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