Gloria Vanderbilt lived an extraordinary life. A wealthy heiress, she was married four times and had romances with the biggest names in show business, but she was a powerhouse all on her own and a force to be reckoned with. Nonetheless, all the triumphs and riches in the world couldn’t save her from tragedy.
She passed away on June 17, 2019 at the age of 95. In her memory, here are 43 facts about the great Gloria Vanderbilt.
1. When I Look Into My Father’s Eyes
Vanderbilt was the only child of railroad magnate Reginald Claypoole Vanderbilt and Gloria Morgan Vanderbilt. Almost from the beginning, her father had a special connection to his daughter: when he first saw his baby girl, Reginald was reported to have exclaimed, “It is fantastic how Vanderbilt she looks! See the corners of her eyes, how they turn up?”
2. Daddy’s Gone
Reginald, however, was haunted by demons, and his enormous wealth simply wasn’t enough to buy his way out of his problems: He was a desperate alcoholic, and when Gloria was only 18 months old, he died of cirrhosis of the liver.
3. A Hefty Stipend
With her father’s death, Gloria became a very rich baby. The young Vanderbilt and her half sister were now heiresses to a fantastic fortune equivalent to about $71 million dollars in today’s money. Of course, the months-old Vanderbilt was too young to control her estate, so her extravagant, beautiful mother Gloria Morgan—who was just 21 years old at the time—took over “responsibility” of the vast sum…with disastrous consequences.
4. Friends in High Places
For years, Vanderbilt’s mother carted the young girl to and from Paris while she took part in lavish soirees and shopping trips with friends and family. One of the figures milling about the little girl’s life was Gloria Morgan’s identical twin sister Thelma, who was mistress to no less than the Prince of Wales at the time, the future King Edward VIII.
5. ‘Till Daddy Takes the T-Bird Away
All this high-rolling, however, came to a tumultuous halt. Gloria’s paternal aunt, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, got sick of seeing the little girl stuck in the middle of this spendthrift, immoral lifestyle. She demanded custody of young Gloria and declared Mama Morgan unfit to parent—an allegation that kicked off one of the most dramatic periods of young Gloria’s life.
6. The Trial of the Century
The ensuing custody battle over the little Vanderbilt was called “The Trial of the Century.” It ignited the press, who published story after story digging deeper into the circumstances of Gloria’s baby-socialite life, with many focusing on the Vanderbilts’ great wealth in contrast to her mother’s debauched, irresponsible lifestyle.
For example, it was said that Vanderbilt’s mother frequently caroused with lovers in the house, and often left nude photos lying around where young Gloria could surely stumble across them.
7. Et Tu, Mother?
Even the young widow’s own mother commented on her socialite daughter’s inability to nurture the child. As she said, “[my] daughter paid absolutely no attention to little Gloria. She devoted herself exclusively to her own pleasures. … She took long trips to Germany and other places. …She seldom wrote to me or inquired about the baby.”
8. My Little Mixologist
During the trial, it was even alleged that Gloria’s mother had recently tried to teach the little girl how to mix cocktails.
9. The Money Train Stops Here
Eventually, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney won primary custody, though Gloria’s mother was permitted visitation rights to her daughter. Nonetheless, every visit was closely watched to make sure there was no attempted wheeling and dealing going on during their time together. All this did not help endear little Gloria to her mother: once she had full control over her trust fund, she temporarily cut off her mother from any allowance.
10. High School Dropout
Still, it was far from a happy ending for Gloria when she was living with her aunt. Almost as soon as Vanderbilt went to live with Gertrude, the vibrant girl felt stifled by the strict rules of the house and the stuffy way of living her aunt promoted. As a result, when she was only 17 years old, Vanderbilt left high school early to go live with her mother in Beverly Hills.
11. First Comes Love…
In 1941, just after her impulsive teen move to Hollywood, the young Vanderbilt met Pat Di Cicco, an acting agent and probable mobster. The young couple were quickly married, though the union dissolved after just four years.
12. If at First You Don’t Succeed
Vanderbilt’s first ill-fated marriage was far from her last. In fact, she was married a total of four times, with her second marriage to famed conductor Leopold Stokowski coming just a few short weeks after her divorce from Di Cicco.
13. Blended Family
Stokowski was more than four decades older than the young, beautiful Vanderbilt, and he already had three children from previous marriages running afoot. Vanderbilt became an instant stepmom, and later had two sons with Stokowski, Leopold and Christopher, in the course of their 10-year marriage.
