The designer and socialite was also the mother of CNN's Anderson Cooper
By: Linnea Crowther
1 month ago
Gloria Vanderbilt was a socialite turned designer, artist, and author as well as the mother of CNN's Anderson Cooper. As a designer, she was well known for her signature stylish jeans that were highly sought after in the 1970s and '80s. She was also a writer and visual artist, and a headline-maker almost from her birth.
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Died: June 17, 2019 (Who else died on June 17?)
Details of death: Died at the age of 95.
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Vanderbilt was in the spotlight at a young age, a member of the famous Vanderbilt family of New York. Born Feb. 20, 1924, she was the daughter of Reginald Claypoole Vanderbilt, heir to a railroad fortune, and Gloria Morgan Vanderbilt. The family money dated back to young Gloria's great-great-grandfather, Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt, who was born poor but built a fortune as the magnate of a 19th-century transportation empire.
Family money couldn't buy an easy childhood for Vanderbilt: Her father died when she was just 18 months old, leaving her with a $5 million trust fund and a young mother who loved to jet around the world in search of a good time. Concerned with the upbringing "Little Gloria" was undergoing, her paternal aunt, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, sued for custody. A very public custody battle ensued, dubbed the trial of the century by reporters at the time.
Vanderbilt became the nation's "poor little rich girl," pulled in conflicting directions by the people who loved her. The court had to be cleared of onlookers and family members alike so the judge could learn from Vanderbilt herself what she wanted. Ultimately, though Vanderbilt said she didn't dislike her mother, she chose stability. She wanted to live with Whitney, and that was how the case was decided. Vanderbilt spent the rest of her childhood with her aunt and cousins.
Vanderbilt developed her artistic talent in school, trying a little bit of everything — acting, visual art, and writing. She did them all professionally, too. She starred in a handful of stage and television productions, but she found that the work didn't agree with her, and she largely stopped acting within a few years. Her first book, "Love Poems," was published in 1955 and well-reviewed by The New York Times.
It was design that would become Vanderbilt's passion. A career in commercial design sprang from Vanderbilt's love for creating art. A series of her paintings was licensed by Hallmark Cards and textile manufacturer Bloomcraft in the 1960s and '70s, and she soon began designing her own commercial products including textiles and dinnerware.
In 1976, Vanderbilt began the venture that would make her a household name for a new generation. She partnered with the Murjani Corp. and launched a line of designer jeans in her name. Each pair featured Vanderbilt's signature on the back pocket, along with her swan logo. She was one of the first to offer a stylish alternative to the Levi's that dominated the denim landscape, and her jeans were slimmer and tighter fitting than the traditional work pant.
Gloria Vanderbilt jeans opened doors for other designers who would soon come to be as associated with denim as she was: Calvin Klein, Jordache, and Sasson all shared shelf space with her jeans in the late 1970s and beyond. Though Vanderbilt wouldn't remain the only designer of upscale jeans, she continued to be a major player in that market for some time, expanding to include other clothing in her portfolio as well as shoes, linens, and perfumes.
She also continued writing, eventually producing a number of memoirs, novels, and nonfiction books on design. One of her novels was 2009's fictional offering, "Obsession: An Erotic Tale." Reviewers and readers alike were surprised to be presented with such an explicitly steamy tale from an 85-year-old woman, but Vanderbilt herself was unapologetic. "I don’t think age has anything to do with what you write about," she told The New York Times. "The only thing that would embarrass me is bad writing, and the only thing that really concerned me was my children. You know how children can be about their parents."
As for her most famous child, Anderson Cooper responded, "The six most surprising words a mother can say to her son are: ‘Honey, I’m writing an erotic novel.’ But actually she’s pretty unique, and there’s not much she does that’s surprising anymore. At 85, whatever she wants to write is fine with me."
Vanderbilt continued creating visual art as well, celebrating her 90th birthday in 2014 by launching an exhibition of her work at the New York gallery 1stdibs. She also exhibited her art in venues including the Hammer Gallery in New York and the Southern Vermont Arts Center in Manchester.
Vanderbilt returned to the screen in 2016, but as the subject of a documentary rather than as an actress. The HBO documentary "Nothing Left Unsaid: Gloria Vanderbilt and Anderson Cooper" detailed Vanderbilt's colorful life, delving into her personal relationships as well as her public persona.
Those personal relationships included four marriages, beginning at age 17 when she married Hollywood talent agent Pat DeCicco. The marriage, said to be abusive, ended in divorce within a few short years. She later married conductor Leopold Stokowski and director Sidney Lumet: Both unions also ended in divorce. Her final and longest-lasting marriage was to author Wyatt Cooper, who preceded her in death in 1978. Vanderbilt had four sons: Leopold "Stan" Stokowski, Christopher Stokowski, Carter Cooper, and Anderson Cooper. Carter Cooper died by suicide in 1988.