February 20, 1924 – Gloria Vanderbilt:
“Death is the price you pay for being born.”
Working on this post, I kept thinking about the rather astonishing HBO documentary Nothing Left Unsaid: Gloria Vanderbilt & Anderson Cooper (2016). The film takes viewers through Vanderbilt’s very public life, which included a custody battle when she was a child, and multiple marriages when she was older. Vanderbilt, the heiress and romantic, began her life as the “poor little rich girl” of the Great Depression.
“Her private self, her real self, that was more fascinating and more lovely than anything she showed the public. I always thought of her as a visitor from another world, a traveler stranded here who’d come from a distant star that burned out long ago.“
Hers is a breathtaking and heartbreaking story, and this documentary is such a touching and honest look at Vanderbilt, and so sweet to see the relationship between the famous mother and famous son. Vanderbilt lived a very interesting, glamorous and flamboyant life, a hundred lives, really, packed into her 95 action-packed years.
She was a great beauty and a talented artist, plus an author, actor, fashion designer, and what we would now call an “influencer”. She was a member of the super-wealthy Vanderbilt, Whitney and Morgan families of New York, who made their money in railroads, banks and steel in the 19th century.
During the 1930s, she was the subject of a high-profile child custody trial in which her mother, Gloria Morgan Vanderbilt, and her paternal aunt, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, each sought custody of her and control over her trust fund. Called the “trial of the century” by the press, the court proceedings were the subject of wide and sensational press coverage due to the wealth and prominence of the involved parties, and the scandalous evidence presented to support Whitney’s claim that Gloria Morgan Vanderbilt was an unfit parent.
As an adult in the 1970s, Vanderbilt became famous for her line of fashions, perfumes, and other goods bearing her name. She was particularly noted as an early developer of designer jeans. In 1974, Paul McCartney released Mrs. Vandebilt, a song inspired by her life.
Vanderbilt was married four times, divorced three times, and gave birth to four sons. She also had several other significant relationships.
In 1941, 17-years-old Vanderbilt went to Hollywood, where she married Pat DiCicco, an agent and an alleged mobster. They divorced in 1945. She later alleged that DiCicco was an abusive husband who called her “Fatsy Roo” and beat her. Vanderbilt:
“He would take my head and bang it against the wall. I had black eyes.”
Weeks after divorcing DiCicco, Vanderbilt married famed conductor Leopold Stokowski. She was 20 years old and he was 64. They had two sons. That marriage ended in divorce in 1955.
Vanderbilt’s third husband was director Sidney Lumet. She was the second of his four wives. They were married in 1956 and divorced in 1963.
That same year Vanderbilt married a final time to writer Wyatt Emory Cooper. She was his only wife. The marriage, which lasted 15 years, ended with his death in 1978 while undergoing open-heart surgery. They had two sons: Carter Vanderbilt Cooper (1965 – 1988), who died by jumping from the family’s 14th-floor apartment when he was 23 years old, and Anderson Hays Cooper.
Vanderbilt had a long affair with photographer and filmmaker Gordon Parks until his death in 2006. Her other lovers included Marlon Brando, Frank Sinatra, Howard Hughes, and Roald Dahl.
My favorite story about her involves the great gay cabaret singer and pianist, Bobby Short (1924 – 2005). In 1980, Vanderbilt sued River House, a co-op building on the East Side of Manhattan, which had refused to sell her a million-dollar apartment. She accused the management of racial bias because of her close relationship with Short. She claimed the board was worried that Short, who was black and who appeared with her on television commercials, might marry her. The landmark building’s board said it wanted to avoid any “unwanted publicity”, a barely disguised reference to “those people”. Later that year, Vanderbilt dropped the lawsuit. Short generally stayed out of the fray but he did say:
“I’m old enough to be sophisticated about these things.”
Directed by Liz Garbus, Nothing Left Unsaid: Gloria Vanderbilt & Anderson Cooper is emotionally courageous and incredibly moving. I laughed and I cried. It is an unflinching look at the tragedies of Cooper’s mother’s life, some self-created from her very publicly scarred childhood. Cooper is also unafraid to show his personal pain as the family tragedies have played out quite tangibly in his own life. Cooper lays bare the family pain and the result is a love letter to his brave and unflinching mother, and an understanding of how tragedy can shape our lives and bring about beautiful contributions in Vanderbilt’s art and Copper’s journalism. I found it moving, vivid, sophisticated, unrelenting, honest, and very, very funny. Are there any more laugh-inducing sounds than that of Copper’s and his mother’s giggles?
“That is the best-to laugh with someone because you both think the same things are funny.“
Nothing Left Unsaid: Gloria Vanderbilt & Anderson Cooper is streaming on Amazon Prime and HBO On Demand.