Monday 20 November 2017

Poor Little Rich Girl: pain of all that's left unsaid

Gloria Vanderbilt has lifted the lid on her extraordinary life, including her multiple marriages and the grief after her son's suicide. But, some secrets remain untold

Gloria Vanderbilt in her New York city penthouse for 'Vanity Fair' in 1985. The portrait on the wall is of her mother.
Gloria Vanderbilt in her New York city penthouse for 'Vanity Fair' in 1985. The portrait on the wall is of her mother.
Gloria photographed in 1953 for 'Vogue'.
Anderson Cooper and Gloria Vanderbilt attend the New York Premiere of HBO Documentary Films ''Nothing Left Unsaid: Gloria Vanderbilt and Anderson Cooper''.
Donal Lynch

Donal Lynch

It's difficult to imagine Anderson Cooper, the star CNN newsman, ever being wracked by indecision. But for years he had been worried about what to do with his mother's stuff. For decades, Gloria Vanderbilt's boxes of love letters, mementoes and assorted ephemera, had languished in the family's many New York properties. She would not throw anything away. At times, the white-haired CNN anchor wondered if it was a type of hoarding. Cooper had been told, years ago, that there was no inheritance coming his way, that he would receive none of his mother's reported $200m fortune. But perhaps he would get something even better: Contained somewhere between the cobwebs and the yellowing piles of letters he knew there was a story waiting, one in which his own family's drama dovetailed with an era when industrialist fortunes were squandered, the Jazz era was fading, and the Golden Age of Hollywood was just beginning.

The Sliver Fox, as Cooper is known, has always had a special sense of the component parts of a good yarn. Besides being the closest thing to American royalty this side of the Kennedys he is also an Emmy winning anchor who recently came out. Now middle-aged himself, he could see that his 92-year-old mother's life was replete with dramatic detail. She was a lifestyle queen before there was Martha Stewart, American royalty before the Kennedys, and she made and lost a fortune while dating some of the most famous men in history, Howard Hughes, Cary Grant and Roald Dahl among them. The very name Vanderbilt was a byword for Gatsby-esque glamour and mystery and Gloria seemed as though she were drawn from literature. Truman Capote had based Holly Golightly on her, for heaven's sake.

Cooper enlisted Liz Garbus, who was nominated for an Oscar for her documentary about Nina Simone, to get involved in making a film about Gloria and his relationship with her, using much of the aforementioned 'junk' as a starting point for reminiscences. The resultant documentary, Nothing Left Unsaid, aired last weekend on HBO in the US. It was a well-crafted piece, suffused with sentimentality and humour and portrayed Vanderbilt through her son's eyes, as a glamorous emissary from a burned-out star. And yet many of those who saw it, or read the memoir that accompanies it, concluded that, despite the film's tantalising title, plenty was left unsaid. A rift that almost tore the family apart was never touched upon, and the omission raised as many questions as it answered.

There can be few Americans whose blood runs as blue as Cooper. As a boy, he was once shown a statue in Manhattan, near Grand Central Station, of his great-great-great-grandfather, who amassed a shipping and railroad empire. For a while after that, he assumed that everyone's deceased ancestors were eventually rendered monumental in bronze. But Cooper's forbears were unique. The economist JK Galbraith once observed, that the Vanderbilts, like no other American dynasty before or since, "have shown the ability to make and lose money like it was going out of style".

It was Cooper's mother, not the statues at Grand Central, who defined the modern Vanderbilts. On February 20, 1924, the birth of the new heiress to the fortune was covered as a news story in The New York Times. And thereafter the press never missed a moment of her childhood. They gorged themselves on every glamorous detail, and that her aunt had been the Prince of Wales's mistress before he took up with Wallis Simpson seemed only fitting. After all, what was Gloria but American royalty?

