Widely known as bearer of the name that appeared on one of the most popular of the "designer" jeans that hit women's upscale clothing stores in the mid-1970s, artist, designer, author, businesswoman, and socialite Gloria Vanderbilt was once described in Life magazine as "an up-to-date and very feminine version of the manyfaceted Renaissance man." Despite the many tragedies that have beset Vanderbilt during her life, she has remained resilient, a role model to many women.
Gloria Laura Morgan Vanderbilt was born February 20, 1924, in New York City. Her mother, Gloria Morgan, was the sister of lady Thelma Furness; her father, Reginald Claypoole Vanderbilt, was a sportsman, financier, and diplomat who died when his daughter was a year-and-a-half, but not before he had successfully squandered a $25 million inheritance left by his great grandfather, shipping magnate Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt. At her father's death, young Gloria inherited a trust fund of $4 million.
Vanderbilt spent her earliest years in Paris, where she lived with her mother. In the midst of the Depression in 1934, when Gloria was 10, she became the focus of an ugly custody battle between her father's aunt, sculptress Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, and her mother. Whitney accused Mrs. Vanderbilt of having an indecent character and of abandoning her daughter; she wanted her young niece removed from her mother's unwholesome influence. The case, which involved over 7,000 pages of testimony from witnesses recounting the goingson among the Vanderbilt social circle, provided the press and the public a look at the hidden indiscretions of the New York upper class during a time when many people were starved for images of affluence and high society. While Gloria ultimately moved to the home of her aunt, mother and daughter would eventually reconcile, her mother's free spiritedness serving as inspiration for her daughter's eventual business enterprises.
As a teen, Vanderbilt attended the Mary C. Wheeler School in Providence, Rhode Island, and then transferred to Farmington, Connecticut's Miss Porter's School—the same institution that Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy would attend during her own high school years. During her school years Vanderbilt indulged in her interests in the arts that would characterize her adult life. She also started the lifelong habit of keeping a "diary of feelings."
Dropping out of school before graduation and refusing to formally debut into high society, 17 year-old Vanderbilt was married for the first time in 1941, perhaps as an act of rebellion. Nonetheless, she divorced her husband, an actor's agent, scarcely three years later. A second marriage quickly followed the first as 21 year-old Vanderbilt eloped to Calexico, California in 1945 to marry 63 year-old orchestral conductor Leopold Stokowski, whom she divorced a short time later. She remarried again in 1951, this time to film director Sidney Lumet; the marriage would last six years. Between 1955 and 1958, during her marriage to Lumet, Vanderbilt, who had attended several exclusive preparatory schools while growing up, enrolled at New York City's Neighborhood Playhouse School of the Theatre where she studied under director Sanford Meisner.
Other relationships would follow throughout Vanderbilt's life, keeping her a relatively familiar figure in the tabloids. Her 1963 marriage to author Wyatt Cooper lasted until Cooper's death of a heart attack in January of 1978 and produced two sons: Anderson and Carter, who committed suicide 10 years later. Carter's tragic death in 1988—he leapt from the railing of his mother's 14th floor Manhattan apartment while she attempted to talk him out of taking his own life—caused Vanderbilt to endure intense hardship. In the early 1980s Vanderbilt also had a relationship with African American singer Bobby Short that caused her to be excluded from certain New York social circles.
An early exposure to the visual arts in and around New York City, as well as the encouragement of her aunt, founder of New York's Whitney Museum of American Art, sparked Vanderbilt's creativity. During her marriage to Stokowski she began creating collages and acrylic paintings that art critics found to be reminiscent of the works of artist Marc Chagall. She exhibited them in one-woman shows at New York galleries as early as 1948.
Her marriage to Lumet in the 1950s fueled yet another creative outlet-acting. She was first encouraged in 1954 after a producer impressed by Vanderbilt's poise, beauty, and reserve during her performance in a charity ball pageant, cast her in a regional stage production. Her first role on Broadway occurred in 1955, in the William Saroyanpenned play The Time of Your Life. Other stage performances included Peter Pan, and Vanderbilt also acted in productions on television's Kraft Theater and U.S. Steel Hour during the later years of the decade.
In true "Renaissance Man" fashion, Vanderbilt's talents also found an outlet in literature; she published a book of poetry in 1955. Containing 27 verses, the volume, titled Love Poems, had its roots in the "diary of feelings" she had kept as a young girl. She also authored the play Three by Two and Cinamee in 1961. Throughout her early career, Vanderbilt was keenly aware that her famous name might spur her creative works to prominence; she sometimes began projects anonymously and only attached her name to them after critics had deemed them successful on their own merits.
The author of books about etiquette and decorating, including You're Never Fully Dressed Without a Smile and her Book of Collage, Vanderbilt's famous name and event-filled life would also prompt her to write several autobiographies. In 1985 she published the first, Once upon a Time: A True Story, which described her privileged childhood. Two years later Black Knight, White Knight appeared. Her memoir A Mother's Story, published in 1996, details the emotional hardships endured by Vanderbilt as she attempted to combat the tragedy of her 23 year-old son Carter's death. "At first you think you will never, ever recover—you want to die," she told an interviewer for People. "But you realize you have responsibilities to people."
