Love and loss: Gloria Vanderbilt and her son discuss their personal tragedy
Anderson Cooper and Gloria Vanderbilt The famous mother and son discuss the most devastating moment of their lives in a poignant and powerful extract from their new book.
He’s one of America’s best-known TV news anchors, she’s the “poor little rich girl” heiress whose father died when she was 15 months old in 1925. During the 1930s, Gloria Vanderbilt was caught in a bitter custody battle launched by her aunt, who wanted to save her niece from the notorious life of her beautiful party-loving mother. Gloria ended up being handed over to Aunt Gertrude’s care in the “trial of the century”, a move which scarred her childhood and thrust her into a ghastly spotlight. As an adult, Gloria’s liaisons with Howard Hughes and Frank Sinatra, her four marriages and her work as a fashion designer of bottom-hugging jeans prompted headlines of their own. Into all this came brothers Anderson and Carter, Gloria’s beautiful sons by Wyatt Cooper, the only husband she was truly happy with, who died when he was just 50.
In a wonderful book, The Rainbow Comes and Goes, Anderson Cooper swaps email missives with his elderly mother, desperate to understand this complex lady in her 10th decade. In this exclusive extract, mother and son discuss for the first time the most painful shared moment in their lives, when Anderson lost his brother, Carter, and Gloria lost her son.
A life in the spotlight
My mother comes from a vanished world, a place and a time that no longer exist. I have always thought of her as a visitor stranded here, an emissary from a distant star that burned out long ago.
Her name is Gloria Vanderbilt. When I was younger, I used to try to hide that fact, not because I was ashamed of her – far from it – but because I wanted people to get to know me before they learned that I was her son.
Vanderbilt is a big name to carry and I’ve always been glad I didn’t have to. I like being a Cooper. It’s less cumbersome, less likely to produce an awkward pause in the conversation when I’m introduced. Let’s face it, the name Vanderbilt has history, baggage. Even if you don’t know the details of my mom’s extraordinary story, her name comes with a whole set of expectations and assumptions about what she must be like.
The reality of her life, however, is not what you’d imagine.
My mom has been famous for longer than just about anyone else alive today. Her birth made headlines and, for better or worse, she’s been in the public eye ever since. Her successes and failures have played out on a very brightly lit stage and she has lived many different lives; she has been an actress, an artist, a designer and a writer; she’s made fortunes, lost them and made them back again. She has survived abuse, the loss of her parents, the death of a spouse, the suicide of a son and countless other traumas and betrayals that might have defeated someone without her relentless determination.
Though she is a survivor, she has none of the toughness that word usually carries with it. She is the strongest person I know, but tough she is not. She has never allowed herself to develop a protective layer of thick skin. She’s chosen to remain vulnerable, open to new experiences and possibilities, and because of that, she is the most youthful person I know.
My mom is now 92, but she has never looked her age and she has rarely felt it, either.
My father died in 1978, when
I was 10; and my brother, Carter, killed himself in 1988, when I was
21, so my mom is the last person left from my immediate family, the last person alive who was close to me when I was a child.
When I was growing up, though, my mom rarely talked about her life. Her past was always something of a mystery. Her parents and grandparents died before I was born, and I knew little about the tumultuous events of her childhood, or of the years before she met my father, the events that shaped the person she had become.
Even as an adult, I found there was still much I didn’t know about her.
We started the conversation through email and continued it for most of the following year. Her memories are remarkably intimate and deeply personal, revealing things to me she never said face-to-face. By breaking down the walls of silence that existed between us, I have come to understand my mom and myself in ways I never imagined. I know now that it’s never too late to change the relationship you have with someone important in your life: a parent, a child, a lover, a friend. All it takes is a willingness to be honest.
I hope what follows will encourage you to think about your own relationships and perhaps help you start a new kind of conversation with someone you love. After all, if not now, when?
Losing a brother and a son
She is the strongest person I know.
In 1988, my 23-year-old brother, Carter, killed himself. It is still hard for my mom and me to understand what happened. There is not a day that goes by that we do not think about his life and his death.
Carter graduated from Princeton University in 1987 with a degree in history and was working at American Heritage magazine when he died.
A few months before he killed himself, he came to my mom’s apartment dishevelled and upset. He talked about quitting his job and moving back home, though he had his own apartment in the city. I was in New York that weekend and, when I saw him, I got worried. He had recently broken up with his girlfriend and seemed to have lost his usual confidence. He appeared scared, as if his thoughts were racing.
The following week, I returned to college in Connecticut and Carter started seeing a therapist. He seemed to snap out of whatever funk he’d been in, and I was so relieved, I didn’t ask him again about what had happened.
We talked occasionally on the phone, but I didn’t see him again until the weekend of July 4. We ran into each other by chance on the street in New York and went for a quick lunch together.
“The last time I saw you, I was like an animal,” he said. I was happy he could make a joke about it and didn’t question him further. Perhaps he wanted me to, but I didn’t. I wish I had.
It was the last time I saw him alive.
On July 22, he came to my mom’s apartment once again. He appeared distracted, not to the degree he had been in April, but enough to concern my mom, who spent much of the day with him.
In the late afternoon, he took a nap and at around 7pm he woke up and walked into her bedroom.
“What’s going on?” he said, seemingly disoriented. “Nothing’s going on,” my mom assured him.
He ran from her room and up the stairs of the duplex apartment, through my room and out onto the balcony.
When my mom caught up to him, he was sitting on the ledge 14 storeys above the street. She tried to talk to him, begging him to come inside, but he refused. A plane passed overhead and, after looking up at it, he spun off the ledge and hung from the side of the building, his hands holding onto the balcony.
After a few seconds, he let go.
GLORIA I have heard it said that the greatest loss a human being can experience is the loss of a child. This is true.