14. The Loss of a Mother
Gloria really only got to know her mother toward the end of her mother’s life, as they didn’t exactly have a relationship while Vanderbilt was growing up. Yet, still, she once said that her mother “was certainly the most influential person in my life.” Remembering the custody battle, Vanderbilt admitted that her mother was just “this gentle person, who was unable to cope. She really couldn’t.”
15. Third Time Isn’t the Charm
Always a mover and a shaker, Vanderbilt’s third marriage was to Sidney Lumet, the director of acclaimed films such as 12 Angry Men and Network; at the time, she was his second wife. Yet there was no happy ending to be had here, either: their (childless) marriage broke apart in 1963 after seven years together.
16. Denim Dreams
Those skinny jeans you might be wearing? You can pretty much thank Gloria Vanderbilt for them. After dipping her toes into fashion with a line of scarves, Vanderbilt actually kick-started the tighter-jean trend in 1976 when she released her line of designer jeans for women, complete with her signature swan logo on the back pocket.
17. All Publicity Is Good Publicity
Vanderbilt also started another trend: the fashion designer as public figure. Despite her innate shyness, Vanderbilt would often make public appearances to show off her wares, something that was uncommon for the time.
18. A Real Work of Art
Vanderbilt became interested in art of all kinds from a young age. After dropping out of school, she studied acting at the Neighborhood Playhouse and visual art at the Art Students League of New York. Perhaps unsurprisingly, she had a talent for art, and in the 60s her visual designs were licensed by the likes Hallmark and Bloomcraft.
19. Fourth and First
Despite her rocky martial history, Vanderbilt really got it right with her fourth husband, Wyatt Emory Cooper. Though Vanderbilt herself wasn’t new to the altar, it was the first and only time that Cooper ever married—and it stuck. They had two children together: Carter Cooper and famous CNN news anchor Anderson Cooper.
The all-American good looks of Vanderbilt and Cooper often led them to be on best-dressed lists whenever they were out together.
21. A Tragic End
Though the iconic pair were married for 15 happy years, their bliss came to a tragic end. In late 1977, Cooper suffered from a heart attack and had to go in to have open heart surgery in January, 1978. Sadly, he didn’t make it past the operating table, and died in the hospital. He was mourned both by Gloria and his young sons—but as you’ll see, the tragedy wasn’t over…
22. The Tax Man Cometh
In the 1980s, Vanderbilt nearly suffered a financial ruin. It came out that her fraudulent lawyer had never paid the IRS on her behalf, and she owed millions in back taxes. She had to sell two homes to rectify the situation, and took the man to court to get the money back. It was a long, drawn-out process—with the lawyer actually dying during litigation—but she was eventually awarded the win, even though she never recovered the money.
23. But First, Let Me Take a Selfie
Late in life, Vanderbilt’s son Anderson Cooper talked his 95-year-old mother into getting an Instagram account, and she quickly amassed over 200,000 followers. “I have such fun deciding what I am going to post,” she once said of the pastime. “Of course, I am tempted to post all day long, but Anderson warned me I shouldn’t get carried away.”
24. A Novel Motivator
Inspiration can come from all sorts of places. In Vanderbilt’s case, this also includes the dictionary. She once said that sometimes she would open it up, just point at a word, and let her creativity take over.
25. Express Yourself
Vanderbilt started painting when she was only 14 years old. Much of her artwork depicts events in her life and the emotions they left her with. Some of those include not being with her childhood nurse, Dodo, when she passed away, as well as other tragedies from her life. Much of her work can still be found on her studio Instagram account.
26. The One Finger to Rule Them All
Vanderbilt only wore nail polish on one finger: the left ring finger. “In mythology and palmistry, the left hand is called the dreamer because the ring finger on the left hand leads directly to the heart,” she explained. “I find it a very poetic idea.” In 2014, she held one of her art exhibits and titled it “The Left Hand is the Dreamer.”
27. Life Is But a Dream
Vanderbilt had a big interest in dreams, and even went to see a dream analyst starting in her late 20s. The one topic she said she would never discuss with him? Her mother. She eventually did, but it took a long time for Vanderbilt to build trust with the man and finally open up about her infamous mother. As Vanderbilt said, “About two years later, her name came up.”
27. No Denim Blues in the Bank
By 1979, Vanderbilt’s jeans grossed sales in the hundreds of millions. Not bad for jeans that retail for about $40.
29. That Elegant Bird
That swan logo we mentioned that appears on her jeans? Not exactly a random choice. For almost a decade, between the 50s and 60s, Vanderbilt tried her hand at theater. Her first appearance was in a play called The Swan.