Vanderbilt's books are characterized by their lack of response to the gossip that has been published about the designer/socialite during the long period the media has turned its attention to her. As Vanderbilt once noted, "I tried never to read any of the things written about me. I tried to keep my own person, my own vision." In addition to autobiographies, the multi-talented Vanderbilt has also published several novels: Never Say Goodbye, in 1989, and The Memory Book of Starr Faithfull, a quasinonfiction chronicle of the life and 1931 suicide of a rich heiress that was released in 1994.
By the late 1960s Vanderbilt's interest in the visual arts had expanded from canvas to textiles, and she began designing clothing using fabrics that she patterned herself. In 1969 she won the Neiman Marcus Fashion Award, and was inducted into the Fashion Hall of Fame the following year. In 1970 she also began working as a textile designer with New York's Riegel Textile Corp., the same year that the Gloria Vanderbilt Book of Collage, featuring examples of her own graphic art, reached bookstore shelves.
Commonly included on lists of "best-dressed" celebrities for many years, Vanderbilt began marketing her name as a fashion product in the mid-1970s in the "designer jeans" industry. Formerly available mostly in traditional men's cut styles through such makers as Levi Strauss and Wrangler, traditional blue jeans were restyled to fit women's bodies and emblazoned with the logo or name of a famous individual. Vanderbilt was among the first—and the first woman—to join the denim fray; between 1977 and 1985 her famous surname, with its connotations of wealth and privilege, appeared on the derrieres of millions of women. The swan logo that Vanderbilt used on her products derived from her days as an aspiring actress; her favorite role had been in Molnar's play, The Swan.
Always interested in fashionable attire and tasteful interior decoration, Vanderbilt soon branched out into other areas, including shoes, scarves, table and bed linens, and china, through her company, Gloria Concepts. In 1988 Vanderbilt joined the "designer" fragrance market with her signature "Glorious."
By the late 1980s, however, the fickle womenswear market that had carried Vanderbilt to fame and fortune finally ebbed, and she sold the name and licenses for the brand name "Gloria Vanderbilt" to Gitano, who transferred it to a group of private investors in 1993. The downturn in her business, combined with the tragic suicide of her son, Carter, proved that wealth was no insulation against adversity. Even Vanderbilt's wealth—a cushion of financial security for many decades—would seriously erode during the early 1990s, a result of her reportedly lavish lifestyle and problems with the Internal Revenue Service. Her tax problems stemmed from a business-related catastrophe: her attorney and her psychiatrist had formed a company called Design Management Partners that Vanderbilt claimed was designed to defraud her of her $2 million home furnishings line after the partnership purchased Gloria Concepts, the company holding the licenses to use her name and designs on home decorating products. A collision between two individuals with ethical relationships with a single client is illegal and a violation of the ethical code of both attorneys and physicians; after extensive litigation, both men lost their licenses, although Vanderbilt never recovered the bulk of the money she had lost. Showing her resilience, she sold her townhouse to pay her business-related back taxes, and then turned adversity into something positive. While searching for a more modest place to call home, she turned full-time to the writing she had done throughout her life as an accessory to her other activities.
Chronology: Gloria Vanderbilt
1934: Subject of notorious custody battle between mother and paternal aunt.
1955: Made debut as actress on Broadway in The Time of Your Life.
1975: Released own "designer-label" jeans to women's ready-to-wear market.
1985: Published first volume of autobiography, Once Upon a Time: A True Story.
1988: Introduced women's fragrance line, "Glorious."
1989: Published first novel, Never Say Good-Bye.
1996: Published third memoir, A Mother's Story.
Social and Economic Impact
Vanderbilt's savvy business sense—her understanding of consumers' willingness to identify with the upper classes by owning and flaunting products with the names of famous or notably well-heeled individuals on them—opened up the floodgates in the high-end U.S. fashion market. The first woman to successfully design and market high-priced jeans, Vanderbilt's business success serves as a role model to many women.
While Vanderbilt has worked to establish her own name in the marketplace, she has also tried to improve the lot of the less fortunate. Through her 1975 book Woman to Woman, as well as through her autobiographies, Vanderbilt has candidly explored her philosophy of personal growth and her efforts at attaining happiness and fulfillment in an effort to assist and encourage other women to strive toward the same goals. "I see myself as a phoenix that rises again and again," Vanderbilt told a People Weekly writer in the mid-1990s, looking back on the rise and fall of her fashion kingdom.
Sources of Information
c/o Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. 201 East 50th St.
New York City, NY 10022
"Gloria's Sad Story."Womens' Wear Daily, 15 March 1996.
"Gloria's Shining Star." Harper's Bazaar, October 1994.
Life, October 7, 1968.
"Living with Loss: A Horrified Witness to Her Son's Tragic Suicide." People, May 6, 1996.
"Sic transit Gloria." New York, 15 February 1993.
Vanderbilt, Gloria. A Mother's Story. New York: Knopf, 1996.
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