented at spending it, eventually creating some of the most spectacular architecture in America. Massive apartments or houses were too small for the Vanderbilts. Theirs needed to be large scale Gothic urban kingdom castles the size of Vaux le Vicompte, plopped down in the middle of New York taking up entire blocks. Cornelius’s son William and his wife NAME would host balls for thousands of people at their home at 640 Fifth Avenue, between 57th and 58th – the current site of Van Cleef and Arpels and Bergdorf Goodman. Their parties could only be outdone by his brother Cornelius Jr. Name, whose home three streets down, was twice the size.
Eventually Manhattan proved to be too small for the social competitiveness between rival siblings, and soon the combat was taken to the nearby beach town of Newport, RI, where each Vanderbilt constructed his or her own summer home but on the scale of the Petit Trianan of Versailles. The chateaus were named “cottages” because each member was expected to have his own. Each was placed on the edge of cliffs overlooking the Atlantic Ocean and was built in less than two years with entire floors and rooms constructed in France than shipped over on boats and snapped together like Lego pieces. Entire fire places were yanked out of Loire Valley Chateaus and placed on boats bound for Newport as were paintings of Louis XIV and Marie Antoinette and marble ball rooms. The Vanderbilts saw themselves as American Bourbons or Hapsburgs. The children were taught French before they spoke English, and each was set up to marry various British nobility who were looking to marry American heiresses as way to save their own flailing family fortunes. Millionaire countesses or something.
By the time Gloria was born date, the Vanderbilt’s fortune had been somewhat diluted by bad investments and the opulent spending of his heirs. Reggie Vanderbilt, Gloria’s father, was a notorious gambler and horse owner. Gloria’s mother, Gloria Morgan, was a famous socialite, who had a twin sister, Thelma. Both sisters were called the “Magical Morgans,” and were known across Europe and the US for their eccentric lifestyles, engagements to dukes, and constant partying, making them the early 20th century equivalent of Paris and Nicky Hilton.
Although Gloria’s birth was seen as a mini-miracle for two wayward souls, her childhood would be fraught with glaring parental absence.
“It was life observed and never shared,” Gloria wrote in her auto-biography Title.
Reggie would soon die from alcoholism, pushing Gloria’s mother to move to Paris in 1926, where baby Gloria was looked after by her nanny Dodo and her grandmother on avenue Charles Floquet, the entire group living off a family stipend of $50,000 a year. Gloria would later describe this time as a “regal gipsey existence.”
“Our caravan was home to three: Dodo, Nanny and me,” Gloria recounted. “It was made up of steamer trunks, packing, and unpacking on ocean liners, in hotels, and on trains, living in rented house in Paris, Cannes, and England. It mattered not where as long as we three were together.”
During this time, Gloria’s aunt Thelma (her mother’s twin sister) who’d later marry Lord Marmaduke Furness, was having an affair with Edward, The Prince of Wales, and future King of England. Gloria would often spend time with the Prince at his house, Fort Belevedere. Thelma eventually left for a weekend and asked her good friend, Wallace Simpson, to look after Edward while she was away. “See that he doesn’t get into any mischief,” was her last request.
Gloria’s mother’s transient existence began to vex many of the other Vanderbilts, who found it unseemly for a widow to be gallivanting across Europe so soon after her husband’s death. The family eventually filed charges against Gloria’s mother claiming she was “unfit” to be a parent and that her lifestyle was not condusive to raise a child.
The ensuing custody trial for Gloria Vanderiblt, known in the press by now as “the poor little rich girl” would become a national sensation, the OJ Simpson trial of its time and the beginning of a public’s obsession with the young heiress.
“It was the ideal distraction for a society demoralized by the Great Depression and still reeling from the infamous kidnapping and murder of Charles Lindbergh,” wrote Goodman.
In the press and court, Gloria’s mother, was painted as a degenerate with a lavish lifestyle, little morals not to mention an unseemly rumor she’d slept with women. The court would eventually grant custody to G
Gertrude Whitney, the founder of the Whitney museum and Gloria’s aunt.