'The Poor Little Rich Girl' was another moniker that stuck with her, especially as the dramas of her early life unfolded. When she was 10 years old, there was a dramatic custody battle between her aunt Gertrude - founder of the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York - and her mother, also Gloria, a Swiss-American socialite. Gloria's father Reginald, the principal heir to the Vanderbilt railroad fortune, a womaniser and a gambler, had died of a throat infection, which had led to internal haemorrhaging.

Following his death, and fed by reports from family servants and private detectives, the wider Vanderbilt family had become convinced that Gloria senior was an alcoholic and abusing the young heiress. The custody trial that followed was sensationalised across the world and the judge in the case deplored that so young a child would be brought through "the mire of infamy." In court it was alleged that Gloria senior was, variously, "a cocktail-crazed dancing mother", who lived a "raucous lifestyle", "a devotee of sex erotica and the mistress of a German Prince (Gottfried, Prince of Hohenlohe-Langenburg)."

While her aunt Gertrude sat with "ice cold reserve" Gloria senior fidgeted with her "egg-sized engagement ring." The allegations were devastating, and in the end, mother and daughter would be parted. Gloria senior's own lawyer would later describe her as "a woman destroyed."

Gloria senior never took her visitation rights seriously - she passed her remaining years in a haze of parties - and the young girl was raised by an ever-changing panel of carers, including her beloved Irish nanny Dodo. It was perhaps unsurprising, then, that even as a teenager she was eager to establish her own independence. When she was 17, she went to visit her mother in California and fell under the spell of Pasquale DiCiccio, a Hollywood agent, who favoured white suits and all-night card games. Determined not to have to return to aunt Gertrude, Gloria accepted his proposal of marriage. He was violent and would give her black eyes by banging her head off the wall of the mansion they shared, she later said. On their wedding night she waited for him in bed, and eventually found him playing cards with one of the Marx brothers.

While still married to DiCicco, she met Leopold Stokowski, a world-famous conductor who already had two ex-wives and once had an affair with Greta Garbo. She promptly divorced DiCiccio and married Stokowski. It was "instant," she tells her son in the new documentary. "We were married three weeks later."

"Really?" Anderson asks, brow furrowed. "I didn't know that. How old were you?"

"Twenty."

"Wow. Did any of your friends think it was weird?"

"Well . . . to have this genius . . . which he was, think I was extraordinary and wonderful, it just gave me a big lift," she answers.

They had two sons together - Stan, born in 1950 and Christopher, born in 1955. And while Stokowski encouraged her artistic side - she had become a keen painter and poet - he also kept her socially isolated. Yet during their marriage she had an affair with Frank Sinatra, who offered her a part in Ocean's Eleven. During the childhood of the two boys, Gloria had what was described in the press as a breakdown. She went into therapy. In one interview she recounted taking LSD and wearing a blindfold as part of a therapy session. She would go on to divorce Stokowski and was forced to relive the most painful chapter in Vanderbilt history, as she successfully fought the composer for custody of their two young sons.

For many women, two divorces at such a relatively young age - she was still only in her forties - might have daunted them. But Gloria was nothing if not a romantic. She was also still one of the most beautiful women in the world and she knew it. So did Wyatt Cooper, a magazine publisher who came from a family with no money and who offered her the one thing she had never had: stability. They married on Christmas Eve 1963 and Gloria was soon pregnant, with first Carter and then Anderson. By the mid-1970s she was also a household name with her signature fashion jeans. In some senses this was probably the crowning moment of her life; every other pair of female buttocks in the Western world bore her insignia. But it was also a time of private pain, something that is completely glossed over in the new documentary and memoir. Christopher, who was by disposition very shy, disliked his mother's newfound fame. He played in a band under an assumed name so as not to garner comparisons with others in the famous dynasty.

