Glo­ria Van­der­bilt, heiress, so­cialite, fash­ion en­tre­pre­neur, dies at 95

Lodi News-Sentinel - - LOCAL/WORLD - By Elaine Woo

Glo­ria Van­der­bilt ex­pe­ri­enced both loss and tri­umph on a grand scale.

Her mul­ti­mil­lion­aire fa­ther died when she was 2, lead­ing her so­cialite mother to aban­don her for the high life on two con­ti­nents. She was wrenched from a beloved nurse who raised her from birth af­ter a sensationa­l 1934 cus­tody bat­tle won by her aunt, the for­mi­da­ble art pa­tron Gertrude Van­der­bilt Whit­ney.

Over the next decades, her self-de­scribed “rest­less search for love” led to af­fairs with Mar­lon Brando and Howard Hughes and to four hus­bands, in­clud­ing con­duc­tor Leopold Stokowski and di­rec­tor Sidney Lumet. She found hap­pi­ness in her last mar­riage, to writer Wy­att Emory Cooper, only to see it end with his early death at 50 from a heart at­tack. That loss was com­pounded when she wit­nessed the sui­cide of one of their sons.

But the “poor lit­tle rich girl,” as news­pa­pers long ago had tagged the heiress, tran­scended her fa­mously dis­jointed child­hood and later up­heavals to be­come an ac­tress, artist, au­thor and fash­ion and mer­chan­dis­ing icon. She ul­ti­mately cre­ated a for­tune that, she of­ten noted, ex­ceeded the im­mense one left by her great-great-grand­fa­ther, 19th­cen­tury ship­ping and rail­road baron Cor­nelius Van­der­bilt.

“Glo­ria Van­der­bilt was an ex­traor­di­nary woman who loved life and lived it on her own terms,” her son An­der­son Cooper, the CNN an­chor, said in a state­ment to the Los An­ge­les Times fol­low­ing her death Mon­day at her home in New York City. “She was 95 years old, but ask any­one close to her, and they’d tell you, she was the youngest per­son they knew, the coolest, and most mod­ern.”

The cause was ad­vanced stom­ach can­cer, which Cooper said had been di­ag­nosed ear­lier this month.

Her life fed the imag­i­na­tion of writer Tru­man Capote, who used Van­der­bilt as a model for Holly Go­lightly, the he­do­nis­tic hero­ine of his 1958 novel, “Break­fast at Tif­fany’s.”

Van­der­bilt ended her friend­ship with Capote af­ter he por­trayed her as a vac­u­ous so­cialite who fails to rec­og­nize a for­mer hus­band in “La Cote Basque,” a 1975 short story later pub­lished as a chap­ter of his unfinished novel, “An­swered Prayers.”

To later gen­er­a­tions, Van­der­bilt was best known for putting her name on a slew of mass-mar­keted mer­chan­dise — linens, stemware, per­fumes and, most no­tably, a line of tight-fit­ting de­signer jeans — that launched celebrity branding in fash­ion and other ev­ery­day wares.

“The thing that re­ally made Glo­ria Van­der­bilt pen­e­trate the Amer­i­can con­scious­ness was the blue jeans war of the late ‘70s and early 1980s,” said Robert Thomp­son, pro­fes­sor of pop cul­ture at Syra­cuse Univer­sity. “The jeans moved from be­ing func­tional clothes to de­signer jeans ... it was her at­tempt to take some­thing that was so unglam­orous and in­vest it in high fash­ion style.

“The blue jeans war gave her iden­tity as a so­cialite,” Thomp­son said.

She later lost mil­lions in a swin­dle mas­ter­minded by two trusted ad­vis­ers — her psy­chi­a­trist and her lawyer. But her name re­mained a po­tent mar­ket­ing ploy, re­vived in the early 2000s by com­pa­nies that hoped the glam­orous Van­der­bilt brand would sell every­thing from bath tow­els to watches.

In 2009, when she was 85, Van­der­bilt raised eye­brows with the re­lease of an erotic novel, “Ob­ses­sion,” about a woman who dis­cov­ers her dead hus­band’s kinky affair with a dom­i­na­trix. The New York Times de­scribed it as “the steami­est book ever writ­ten by an oc­to­ge­nar­ian.”

The Van­der­bilts, once the richest fam­ily in Amer­ica, ex­em­pli­fied the ex­cesses of the Gilded Age. They built palaces to ri­val the grand­est French chateaus, in­clud­ing the Break­ers, the most sump­tu­ous of New­port, R.I.’s, “sum­mer cot­tages” for the rich, and no fewer than 10 man­sions on New York’s Fifth Av­enue. Their im­mense wealth was owed to the labors of Cor­nelius Van­der­bilt, known as the Com­modore, who turned a Staten Is­land boat ser­vice into a steamship em­pire be­fore ex­pand­ing into rail­roads. His for­tune, es­ti­mated at $95 mil­lion at his death in 1877, en­abled the next gen­er­a­tions’ ex­trav­a­gance.


An­der­son Cooper and his mother, Glo­ria Van­der­bilt, at­tend the HBO doc­u­men­tary premiere of “Noth­ing Left Un­said: Glo­ria Van­der­bilt & An­der­son Cooper” on April 4, 2016 at the Time Warner Cen­ter in New York City.

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