Although a former Vanderbilt heiress herself, Whitney had cultivated a life in the arts as a sculptor. There were two sides to her. She lived in a mansion at 871 Fifth Avenue across from the Vanderbilts, but favored her bohemian Greenwich Village studio where she worked. Although Gloria found her aunt to be cold and distant and not at all interested in children, Whitney’s artistic sensibilities would later influence Gloria and provide her with a concrete example of what it was to be an independent woman.
At the time though, Gloria was traumatized by the court order. For her the loss of her nanny was unthinkable and needlessly cruel.
“The one thing I wanted was for my nurse Dodo to stay with me and that was not to be. This was the day the happiness of my childhood ended. It tore my life apart. And don’t worry. All orphans, feel it’s their fault.”
The trial and the verdict would also highlight the irony of inheriting so much, but living with so little and would foreshadow the dual sided tragedy that would often haunt Gloria.
“It was impossible for the public to think that with all that money and all those houses filled with flowers, silver, and who knows what else,” Gloria said, “that misery could follow a girl who was neglected and frightened.”
Becoming a woman
Following the trial, Gloria was famous, and to avoid the public eye, she was housed at her Aunt’s giant estate in Old Westbury, Connecticut, where she eventually met Diana Vreeland, the fashion editor of Harper’s Bazzar who happened to be a friend of Whitney’s.
Vreeland was intrigued by the young Gloria and asked her to pose for the magazine. It was during this shoot, that she’d meet the famous photographer Richard Avedon, who would go on to shoot Gloria throughout her life in different circumstances.
Over Christmas one year, Gloria visited her mother who was now living in Los Angeles, caught up in an intense affair with the actress Kitty Kelly. Gloria was often left on her own, and eventually began dating the famous pilot, business man, and movie producer, Howard Hughes, who was intrigued by Gloria only because she was the first person not impressed by his wealth.
Through Hughes, Gloria would meet a mysterious man, Pat DeCicco, who worked for Hughes as a talent scout.
Although there were warning signs, (DeCicco was rumored to have a notoriously bad temper, and his first wife, actress Thelma Todd, had been mysteriously murdered in 1935) Gloria saw DeCicco not only as a handsome catch, but a chance to get away from her Aunt and New York.
“To avoid going back to Gertrude, I decided to get married,” said Vanderbilt.
The marriage was doomed from the start. DeCicco reportedly beat Gloria and chose not to kiss her at their wedding.
“I walked back out the of the church wanting to run away. I had seen that scene in the Graduate when Ben is screaming for Elaine, and she escapes and rushes towards him from the altar. I thought. If only I had done that.”
Immediately following the marriage, WWII was declared and Gloria found herself Junction City, Kansas where DeCicco was stationed as an officer. There
Gloria found herself in a small house issued by the Amry, trying on a new role as house wife. There she was beaten by DeCicco for over a year, and during this time her Aunt Gertrude died.
Gloria would eventually flee DeCicco, moving back to New York, where she met Leopold Stokowski, the famous conductor, who had once been the lover of Greta Garbo.
Since she was still married to DeCicco, the two flew to Mexico to get married only to crash their plane in the desert, walking away from the wreckage, uninjured.
Their marriage was a return to the gypsey lifestyle of hotels and concerts, and by this time, Gloria was in sole control of her money, which also meant she was responsible for her mother.
With Stokowski, Gloria had two children and the family lived in Connecticut, where Stokowski encouraged her to follow her art. She soon began taking acting lessons at Paramount Studios, where she stood in for Audrey Hepbern who was sick for the April in Paris musical.
Eventually she’d also meet the writer Truman Capote, who became obsessed with Gloria and her friend Carol Saroyan. Both women would become the composite incarnation for the character Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany’s.
Gloria and Stokowski soon had troubles. Stokowksi became jealous and hurtful, calling her interest in art something light and superficial “something for Vanity Fair!” Seeing her marriage in trouble, Capote pushed Gloria to have an affair with William Paley of CBS, but she said no, only because she was already dating Frank Sinatra
Soon Gloria was booked for a slew of Broadway and off Broadway plays, helped of course, by the fact she’d been dating Frank Sinatra. Gloria even was offered a role to play in the hit Ocean’s Eleven, but it wasn’t until she read the script did she realize it wasn’t for her.
