Tuesday 23 July 2019

Obituary: Gloria Vanderbilt

'Poor little rich girl' who blew two fortunes, pioneered designer jeans and survived family tragedy

Gloria Vanderbilt speaks during a TV interview in 2016. Photo: Reuters
Gloria Vanderbilt speaks during a TV interview in 2016. Photo: Reuters
Gloria Vanderbilt with Frank Sinatra and his son, Frank Jr

Gloria Vanderbilt, who has died aged 95, led the sort of opulent but rackety life guaranteed to induce a sense of smug self-satisfaction in those born without the advantages of birth, wealth, power and looks.

She possessed, then blew, two fortunes, put her name on designer jeans and perfume, had flings with Errol Flynn, Howard Hughes, Marlon Brando, Frank Sinatra and Gene Kelly, acquired, discarded or outlived four husbands and lost one of her four sons to suicide in unspeakably awful circumstances.

Yet she managed to come through, refusing to sink into a mire of self-pity and self-destruction. Given the unhappy circumstances of her upbringing and the tragedies she suffered during her life, it was a considerable achievement.

Gloria Morgan Vanderbilt was born in New York on February 20, 1924, the granddaughter of Cornelius Vanderbilt, a ferry boat captain on the Great Lakes who made his fortune building railways into the West. At two she became "the world's richest tot", inheriting her first $4m (€3.5m) when her father Reginald, who had run through £17m (€19m) in seven years, died of liver failure aged 45.

In an account of her early years, Once Upon a Time (1985), she recalled that while he lay dying, her mother, also Gloria, a celebrated beauty of her day, was in New York "at the theatre with Mr March… Mother was always coming in and then going out - mostly going out… she missed my father's death by minutes".

Taken to Europe, she spent much of her early childhood in Paris in the care of governesses. When she did try to see her mother, she was usually in the company of one of her gentlemen friends and little Gloria found herself "thwarted by conversations hurriedly terminated".

"Every time I was lonely as a child," she recalled, "I wished I had a father living and a mother who loved him and loved me."

​When she was 10, Gloria's paternal grandmother discovered that her mother had been plundering her daughter's trust fund to finance her globe-trotting lifestyle and an affair with a German prince. She immediately launched a legal action for custody of her granddaughter which turned into a bitter and protracted courtroom wrangle.

Young Gloria became the world's first "poor little rich girl" after giving testimony in which she claimed: "My mother was mean to me and never let me see anything of her. She never came to kiss me goodnight."

It later emerged that she had been rehearsed in her lines by her grandmother and her aunt, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, the founder of New York's Whitney Museum of American Art, a puritanical woman into whose care Gloria was duly consigned.

Aunt Gertrude was both cold and possessive and Gloria became so unhappy that she flirted with the idea of running away and becoming a nun.

Instead, after dropping out of school aged 17, she discovered boys. Stunningly beautiful, yet insecure and with a touch of wildness, she was an instant success. Boys liked her, she surmised, "because I had low self-esteem".

​After a few months dating some of the most glamorous men in Hollywood, she met Howard Hughes, then 35, who told her he wanted to give her a screen test, took her to his Hollywood mansion and played her a recording of the Moonlight Sonata.

She wanted him to love her, but Hughes was either too slow or too wise to take the bait. Instead in 1941, still aged 17, she married Hughes's press agent, Pasquale de Cicco, a brutish, uncultured man whom she called "The Big Bad Wolf". He beat her and poured scorn on her ambitions to become an artist.

Aged 21, Gloria inherited a further $4m (€3.5m) and set her cap at husband number two, the conductor Leopold Stokowski, who was more than 40 years her senior. She married him in 1945 on the same day she divorced de Cicco. He built her a mansion on a mountain in Santa Barbara, California, where they "lived cloistered like a sexy monk and nun" and had two sons.

She embarked on a career as an artist ("abstract realism with a hint of the primitive") and held exhibitions, a New York Times critic noting the "air of innocent frolic" in her paintings which enabled the viewer to "overlook their feebleness and simply enjoy their rather touching whimsy". She also took small parts on stage and television, appearing briefly on Broadway as Elsie Mandelspiegel in William Saroyan's The Time of Your Life in 1955.

