Fash­ion and arts icon knew ex­traor­di­nary suc­cess, crush­ing loss

GLO­RIA VAN­DER­BILT, 1924 – 2019

Los Angeles Times - - FRONT PAGE - Elaine Woo is a for­mer Times staff writer. Times staff writer Do­rany Pineda con­tributed to this re­port.

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, 19th cen­tury 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 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 advisors — 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.

Regi­nald Clay­poole Van­der­bilt, the Com­modore’s great-grand­son, was a sports­man and prof­li­gate gambler when he mar­ried Glo­ria Laura Mor­gan, a Swiss-born so­cialite who was 17 to his 42. She agreed to marry him even though he ex­plained that she would be a “Mrs. Van­der­bilt with no money” be­cause he had al­ready squan­dered his $13-mil­lion in­her­i­tance.

He died two years later, in 1925, of an in­ter­nal hem­or­rhage brought on by heavy drink­ing. The only money left was a $5-mil­lion trust fund to be split between lit­tle Glo­ria, born on Feb. 24, 1924, in New York, and a daugh­ter from a pre­vi­ous mar­riage.

The young Van­der­bilt wi­dow de­camped to Europe af­ter se­cur­ing a $4,000 monthly al­lowance from her daugh­ter’s share of the trust. While she par­tied among the in­ter­na­tional elite in Lon­don, Paris, Biar­ritz and Monte Carlo, Glo­ria was raised by her grand­mother and nurse, whose de­vo­tion never ful­filled her yearn­ing for her mother’s love.

“How I longed to merge into her,” Van­der­bilt wrote of her mother in her best­selling 1985 mem­oir, “Once Upon a Time.” “But then she would go away, down the long cor­ri­dors of ho­tels, down stair­cases, along av­enues in her pale furs, snow-sprin­kled, dis­ap­pear­ing into the vel­vet cav­erns of wait­ing cars and borne away, away, away.”

When her mother an­nounced plans to marry a desti­tute Ger­man prince, fa­mil­ial war­fare com­menced, pit­ting the wi­dow Glo­ria against her own mother, Laura Kilpatrick Mor­gan.

Grand­mother Mor­gan viewed her daugh­ter’s life­style as deca­dent and was de­ter­mined to pre­serve lit­tle Glo­ria’s in­her­i­tance. She en­listed the help of Gertrude Van­der­bilt Whit­ney, Regi­nald Van­der­bilt’s sis­ter, to wrest con­trol of the girl from her mother.

At the 1934 cus­tody trial, Mor­gan tes­ti­fied that she did not know of “any time in which my daugh­ter ex­pressed con­cern over the baby’s wel­fare or showed any mark of af­fec­tion for her.” Lit­tle Glo­ria told the judge that she hated her mother.

But the most scan­dalous tes­ti­mony came from a Parisian maid, who said she had seen her mis­tress in bed be­ing kissed by an­other woman, a mem­ber of the British royal fam­ily. Such rev­e­la­tions spurred Cholly Knicker­bocker, a prom­i­nent so­ci­ety colum­nist, to sneer that the cus­tody bat­tle was “as dis­gust­ing an ex­hi­bi­tion of pub­lic laun­der­ing of soiled fam­ily li­nen as I’ve ever en­coun­tered.”

Al­though the pub­lic rooted for Glo­ria Mor­gan Van­der­bilt, the court awarded per­ma­nent cus­tody to the icy Whit­ney, who dismissed the beloved nurse and sent her niece to her Long Is­land es­tate while she spent most of her time in the city. “As soon as my aunt was al­lowed to take charge of me,” Van­der­bilt ob­served years later, “she lost in­ter­est.”

A sta­ple of news­pa­per front pages all dur­ing the trial, Van­der­bilt’s trou­bles made the dark days of the Great De­pres­sion a lit­tle brighter for the gen­eral pub­lic: It in­spired the 1936 Shirley Tem­ple movie “The Poor Lit­tle Rich Girl.” Van­der­bilt man­sions had be­gun fall­ing to the wrecker’s ball, and the fate of the Van­der­bilt heiress was seen as a “be­witch­ing re­minder,” fam­ily his­to­rian Arthur T. Van­der­bilt II wrote in his 1989 book, “For­tune’s Chil­dren,” of “an age that was sud­denly over.”