It was during this trip to LA though, that Gloria met Sidney Lumet, who was directing the film 12 Angry Men when they met. Soon they were a couple, and it was during his time that Lumet would go on to to film the cult movies The Pawnbroker, Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon, and Network.
With Lumet’s blessing, Gloria began taking classes with Sanford Meisner, her class included Steve McQueen, Joanne Woodward, and Peter Falk. The timing was perfect.
She also met back up with Richard Avedon, who had photographed her at age 15 for Vreeland in Connecticut. Avedon would later photographe her in 1954 in Harper’s Bazaar, then in 1956 for Vogue. Their long friendship would last until Avedon’s death in 2004.
“The reflection Dick gave back to me of myself that made me believe in myself. The shoots marked the pivotal moment when I knew then at least I could trust myself and that I was free. I was free and unafraid. I fought Stakowski for custody, and Sidney told me, Gloria you won where her mother failed.”
The Lumets began hosting countless parties at their apartment at 10 Gracie Place in New York. and the apartment became like her Aunt Gertrude’s studio, featuring the who’s who of New York society. Truman Capote, Marilyn Monroe, Sammy Davis Jr. and Elizabeth Taylor would all spend hours after dinner around the piano or talking into the night at Gloria’s and Lumet’s.
For Capote, Gloria became part of a portfolio of famous rich beauties. Now known as “the Swans.” Marella Agnelli, Babe Paley, and the comptesse Jacqueline de Ribes were also fellow Swans.
“Gloria’s attraction,” Capote once said “was that she had the beauty of an actress with the pedigree of heiress and the attitude of an artist.”
Unfortunately, her marriage with Lumet would end in 1963. By then, Vanderbilt had given up acting and moved more into designing, creating bed linens and towels for a company named Martex.
This would lead to the publisher McCalls to publish a quarterly magazine called Gloria Vanderbilt, the idea being “to empower readers with a how to spirit so that they could create their own version of Gloria’s enchanted world.”
A lot of her reorientation can be attributed to her new relationship with writer Wyatt Cooper, who was Gloria’s polar opposite. Cooper came from little money in Mississippi.
He was full of kindness and humor, and he was supportive of all of Gloria endeavors.
“If it is said that behind every great man there is a great woman, Gloria and Wyatt Cooper were the reverse,” said Goodman.
“Through Wyatt I came to know what family meant,” said Vanderbilt. “What it means for a woman to face the world when you are not alone. What it means for woman to raise children with their father by your side. He was the love of my life.”
The Coopers lived in a town house at 45 East Sixty Seventh street which would be the scene of some of the most lavishly held parties in the city. Their Christmas parties were legend, Gloria sometimes cutting up quilts to use as table cloths.
What Vanderbilt was doing was creating an enchanged world into which people wanted to join.
“She had created a moveable pageant,” said New York Times critic Ben Brantley.
“And it is a great privilige to be invited into it because it accomadates so many different kinds of people.”
“If she has not made of her life a living work of art, she’s come damn close or as close as anyone I’d ever want to meet.” said Cooper
Slowly Gloria Vanderbilt became a New York icon because she not only had the happy circumstance of a very original look and a cultivated persona, but she was often partnered with some of the greatest photographers of the 20th century.
During all this, Warren Hirsch, a businessman working with the tailoring empire Murjani brothers out of Hong Kong was looking for an idea of clothes.
“What I’d wanted to do was come up with a name that meant something in the US. The name that came to me was Gloria Vanderbilt.”
Hirsch had an idea of evolving the jeans market, creating a new fit and styling with a logo of a Swan (perhaps as an echo to Capote’s swans.)
In Hirsch’s mind, they were the jeans to be worn at Studio 54 while also being the jeans you could wear at a polo match. Before Calvin Klein and Brooke Shields and Gap and Helmut Lang, there was Gloria Vanderbilt
“Imagine her energy to do all those things. It’s just astonishing. And to have been able to make a lot of money. She has a lot of Vanderbilt genes.” said one columnist.
