Vanderbilt, Gloria (1924—)

views updated

Vanderbilt, Gloria (1924—)

American actress, artist, and designer who was a contested child in an infamous custody battle in the 1930s. Name variations: Gloria Vanderbilt-Cooper; Mrs. Wyatt E. Cooper. Born Gloria Laura Vanderbilt in New York City on February 20, 1924; daughter of Reginald Claypoole Vanderbilt (1880–1925) and Gloria Mercedes (Morgan) Vanderbilt (1904–1965); studied at private schools; married Pasquale (Pat) De Cicco (1909–1979, an actor's agent), in 1941 (divorced April 24, 1945); married Leopold Stokowski (1882–1977, the conductor), on April 25, 1945 (divorced October 1955); married Sidney Lumet (b. 1924, the movie director), on August 27, 1956 (divorced August 1963); married Wyatt E. Cooper, on December 24, 1963 (died January 5, 1978); children: (second marriage) Stanley and Christopher Stokowski; (fourth marriage) Carter Vanderbilt Cooper and Anderson H. Cooper.

Made first appearance on Broadway in Time of Your Life; also appeared on numerous television shows; had solo shows as an artist at Barbara Shaeffer Gallery in New York (1954), Juster Gallery (1956), Hammer Gallery (1966); received the Neiman-Marcus fashion award (1969), the Fashion Hall of Fame award (1970), and the gold medal from the Society of Arts and Letters (1976); was also creative director of Gloria Vanderbilt Designs.

Selected writings:

Love Poems (1955); Gloria Vanderbilt Book of Collage (1970); Woman to Woman (1979); (autobiography) Once Upon a Time (1985); (autobiography) Black Knight, White Knight (1987); (autobiography) A Mother's Story (1996).

Heiress to the vast Vanderbilt fortune amassed by her great-grandfather Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt, Gloria Vanderbilt was just one year old when her father Reginald Claypoole Vanderbilt died in 1925, leaving her a multimillion-dollar trust fund from which she received a monthly allotment. A further provision in Reggie's will provided for Gloria's beautiful 19-year-old mother Gloria Morgan Vanderbilt , as long as the child continued to live with her. The senior Gloria, however, did not totally adhere to her end of the agreement, continuing to live the life of an international socialite while leaving little Gloria in the care of her overprotective nurse Emma Keislich . When the child failed to thrive, her maternal grandmother Laura Kilpatrick Morgan became alarmed and shared her concern with Reggie's sister, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney , herself the recent recipient of a large fortune. Whitney invited the child and her nurse to live with her at her Long Island estate, where Gloria blossomed and began attending a local school. In 1934, when Gloria was ten, Whitney sued for permanent custody of the child, charging that she had been neglected by her mother. The ensuing custody battle was one of the most publicized court cases of the 1930s, making headlines all over the world. As a result of Gloria's own testimony and that of her grandmother, the court ultimately granted custody to Whitney, while Gloria's mother was given visitation rights as well as a voice in the rearing of her daughter.

The years following the trial were lonely ones for Gloria. "The irony … was that as soon as my aunt was allowed to take charge of me, she lost interest," she said later. Whitney, who was 60 years old and in ill health by the end of the trial, saw to it that Gloria had everything she needed, but spent little time with her. Under her aunt's custody, Gloria attended the exclusive Mary C. Wheeler School in Providence, Rhode Island, and Miss (Sarah) Porter 's School in Farmington, Connecticut. Whitney, a talented sculptor and a patron of the arts (she founded the Whitney Museum of American Art), also fostered Gloria's interest in art and the theater.

At 17, feeling overprotected by her aunt, Gloria quit school and went to live with her mother in California. "I was like a bird set free," she recalled, although the relationship with her mother would subsequently disintegrate. She began dating a variety of older men, and in 1941 married Pat De Cicco, an actor's agent, whom she divorced in 1945, shortly after coming of age and inheriting her sizable fortune. On April 25, 1945, the day after the divorce, she wed conductor Leopold Stokowski, a man 42 years her senior. Settling down to a life of relative obscurity as a wife and mother (the couple had two sons, Stanley and Christopher), Gloria turned her attention to poetry and painting. But her husband's career took precedence over any of her own activities. While he toured, and she spent more and more time alone, she discovered her own ambition and her need to establish her own identity.

In 1948, under the name Glorya Stokowska, she gave a one-woman show at the Rabun Studio which included 14 oils and pastels that one critic called "directly in the Matisse-Picasso School of Paris tradition." In October 1953, she held a second one-woman exhibit at the Bertha Schaeffer Gallery, and in 1957, a third, at New York's Juster Gallery. The later show was made up primarily of paintings of children and animals, executed, said a critic for the New York Herald Tribune, "in the manner of half portraitist and half fantasist." Vanderbilt explained that she did not paint from life. "My work is filled with joy," she said, "a joy that springs from the pain of things that happened to me a long time ago, that I've spent my whole life working out. I'm now creating a joy that I never had in childhood, in recapturing something that never really happened."