Van­der­bilt lived in her aunt’s house un­der strict su­per­vi­sion un­til she was 17. Then, dur­ing a visit with her mother in Bev­erly Hills, “the door of the cage was open, and out I flew.” She dated Van He­flin and bil­lion­aire Hughes, who of­fered her a screen test.

In 1941, she mar­ried Pasquale “Pat” Di Cicco, a Hol­ly­wood tal­ent agent who had once been mar­ried to the ac­tress Thelma Todd, who died mys­te­ri­ously in 1935. He was ver­bally and phys­i­cally abu­sive, but it took three years for Van­der­bilt to of­fi­cially end the mar­riage.

The day af­ter her Reno di­vorce in 1944, Van­der­bilt eloped to Mex­ico with Stokowski, who was 62 to her 20. The next year she came into her in­her­i­tance, which had grown to more than $4 mil­lion. Stokowski urged her to cut off fi­nan­cial sup­port to her mother. She fol­lowed his ad­vice and did not see her mother for the next 17 years. By the time they rec­on­ciled, in the 1960s, Glo­ria Mor­gan Van­der­bilt was suf­fer­ing from what was then termed hys­ter­i­cal blind­ness, or con­ver­sion dis­or­der. She died in 1967.

Five years into her mar­riage with Stokowski, Van­der­bilt had what one bi­og­ra­pher called a ner­vous break­down and en­tered psy­cho­anal­y­sis. En­cour­aged by the an­a­lyst to find cre­ative out­lets, she be­gan to paint and took act­ing lessons.

She made her stage de­but in 1954 in a Po­cono Play­house pro­duc­tion of Ferenc Molnar’s “The Swan” and re­ceived good re­views. She also ap­peared on Broad­way in a 1955 re­vival of Wil­liam Saroyan’s Pulitzer Prize-win­ning play “The Time of Your Life.”

When Van­der­bilt be­gan paint­ing, she of­ten drew in­spi­ra­tion from other women. Fol­low­ing news of her death, au­thor Joyce Carol Oates shared pho­tos and por­traits on Twit­ter that Van­der­bilt painted of her years ago. Oates de­scribed Van­der­bilt’s work to the New York Times Style Mag­a­zine as hav­ing a “di­men­sion of af­fec­tion, an emo­tional tie that doesn’t nec­es­sar­ily get into pho­to­graphs.”

Near the end of her mar­riage to Stokowski, Van­der­bilt had an affair with Brando, whom she por­trayed in her 2004 mem­oir, “It Seemed Im­por­tant at the Time,” as such a nar­cis­sist that the main adorn­ment in his bed­room was “a 10-by-12-inch drop-dead-gor­geous pho­to­graph [of him­self].”

She also had an affair with Frank Si­na­tra, the “white knight” in the ti­tle of her sec­ond mem­oir, “Black Knight, White Knight,” pub­lished in 1987. She said that his af­fec­tions gave her the courage to di­vorce Stokowski in 1955. She won cus­tody of their sons, Stanis­laus and Christo­pher. They sur­vive her, along with son Cooper.

Van­der­bilt had ex­tended her act­ing ca­reer to tele­vi­sion by the time she mar­ried her next hus­band, Lumet. Years later, she de­scribed him as “a won­der­ful hus­band and step­fa­ther to my two Stokowski sons,” but did not ex­plain the rea­sons be­hind the dis­so­lu­tion of their seven-year mar­riage beyond ac­knowl­edg­ing that she “hadn’t been fair to him and some­times be­haved badly.”

In 1963, she mar­ried Wy­att Cooper and had two sons, Carter and An­der­son. She later wrote that she was grate­ful to Wy­att Cooper for teach­ing her “what the lov­ing par­ent­ing I’d never had could be like.” He died af­ter a se­ries of heart at­tacks in 1977.

