Gloria Vanderbilt

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Gloria Vanderbilt

"Little Gloria" Vanderbilt (born 1924) was the center of the most sensational custody battle in U.S.history. The girl who stuttered and could hardly put her feelings into words grew into a woman who discovered herself through acting, writing, drawing, painting, and designing. Her efforts led to the creation of a world-famous line of goods, all bearing her highly recognizable name.

Gloria Vanderbilt, the great-great-great granddaughter of shipping magnate, Cornelius Vanderbilt, has been in the limelight since childhood, when her mother and aunt fought a very public custody battle over the "poor little rich girl." Vanderbilt first published a book of poetry in 1955 and has since published her memoirs and fiction. She married four times, only the last time happily. Vanderbilt made a name for herself as a very successful designer of jeans, perfume, shoes, linens, accessories, and even a frozen dessert. Then, tragedy struck when her 23-year-old son committed suicide before his mother's eyes.

Confusing Beginnings

Gloria Laura Vanderbilt, born February 20, 1924, in New York City, came from a long line of wealthy and famous people. She was a descendant of shipping baron Cornelius Vanderbilt. In her mother's family were diplomats and judges. Vanderbilt's father, Reginald Vanderbilt, a rail-road heir, horse breeder, playboy, and alcoholic gambler, died when his daughter was 17 months old. Vanderbilt's mother, Gloria Morgan Vanderbilt, was a renowned beauty who took her daughter to live in Europe after her husband died. Her mother loved the cities and beaches of Europe and moved around quite a bit, living in Paris, Monte Carlo, Biarritz, and London. She socialized with many men, including a married businessman and a German prince, a member of the Mountbatten family, to whom she became engaged. Young Gloria spent much of this time with her grandmother, Laura Kilpatrick Morgan, and nurse, Emma Keislich, whom she called "Dodo."

Morgan became determined that her granddaughter would not live in Germany and plotted to have the girl live in America with her aunt, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney. At the age of ten, Vanderbilt became the subject of a bitter and public custody battle between her mother and her aunt. The battle captured the imagination of the American people, who read avidly about the proceedings in the daily newspapers. A newspaper article in the Daily News described Dodo's testimony: "For five hours Mrs. Gloria Morgan Vanderbilt … listened to a tight-lipped nurse denounce her with virtuous relish as a cocktail-crazed dancing mother, a devotee of sex erotica, and the mistress of a German prince." Custody of "Little Gloria" was given to Vanderbilt's aunt, but she could see her mother on weekends and for the month of July. Gloria spent the next seven years living on the east coast with her aunt.

A Series of Husbands

Vanderbilt's aunt was aloof and old-fashioned, insisting that her niece be constantly chaperoned. In June 1941, at the age of 17, Vanderbilt went to California to visit her mother in Beverly Hills, where she felt like a bird released from a cage. There she dated movie stars and the rich and famous, including Howard Hughes. Not wanting to return to her life back east, and not wanting to remain with her mother, Vanderbilt decided to marry Pasquale ("Pat") De Cicco, a 32-year-old Hollywood agent. De Cicco spent his wedding night drinking and gambling. For the next three years he verbally and physically abused his wife. The couple eventually divorced.

Soon after Vanderbilt married the conductor, Leopold Stokowski. Stokowski had the reputation of being a ladies' man and had been involved with the actress Greta Garbo. He had been married twice. He and Vanderbilt lived quietly, in a small flat, for the first few years of their marriage. They had two sons, Stanislaus and Christopher. After five years of marriage, Vanderbilt began to see an analyst who advised her to express herself. She rented a studio where she wrote poetry and painted. She also began taking acting lessons and performing professionally for a short while. The Stokowskis divorced after ten years of marriage and fought a custody battle over their sons. Vanderbilt won. Vanderbilt later married Sidney Lumet, a television director. They remained married for seven years; when she ended the union, Lumet attempted suicide. Vanderbilt's fourth marriage to Mississippi writer, Wyatt Cooper, lasted 14 years, until Cooper's death in 1978, after a series of heart attacks. The couple had two sons, Carter and Anderson.

A Commercial Success

Vanderbilt began her career as a commercial designer in 1971 when Don Hall of the Hallmark company saw Vanderbilt's drawings in an art gallery. The drawings were used in a line of paper goods. A collection of scarves was adapted from her paintings. Vanderbilt went on to design a line of blouses and a highly successful line of jeans. In 1980, she earned $10 million. Her name was seen on such products as perfume, sheets, shoes, leather goods, liqueurs, and accessories. In the mid-1980s, she launched a tofu-based frozen dessert. Vanderbilt was one of the first designers to make public appearances, a difficult thing for her because of her shyness.