The person you were before, you will never be again; it doesn’t just change you, it demolishes you. If you are blessed with other children, you go on living to be there for them, but the loss will consume you at unexpected times for the rest of your life.
Just yesterday, a moment clear as the day it happened flashed into my mind.
Carter, age six, at our house in Southampton, jumps out of the pool, exuberantly running towards me to hug me. “Mommy, I want to marry you!” he yells.
Hundreds of treasured moments: Carter, as a teenager, coming into my dressing room for the first time at 10 Gracie Square after we had just moved in, while, outside, fat flakes of snow swirled.
“Oh, Mom,” he said, “It’s such a hopeful room.”
And it was.
I will remember everything about him forever.
Is the pain less? No, just different. It is not something you “work through”; it is not something that goes away or fades into the landscape. It is there forever and ever, inescapable until the day you die.
I have learned to live with it. Carter died 27 years ago. There are times he comes to me in dreams, appearing as he would at the age he should be now. But these are fleeting images that vanish as I try to hold onto them. Carter is not here.
He has no brilliant career. No loving wife he is crazy about. No son named Wyatt. No daughter named Gloria.
I imagine you two interacting, not as you did as children, but today, as men. Your father is there, too. But these images fade quickly, as well.
Only you and I are left. Even though I don’t get to see you as much as I’d like because you are so busy, I do get to see you every night on a TV screen and what better gift could a mother receive?
ANDERSON You and I are different in how we handle grief. I know, for you, it’s important to talk to people. I remember, in the days after Carter’s death, you would tell everyone who came to the apartment what had happened. Reliving the horror over and over again helped you and I was glad something did, but I found it hard to talk about what I was feeling. In times of crisis, I grow silent.
GLORIA After Carter’s death, I sensed your withdrawal, which continued on into the weeks that followed, as friends came to the apartment hoping to bring solace to our grief.
I lay in bed in my room unable to stop crying, a verbal stream of details pouring out, going over it, again and again, talking about how it happened.
I knew you were in the apartment somewhere, talking with others. Although, at first, I was aware of your distance from me and upset by it, soon the waterfall of tears that kept flowing from me washed away any awareness that you were shutting me out.
I wanted to die and I knew that only the stream of pain I kept going over and over and over again was what was keeping me alive.
A month after Carter died, you had to go back to school. You didn’t want to go, but I knew you should. The day you left, you gave me a letter.
“From now on, we are partners,” you’d written.
I felt that, too. But soon after, you said to me, “Don’t drink.”
It stunned me that we were not as close as I had thought, that you were unaware that even though I was once again besieged by grief, I would never have turned to drinking to dissolve my pain.
ANDERSON I did feel we were partners and still do, now more than ever.
What I said about drinking was that I couldn’t be as close to you as I wanted in the wake of Carter’s death if you began to drink again. I didn’t think you would turn to alcohol immediately, but I feared you eventually would. If you had, it would have been impossible for me to remain close to you.
After Daddy died, you didn’t drink for several weeks and I thought perhaps you never would again, but then one cold winter’s day I came home from school and I could tell that you were drunk. Alcohol transformed you into another person and left me angry and feeling very alone.
You didn’t drink after Carter’s death, however, and I am so proud of you for giving up alcohol altogether.
It is strange for me to talk about this with you. For my entire childhood, this was something that was never spoken about in our house. Your drinking, occasional and unpredictable as it was, felt like a constant presence and yet it was never discussed. How many silent dinners did I sit through pretending I didn’t notice?
“Do you think Mom is an alcoholic?” Carter once asked me when we were in high school.
I was so shocked he said that word out loud that I didn’t know how to respond. We had never spoken of it before. Each of us dealt with it in silence.
Your drinking made it difficult to trust you. I never knew what I would find when I came home from school each day.
I dreaded going anywhere with you, worried that you might start drinking: on planes, at restaurants, parties. The person you became scared and angered me. I was never sure if you were aware of what you were doing. I assumed you were, but I didn’t know.
The day after you’d drunk too much, it would be as if nothing had happened. It added another element of danger and fear to our lives, and contributed to the feeling that we were somehow adrift. Even now, typing this out, I feel that fear.
GLORIA It means the world to me that you have come to trust me enough to express the feelings you have accumulated over the years about my drinking episodes. I can only imagine the courage this took. It is more than brave, considering the close relationship we now share.
It has been 27 years since Carter’s death and despite all the difficulties I have faced since then, I no longer have an issue with alcohol. At 91, my liver and heart are healthy, as they have been throughout my life, and instead of an alcoholic, I am a workaholic.
As for the years before,
I am sorry for the times I disappointed you as a mother. My flaws are rooted in things that happened way back in the beginning, as they are for most people, and I hope that knowing me now as you do, you understand where they came from and can find it in your heart to forgive me.
You have proved, by what you have made of yourself, that you have triumphed over whatever shortcomings I may have had as a mother.
So many answered questions
As my mom’s 92nd birthday approached, we decided to conclude this conversation we had begun one year before. When I remember all those I have lost in my life, I think of all the questions I wish I had asked them, the things I wish I had told them. I will have no such regrets with my mom. And for that I am very thankful. This is an edited extract from The Rainbow Comes and Goes, by Anderson Cooper and Gloria Vanderbilt, Harper. If you or someone you know needs emotional support, phone the Suicide Crisis Helpline, 0508 828 865.
Anderson Cooper and Gloria Vanderbilt share a reflective moment in her artist’s studio.
Anderson (the boy on left) with his mother, brother Carter and their father, Wyatt Cooper, in 1972.
ABOVE: Gloria with sons Anderson (left) and Carter in their New York apartment in 1976.
ABOVE: Gloria at Carter’s funeral in 1988, where she was comforted by Anderson (top).