Young people may know Gloria Vanderbilt as Anderson Cooper’s mother. She is that, of course. But before her son made a name for himself as an anchor on CNN, Gloria Vanderbilt made a name for herself as an heiress, socialite, fashion designer, muse for other fashion designers and artists, model, writer, actor, businesswoman, and socialite. She was, and is, a great beauty, someone who personifies good breeding without all the snobbishness that might imply. For though little Gloria was born into wealth, she worked hard and earned her way. Wendy Goodman’s new book, The World of Gloria Vanderbilt, reminds us why this amazing woman has inspired and fascinated others for decades. The design editor for New York Magazine, Goodman was given special access to Vanderbilt’s archives, which she describes as extensive. Supplemented with her own research, Goodman’s book is not only a tribute to a New York icon, but an intriguing glimpse into a time and place that, as Anderson Cooper says in the foreword to the book, “no longer exist.”
Vanderbilt and Goodman (left to right, above) were on hand recently at the Corner Book Store on Madison Avenue to sign books. Gloria has, to use a clichéd description, aged well. Elegantly dressed in a brown patterned dress under a suede vest trimmed with fur, she took time to speak with each person at length, using a black felt pen to sign each book—“All good wishes”—with flair.
Goodman said that they worked on the book for four years. What got her started on the idea? “I saw a photo of her,” she explained. The photo in question, taken in the 1950s by one of Vanderbilt’s friends, Richard Avedon, shows Vanderbilt lounging on a sofa in the apartment she shared with her then husband, the director Sidney Lumet. “…it was that one Avedon photograph that said everything to me, igniting the idea for this book,” Goodman writes.
Over the years, Vanderbilt was photographed by just about every photographer of note—Francesco Scavullo, Annie Leibovitz, Horst P. Horst, Diane Arbus, Cecil Beaton. She frequently graced the pages of Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar, and House and Garden. She was a compelling subject. Sprinkled throughout the book, these photographs show the dark-haired Vanderbilt as she was often seen in her younger days, modeling designer clothes, giving the public a peek into one of her private homes, or spending special time with one of her four husbands and one or more of her four sons.
The photographs are so appealing that it’s tempting to flip through the book, bypassing the text. Goodman’s writing, however, should be closely read, for her analysis and observations help us to understand that Gloria is truly a survivor. Being born into one of the world’s richest families was at times a curse. (Anderson Cooper said in a September, 2009, interview: “I’m glad I don’t have that last name; it just comes with baggage and not much else.”) Just a child, she was the target of a child custody battle between her mother and aunt. When just a teen, she hobnobbed with Hollywood celebrities, even dating Howard Hughes. Only seventeen, she married Pasquale De Cicco, an agent and former dancer. The marriage was short lived and at 21, she married the 62 year-old conductor Leopold Stokowski. That union, too, ended quickly. Besides Lumet, her other husband was Wyatt Cooper, Anderson Cooper’s father. Gloria described Wyatt as “the love of my life.” The photographs of the two together and with their children are priceless. Wyatt’s own fashion flair—a stripped suit in one shot, a Nehru jacket in another—are beautifully captured.
Any woman who proudly wore a pair of Vanderbilt jeans in the 1970s, will enjoy that part of Gloria’s story. (Don’t miss the photograph of Gloria amidst a sea of denim clad female derrieres). Just as she was emerging as a true style icon, Wyatt died of a heart ailment. The other great tragedy in her life, the suicide of her son, Carter Cooper, is covered in the text. “Gloria’s world went dark,” Goodman writes.
Vanderbilt was, in many ways, ahead of her time. While most women found a path and stuck to it, she was constantly changing and reinventing herself. She was beautiful, brave, creative, and never dull. She made mistakes along the way, but didn’t allow those missteps to define her. She persevered and survived. “Don’t give up,” she says, “don’t ever give up, because without pain, there can’t be joy, and both are what make us know we are alive.”
The World of Gloria Vanderbilt
(Click on the red title to order)
Foreword by Anderson Cooper