Friends of Vanderbilt, who wished to remain anonymous, told People magazine in 1985, "There has always been a vulnerable, childlike quality about her. She has had despair and aloneness, and maybe as a result she has terminal narcissism. A whole slice of her is a dreamy child. … Sometimes she can hardly speak, she is so shy. But when something interests her she may get on a run and bore you to death about a great piece of lace or something."

In the 1980s, Vanderbilt began publishing her memoirs, Once Upon a Time. Vanderbilt said in an interview with People, that she did not write it as a form of therapy to resolve the pain she felt at her mother's indifference. "I did it because I'm a natural-born writer. I consider it a piece of work, not therapy. I always knew I would do the book, and it fell onto the page." Her second book, Black Knight, White Knight, tells of her marriages to De Cicco and Stokowski. In it she wrote of Stokowski, "With time, bitterness and pain gently slipped away, and a mysterious loving light shines strongly through the crystal of memory. Because as I have come to understand myself-I have also come to understand him. My mother, too, I have come to understand … And although I still search for her, and part of me probably always will, it is an ache I have learned to live with, and we have found, she and I, a place of peace where we rest together: closer perhaps in death than we ever were in life."

A Mother's Tragedy

In July 1988, Vanderbilt experienced the worst nightmare of her life. Her son Carter Cooper, age 23, plummeted from the terrace of her 14th-floor penthouse to his death as she watched powerlessly. Vanderbilt contended that her son was not depressed or suicidal, but was disoriented from asthma medication he had taken. At first she was unable to accept his death. Six weeks later she joined a suicide support group, which she credits with saving her life. "The Waspy background I came from, if you cried, you went into the bathroom and shut the door. Rich people do it differently. They don't communicate. The group met once a week. I wish it had met every day. You walk in, and it's a roomful of strangers-all rock bottom. There was someone who'd had it happen two days before; another to whom it had happened ten years ago. You could look at him and say, "It's been ten years, and he's alive and okay." It took three years for Vanderbilt to believe that she would survive her grief. In 1996, Vanderbilt published A Mother's Story, about her son's suicide. She is very close to her youngest son, Anderson Cooper, and delights in her two granddaughters Abra and Aurora Stokowski, the children of Stan Stokowski.

A Stab at Fiction

In 1989, Vanderbilt published her first work of fiction, Never Say Good-Bye: A Novel. Book reviewer Joanne Kaufman called the work "an exercise in self-indulgence. …. There is an effortful quality to Vanderbilt's writing, that of someone trying far too hard for a literary patina." Her 1994 novel, The Memory Book of Starr Faithfull, received better reviews. Kathleen Hughes noted in Booklist that "Vanderbilt has persuasively re-created the life of an introspective child and the tormented woman she later became. The novel works both as an absorbing portrait of the sumptuous lifestyle of the privileged classes in the 1920s and 1930s and as the sad chronicle of an anguished life that slowly spiraled into madness."

New Problems

In the 1990s, Vanderbilt sued her former lawyer and business manager, claiming that he and her psychiatrist formed an illegal company that defrauded her of $2 million. Because the lawyer failed to pay her taxes, when he should have, Vanderbilt was forced to sell her Southampton, New York, summer home and her Manhattan townhouse to pay the money she owed the Internal Revenue Service.

"I Am Determined to Survive"

Vanderbilt has experienced more triumph, tragedy, and public exposure than most people can ever imagine. She sees herself as a role model for others who have suffered loss. I remember a visit from a friend whose daughter had taken her own life about three years before. She said to me, "You will laugh, and you will live again." Her words meant nothing to me. It was inconceivable. But of course she was right. It's almost nine years later now, and I've laughed and lived. But I'll never be the same. I am determined to survive because it will help others to know that if I can survive the worst thing that can happen, they can too."

Further Reading

Goldsmith, Barbara, Little Gloria… Happy at Last, Alfred A.Knopf, 1980.

Vanderbilt, Gloria, Black Knight, White Knight, Alfred A. Knopf, 1987.

Booklist, November 1, 1994.

Entertainment Weekly, December 2, 1994.

People Weekly, June 10, 1985; May 6, 1996; March 31, 1997;April 9, 1990. □