Gloria was first lured into the theater by producer Gilbert Miller, who saw her perform at a charity ball and thought she had talent. She made her debut in 1953, in a summer stock production of Ferenc Molnar's's The Swan, portraying Princess Alexandra. "Miss Vanderbilt reveals a personal theatricalism that is lovely to see," wrote a reviewer for Variety (August 18, 1954). "Her poise, savvy, expressive beauty, as well as her dignity and reserve all add up to a new personality to be reckoned with theatrically." Vanderbilt made her television debut a few months later in Noel Coward's Tonight at 8:30, which was followed in January 1955 by a small role in the New York City Center revival of William Saroyan's The Time of Your Life. That April, after taking acting lessons from Sanford Meisner, she played the female lead in a summer stock production of Picnic, directed by Sidney Lumet.

In 1955, Vanderbilt also published a volume of poetry, Love Poems, a collection of 27 verses drawn largely from her diary and focusing thematically on the search for love. The volume received a lukewarm reception, some reviewers feeling that its value lay more in the exploitation of the Vanderbilt name than in any artistic merit. She later wrote short stories and book reviews for magazines, and completed a full-length play, Three by Two, although she failed to get it produced.

Sidney Lumet became Gloria's third husband in 1956, after a very public divorce from Stokowski and a bitter custody battle over their children that rivaled the one over Gloria years earlier. Her marriage to Lumet lasted until 1963, during which time Vanderbilt continued to perform in summer stock and regional theater and on television. In 1959, Lumet directed her in a television dramatization of Tolstoy's Family Happiness, which was aired on the "U.S. Steel Hour."

Following her third divorce in 1963, Gloria married editor-writer Wyatt Emory Cooper, with whom she had two more sons, Carter and Anderson. With Cooper's support, she abandoned her performing and poetry, and began painting in earnest, working in her studio from early morning until late at night. Two one-woman shows at the Hammer Galleries in New York, the first in April 1966, at which she exhibited some 67 paintings executed in bright acrylic vinyls, and the second in April 1968, which included several large collages, were both successful, as were exhibits at the Washington Gallery of Art in 1967 and several subsequent one-woman shows across the country. In 1970, she published the Gloria Vanderbilt Book of Collage, written in collaboration with Alfred Allen Lewis. In it, she encouraged readers to make their own collages from fabric scraps, household items, and personal mementos.

In 1972, Vanderbilt began transferring the colorful motifs of her paintings to a line of products, including table linens, bathroom accessories, china, and wallpaper. She later brought out a line of cosmetics and began designing dresses, and in 1978 added to her business empire with a line of jeans carrying her signature logo, her name and a swan motif. "Sometimes I wonder, at fifty-two has success come too late?" she told an interviewer in 1976. "I needed it more in my 20's and 30's."

Vanderbilt's personal success, however, was accompanied by great personal tragedy. In 1978, her husband Wyatt died at the age of 50, following a series of heart attacks. In July 1988, as she watched helplessly, her son Carter, age 23, an editor at American Heritage and outwardly a well-adjusted young man, jumped to his death from the terrace of her Manhattan penthouse. It was a devastating blow and took her three long years before she was sure she could resolve her grief and move on. "I remember sitting in a restaurant one night and drinking a glass of water and feeling like a person," she said. "Until then, you feel you have no skin." Vanderbilt later attributed the suicide to Carter's use of a prescription allergy drug which had been known to cause psychotic episodes. One step in her recovery was her book A Mother's Story (1996), an account of her pain and loss and a companion piece to her earlier memoirs, Once Upon a Time (1985) and Black Knight, White Knight (1987).


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

Hubbard, Kim, and Anne Longley. "Living With Loss," in People Weekly. May 6, 1996.

Kohn, George C. Encyclopedia of American Scandal. NY: Facts on File, 1989.

Moritz, Charles, ed. Current Biography 1972. NY: H.W. Wilson, 1972.

O'Reilly, Jane. "Gloria Vanderbilt: everything's coming up roses," in Home & Garden. July 1976.

Vanderbilt, Gloria. Black Knight, White Knight. NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1978.

related media:

"Little Gloria … Happy at Last" (200 min. television film), starring Bette Davis, Angela Lansbury , Christopher Plummer, and Maureen Stapleton , first aired in 1982.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts

About this article

Vanderbilt, Gloria (1924—)

Updated About content Print Article