Soon the jeans were launched under the Gloria Vanderbilt name. Gloria acted in the ads herself, and in 1977, Hirsch had grossed over 125 million, an obscene amount of money for jeans at the time.
“In those days Gloria was at a slightly lesser level but still almost at the level as Princesss Diana,” said Francesca Stanfill of the New York Times Magazine. Gloria was American royalty. She achieved what so many of her cousins couldn’t really do. And it isn’t just that she had that magical American name. She is naturally an aristocrat. She is naturally glamourous. She is also disciplined. She knows how to create that aura absolutely herself.”
Death of Wyatt, bankruptcy and tragedy
Just as things were peaking, Cooper suddenly died of a heart attack.
During a period of grief, Gloria signed over power of attorney to her psychiatrist and lawyer, who took 50% of everything she owed while also failing to pay her taxes. As a result, Vanderbilt was forced to liquidate her house and her apartment until the affair was settled by a judge. In the end, both men were ordered to pay 1.6 million in fines, but never did.
The financial troubles were made worse when her son committed suicide in front of her in 1988.
In her book A Mother’s Story, which the New York Times called “a small, brave, heartbreaking book,” Gloria describes in detail the darkest place a mother can possibly know.
Although painful to read, Gloria’s almost diary account of watching her son jump from her terrace of their 14 floor building is made all that more harrowing simply by disorienting sequence of events. It was a hot day in July. Carter had woken up from a nap. He enters his mother’s room asking her “What happened?” Before she can react, he’s fled up to the terrace and is threatening to jump.
“I stood there afraid to move, afraid it would send him down – shouting Carter! Carter! Then suddenly a helicopter passed above us. High up in the fading summer light – he looked directly up as if it were a signal. Then he turned and reached his hand out yearningly to me. And I moved towards him. My hand reached for his, but as I did he moved, deftly as an athlete, over the wall, holding on to the edge as if it were a practice bar in a gym. He firmly and confidently held on to the ledge, hanging over the fourteen story building, suspended there. “Carter come back,” I shouted, and for a moment, I thought he was going to. But he didn’t. He let go.”
“When my nanny was taken from me and when Wyatt died so early, I thought nothing that bad could ever happen to me again,” admitted Vanderbilt. “And then of course Carter died and it was even more terrible.”
Gloria managed to will herself back to life by trusting in a process of letting herself feel the pain.
“You have the courage to let the pain you feel posses you, the courage not to deny it and if you do this, the day will come when you wake and know that you are working through it and because you are there, there is a hope, a small thing may it be, but a hope you can trust.”
“Gloria has managed to remain pure despite the tragedies,” said Brantly. “She is enthousiastic and alive, and that is what I think is so beautiful about her. She has a child thing about her. She still believes in romance. She is extraordinary.”
At 94, Vanderbilt still lives in her New York apartment. She still paints and writes and even produced an erotic novel in 2009 name. She was the subject of a recent HBO documentary entitled Nothing Left Unsaid, a film that deals with memory and regret and the “longing for that which I never had,” a Dansish expression, Vanderbilt thinks best captures the way she looks at her life, one that was seemingly so rich, but laced so often with pain and suffering.
With the dinosaurs of the gilded age all but now extinct, Gloria is the last of her breed. In many ways, Vanderbilt was far from an aristocrat, and closer to her great-grandfather, the self-made businessman patriarch Cornelius. Someone who lived outside of the role she’d been raised to be, a painter, an actress, a designer or as Goodman described her – “a renaissance man but in woman form.”
She’s also a dreamer. Once she wrote to a friend her plans for later in life.
“I dream of having have a tiny secret house like somewhere in Venice Beach. There I will let my hair grow long and white and you will help me decorate it and there will be a tiny guest cottage painted sea blue and I will paint during the day and at night we’ll dance with friends on the beach and in the gardens, there will be a gazebo painted silver with vines of night scented jasmine twining over us as we sit having jasmine tea. And there will be a mist in the afternoon. Oh I must stop before I get completely carried away.”