In 1974, he fell in love with socialite April Sandmeyer, and the two were planning marriage when his father, then in his nineties and living in England, became seriously ill. Christopher and April moved to England to be closer to the elder Stokowski. When Leopold died, Christopher gained a substantial inheritance but when he returned to New York after the funeral his life took another turn for the worst: Wyatt Cooper died, leaving Gloria a widow at 50, and she soon came under the influence of a charismatic therapist called Dr Christ L Zois. She gave Zois and a lawyer friend of his, Thomas A. Andrews, power of attorney and between them they swindled her out of millions of dollars. "In her mind, the worst betrayal was by the psychiatrist, whom she trusted completely," her lawyer said. She successfully sued Andrews and Zois for $1.6m, but never saw any of it. The money was perhaps not the most significant loss from the whole episode, however. By 1978 Christopher, then an adult, cut off contact with his family, alleging interference by Zois in his - Christopher's - relationship with April Sandmeyer. Christopher was subsequently written out of family history. In Gloria's 1996 memoir, A Mother's Story, there is no mention of him (the book is dedicated to Anderson). In interviews she almost never discussed him, save for once in 2004, when she told The Telegraph: "'He cut himself off completely from all of us. He told us what he wanted to do and he's done it."

Gloria felt sure another tragedy that engulfed her family would also bring it back together. In 1988 Carter jumped off the terrace at her Manhattan apartment. She looked on helpless as it happened. Anderson would later say that the grief had indeed brought the family together, but it did not, as Gloria had hoped, bring Christopher back into their lives. "'When Carter died I thought he would come back but he didn't," she said. "And we respect his wishes."

With one son dead and another estranged, Gloria seemed to be entering one of the loneliest periods of her life. She did not celebrate Christmas for years. Perhaps to give herself some kind of relief she threw herself into her writing and penned a number of well-received memoirs, the most interesting of which was probably It Seemed Important At The time. In it, Gloria answered the eternally vexed question: how to cope when you go out with a young Marlon Brando and he doesn't call you the next day. The answer: get dolled up in Dior, go to a party and spend the night flirting with Gene Kelly. She also explained her philosophy with regard to love and sex: "I had flirted with the idea of becoming a nun,'' she recalled, "but once boys came into the picture, being a nun didn't seem like such a great idea. God was one thing, boys another.'' Besides, she explains, "I find sex endlessly interesting. I suppose I always will.'' She described pining for Brando and pressing her face against the glass as he left her. The glass "didn't crack, the only cracking was my pit-a-pat heart".

In her old age, Gloria is perhaps best known as a socialite and Anderson's mother. Before that she was a lifestyle queen, synonymous with her famous jeans. And after that, an icon of tragedy. But her allure as an American icon is somehow bigger than any of these things. The swan was her signature symbol on the jeans, and for Truman Capote the image encapsulated Gloria the woman: "Authentic swans are almost never women that nature and the world has deprived. God gave them good bones; some lesser personage, a father, a husband, blessed them with that best of beauty emollients, a splendid bank account. It may be that the enduring swan glides upon waters of liquefied lucre, but that cannot account for the creature herself - her talent, like all talent, is composed of unpurchaseable substances." She still grieves the loss of her two sons, but Anderson remains her rock. During the making of the documentary he said he went through the jarring experience of discovering his own love life had been less eventful than his mother's. They make an odd pair. Him, icy cool, analytical, and, by his own admission, a little dull around the edges. Her, emotional, witty and always compelling. And yet at these points in their lives, they fit each other perfectly. When Gloria spent five years in an affair with a married man, it was her blue-eyed boy who told her the truth: "He's never going to leave his wife for you." And he never did.

There is a sense through the whole book-and-film project that they really do lean on each other, and that neither of them would be where they are without the other.

"I should have married some really rich tycoon," Vanderbilt says during a telling moment in the documentary, when asked why she never remarried.

"I would have been all for that," Cooper responds.

"You never expressed that!"

"I expressed that all the time!" he exclaims. "You were never interested in those men because they watched sports. They were boring."

"Never satisfied," she sighs.

"Never satisfied," he agrees.

'The Rainbow Comes and Goes' by Anderson Cooper and Gloria Vanderbilt, is published by Harper, priced €20. To access the documentary 'Nothing Left Unsaid', watch it on HBO. It costs $14.99 and you can stream to any Apple device, see order.hbonow.com

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