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.

Australian Women’s Weekly NZ - - CONTENTS -

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).

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