But Stokowski's domineering ways and frenetic tour schedule left her feeling isolated and, during one of his absences, she accepted a dinner invitation from Marlon Brando. It was shortly after he had completed On The Waterfront and he was at his physical peak. "If Leopold was God, here was Zeus," she recalled.

The inevitable happened.

In his bedroom, she noted he kept two large photographs of himself, one of them playing the role of Napoleon.

Brando forgot to call the next day and the following evening she ended up with Gene Kelly at a party. When Stokowski returned, she told him their marriage was over.

Soon afterwards, she began an affair with Frank Sinatra, then 38 and separated from Ava Gardner. He gave her a gold bracelet inlaid with diamonds and they talked of eloping to Bali. But the romance fizzled out when Sinatra left for a tour of Australia, and in 1956 she married the film director Sidney Lumet.

Under his direction, she appeared in a CBS Television dramatisation of Tolstoy's Family Happiness playing a 17-year-old girl who marries her middle-aged guardian. She had short stories and articles published in magazines and in 1960 wrote a play, but failed to have it produced on Broadway. In 1955 she published a small volume of "love poems", mostly infantile scribblings. One ran: "There was once a child / Living every day, / Expecting tomorrow / to be better than today."

Reviewers felt that the commercial success of the verses lay more in the exploitation of the Vanderbilt name rather than in any intrinsic artistic merit.

She and Lumet were divorced after seven years and by the time she was 40 much of Gloria Vanderbilt's inheritance had been frittered away on custody battles over the two sons she had with Stokowski, divorce settlements and disastrous investments.

But from 1963 she found a degree of happiness after her fourth marriage to the writer Wyatt Cooper, with whom she had two more sons. She threw herself into painting, holding exhibitions and publishing Gloria Vanderbilt's Book of Collage. She also found a second fortune after lending her name to the Hong Kong-based jeans manufacturer Murjani. Gloria Vanderbilt jeans were the first in a new premium-priced market and during the 1970s her name was stretched across millions of teenage hips. This led on to sidelines in perfume and other designer goods.

By 1980 Gloria Vanderbilt had earned more cash than she had inherited. A supremely stylish woman who would wear diamonds and furs for a trip to the high street, she dominated New York's "Best Dressed" List for many years and was elevated to the list's Hall of Fame by the style-arbiter Eleanor Lambert.

But her husband's death from heart failure in 1978 sent her off the rails. She became the world's most reckless shopaholic and turned over management of her money to her psychiatrist, Christ Zois, and her lawyer, Thomas Andrews, which was the last she saw of much of it. She later succeeded in having Andrews disbarred, but she never recovered the money. By the mid-1990s she was so hard-up, she had to sell her five-storey Manhattan home and seven-bedroom holiday retreat in the Hamptons to meet tax demands for £3.5m (€4m).

Her money troubles were as nothing, however, compared to the tragedy that overwhelmed her in 1988 when her 23-year-old son Carter killed himself. Depressed after breaking up with a girlfriend, he turned up unexpectedly one lunchtime at his mother's 14th-storey Manhattan apartment.

In the evening he appeared in her room looking disorientated then dashed out on to the balcony and perched on the railings.

Rejecting his mother's desperate pleas to come down, he pushed her away with the words "Will I ever feel again?" before leaning backwards and tipping over the rail. He hung there for a few seconds, then let go.

The trauma seemed to give Gloria Vanderbilt a sense that she was, after all, just a human being, and she found herself able to open her heart to friends in a way she had found impossible before.

She wrote a book, A Mother's Story, about her life and her son's death, delivered lectures and made information films on surviving loss.

In 2000 she announced an internet auction of jewellery, dresses and even shoes as a "temporary situation until I liquidate my house and other assets to pay off my debt".

In her memoirs It Seemed Important at the Time, published in 2004, she described the driving force of her life as a "restless search for love". Her only regrets were her flings with married men.

"Take it from me, if you are even vaguely tempted, don't!" she advised.

In 2016 she published a joint memoir with her son Anderson Cooper, The Rainbow Comes and Goes.

Gloria Vanderbilt, who died on June 17, is survived by three sons.

© Telegraph

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