30. From the Headlines to the Small Screen
Such was the infamy of Vanderbilt’s custody trial as a little girl that there was even a book written about the scandal: Little Gloria…Happy at Last by Barbara Goldsmith. The book was eventually adapted into a mini-series in 1982, and starred the likes of Angela Lansbury, Bette Davis, and Christopher Plummer.
31. One With the People
Vanderbilt was always quite the introvert, despite the public life she was born into. “I am shy in my relationships with most people,” she once said. Perhaps because of the traumas she experienced at such a young age, this introversion is actually rooted in deep insecurity. As she said, “I’m terrified of rejection. If someone is interested in me, they must be the first to make the effort.”
32. It’s Raining Men!
Despite her introversion, Vanderbilt didn’t shy away from ribald subjects, and even wrote a book about her romantic conquests. Published in 2004, It Seemed Important at the Time: A Romance Memoir delves deeper into her relationships. In it, Vanderbilt talks about everyone from Marlon Brando and Gene Kelly to Howard Hughes and Frank Sinatra, all lovers of the beautiful young socialite.
33. No Trust Fund to Bank on
Despite her tax and custody foibles throughout her life, there’s no doubt that Gloria Vanderbilt died with a hefty sum in her pocket: at her death, her net worth was valued at $200 million. However, none of that money will go to her son Anderson Cooper. As he said, “My mom’s made clear to me that there’s no trust fund.” Even so, as Cooper is a millionaire in his own right, we doubt he needs it.
34. Life in the Racy Lane
Vanderbilt really did do it all—including writing erotic novels. Obsession: An Erotic Tale came out in 2009, and Vanderbilt claimed that once she decided to write it, the words just “fell on the page.” There were some protestations from her more highbrow friends who thought she was going to ruin her reputation. Apparently, Vanderbilt had to restrain herself from saying “Oh, goody!” to this.
35. The Daughter I Never Had
Even though she moved in the highest circles of society, Vanderbilt was known to have a saucy sense of humor. She even once called bawdy, outspoken comedian Kathy Griffin her “fantasy daughter.”
36. Gloria Golightly
Do you like Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s? Well, you might have Vanderbilt to thank. Some speculate that Truman Capote’s character Holly Golightly in the original novel was based on none other than Vanderbilt herself.
37. The Dark Side of Love
Vanderbilt’s first marriage was far from innocent. She later confessed that her first husband Pat Di Cicco was abusive, and often called her “Fatsy Roo” in a derogatory manner. It was probably a good thing they never had children together, as she also said that he “would take my head and bang it against the wall,” and frequently gave her black eyes.
38. The Loss of a Son
In 1988, Vanderbilt’s son Carter committed suicide at the desperately young age of 23—but the tragedy only gets worse from there. Vanderbilt actually witnessed the death: she saw him out on the terrace of their apartment ready to jump off the ledge, but he motioned for her not to come close to him. She fell to her knees and begged him not to do it, but she couldn’t save him.
According to Vanderbilt, Carter had been sleeping in the house just before the incident and woke up in some kind of fugue state. He then ran around the apartment before consigning himself to his ultimate, sad fate.
39. Gone But Not Forgotten
Carter is buried next to his father, Wyatt Cooper; Gloria and Anderson used to visit their graves regularly.
40. Behind Closed Doors
Little Gloria’s custody trial was so sensitive and heated that the judge frequently forced everyone to exit the room so that the girl could give her testimony without being pressured by her family members. In these closed-door meetings, bystanders frequently heard wailing and crying coming from inside the courtroom—and even though these were private sessions, the press got ahold of one tragic detail.
In one such communique, little Gloria apparently admitted to the judge that she was lonely when she was with her mother, and that she wished she could go live with her aunt instead.
41. Come to Auntie
This vulnerable admission was very likely what won the custody battle for Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, but that doesn’t mean that justice was served on that fateful day. When she looked back on this painful time in her life, Gloria made a heartbreaking confession: she had memories of her aunt actually coaching her on the testimony.
42. Saying Goodbye
On Monday, June 17, 2019, Gloria Vanderbilt passed away in her Manhattan home at the ripe old age of 95. Vanderbilt had been diagnosed with stomach cancer earlier in the month.
43. Remembering Gloria
On a heart-rending CNN memorial to his late mother, Anderson Cooper gave a tear-filled speech about what Vanderbilt meant to both him and the world. As he said, “The last few weeks, every time I kissed her goodbye, I would say, ‘I love you, Mom. She would look at me and say, ‘I love you, too. You know that.’ And she was right. I did know that.”
He also added at the end of his informal eulogy, “What an extraordinary life. What an extraordinary mom. And what an incredible woman.” Rest in peace, Gloria.
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