That year she agreed to lend her celebrity aura to Mur­jani In­ter­na­tional, which had been seek­ing a high-pro­file woman to help it cap­ture the sta­tus jeans mar­ket. Within a few short years, she be­came the queen of high-fash­ion jeans tai­lored for women with nor­mal, not model-thin, bod­ies.

The el­e­gant heiress with the slick page­boy and wide grin at­tracted crowds at depart­ment store pro­mo­tions and starred in an ad­ver­tis­ing blitzkrieg that showed off her denim-clad der­riere. By 1979, her line was mak­ing a re­ported $150 mil­lion a year for Mur­jani, sur­pass­ing the enor­mously pop­u­lar Calvin Klein jeans in sales. Her suc­cess earned her a spot in a 1990 Smithsonia­n ex­hibit on gen­der and style that in­cluded Glo­ria Van­der­bilt jeans along­side the cre­ations of such icons as Coco Chanel and Bill Blass.

In 1985, she pub­lished “Once Upon a Time,” which cov­ered her life to age 17. The first in a se­ries of au­to­bi­ogra­phies, it won high marks from crit­ics. The New York Times Book Re­view called it “an ex­traor­di­nary book ... a cry of the heart that speaks to the child in all of us.”

The peace Van­der­bilt had fi­nally achieved in the last half of her life was shat­tered on a sum­mer evening in 1978 when her son Carter, a 23-year-old Prince­ton grad­u­ate who was be­ing treated for de­pres­sion, vis­ited her Man­hat­tan pent­house.

She was in her bed­room when Carter sud­denly walked in, say­ing: “What’s go­ing on? What’s go­ing on?” Then he ran from the room.

She found him strad­dling a low wall that formed an out­side bal­cony. De­spite her en­treaties, he deftly climbed over the wall and let go.

His death, she later told an in­ter­viewer, “shat­tered the glass bub­ble I’ve al­ways felt I lived in.” She wanted to die. Not un­til months later, when she joined a sui­cide sup­port group, did she be­gin to feel she could go on liv­ing. She said she wrote “A Mother’s Story” in 1996 to share that hope with oth­ers who had ex­pe­ri­enced great tragedy. The slim vol­ume, writ­ten as a let­ter with flash­backs that one critic de­scribed as “at once grotesque and beau­ti­ful,” earned warm re­views.

“I have no re­spect for any­one that has self-pity,” Van­der­bilt told a re­porter in 2000. “It is a loath­some trait. No­body is spared in life. There is one big test as there is one big good­bye. Mine came early, that’s all — and I’m still here.”

New York Post By Elaine Woo

A TRUE TASTEMAKER Glo­ria Van­der­bilt, whose par­ents had squan­dered wealth, built a for­tune with her de­signer jeans.

As­so­ci­ated Press

‘POOR LIT­TLE RICH GIRL’ Glo­ria Van­der­bilt, ac­com­pa­nied by a body­guard, chauf­feur and nurse, en­ters the home of her mother, Glo­ria Mor­gan Van­der­bilt, in Mid­town Man­hat­tan for an Easter week­end visit in April 1935. Her mother and an aunt fought over her cus­tody in a 1934 trial.

Tony Palmieri Penske Me­dia/Shut­ter­stock

AN IN­FLU­EN­TIAL MOM Van­der­bilt with her sons An­der­son Cooper, left, and Carter Cooper at one of their mother’s fash­ion shows in 1978.

Key­stone/Hul­ton Ar­chive/Getty Im­ages

A FIRST MAR­RIAGE Van­der­bilt wed­ded Pasquale “Pat” Di Cicco in 1941. The tal­ent agent was ver­bally and phys­i­cally abu­sive to­ward her.

Hul­ton Ar­chive/Getty Im­ages

DIF­FI­CULT BE­GIN­NINGS Regi­nald Clay­poole Van­der­bilt and Glo­ria Laura Mor­gan with in­fant Glo­ria in 1925. Regi­nald Van­der­bilt died later that year.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.