Written by Robert D. McFadden
Gloria Vanderbilt, the society heiress who stitched her illustrious family name into designer jeans and built a $100 million fashion empire, crowning her tabloid story of a child-custody fight, of broken marriages and of jet-set romances, died Monday at her home in Manhattan. She was 95.
Her death was confirmed by her son Anderson Cooper, the CNN journalist in a broadcast.
To millions of women (and men) who wore her jeans, blouses, scarves, shoes, jewelry and perfumes, who saw her alabaster face, jet-black hair and slim figure in magazines, and who watched her move across a television screen and proclaim that her svelte jeans “really hug your derrière,” Vanderbilt was an alluring, faintly naughty fashion diva in the 1970s.
But behind the flair and the practiced, throaty whisper — a plummy voice redolent of Miss Porter’s School and summers in Newport — there were hints of a little girl from the 1930s who stuttered terribly, too shy and miserable to express her feelings, and of a tumultuous American life chronicled faithfully in the gossip columns: every twist of her Hollywood affairs, her loneliness, bursts of creativity and the blow of witnessing the suicide of a son.
Eventually, too, the press reported on her real successes in the fashion industry — and on her late-in-life tax, legal and money problems — and reexamined her life of turmoil with deeper interest. There were laudatory reviews of her memoirs, which looked back on the painful betrayals of lovers, husbands and her parents — a playboy father she never knew and a negligent teenage mother, whom she forgave.
She was America’s most famous non-Hollywood child in the Roaring Twenties and Depression years, the great-great granddaughter of the 19th-century railroad and steamship magnate Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt. In infancy, she inherited a $2.5 million trust fund, equivalent to $37 million today, which she could not touch until she was 21, though her mother gained access to nearly $50,000 a year.
Newspapers called her a poor little rich girl. Her alcoholic father died when she was a baby. Her mother left her with a nanny and partied across Europe on her money for years. When Gloria was 10, her mother and a wealthy aunt sued each other in the era’s most sensational child-custody case. The aunt exposed her mother’s escapades and won custody of a child left traumatized.
Growing up in her aunt’s mansions in New York City and on Long Island, with servants, chauffeurs, lawyers, tutors, private schools and trips abroad, Vanderbilt searched for fulfillment as an artist, a fashion model, a poet, a playwright and an actress of stage, screen and television. She had affairs with Errol Flynn, Frank Sinatra, Gene Kelly, Howard Hughes and Marlon Brando.
Her friends were Charlie Chaplin, Diane von Furstenberg, Bobby Short and Truman Capote, who was said to have modeled the character Holly Golightly after her in his 1958 novella, “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.” (Audrey Hepburn played the part in the 1961 film adaptation.) Vanderbilt surfaced regularly in society columns and on lists of best-dressed women in America.
She married and divorced three men — a mobster who beat her; conductor Leopold Stokowski, who was 42 years older and preoccupied with his own career; and film director Sidney Lumet. In her later years photographer Gordon Parks, who died in 2006, was her companion.
Vanderbilt had two sons with Stokowski and two with her fourth husband, Wyatt Cooper, who died at 50 in 1978. One son was Anderson; another, Carter Cooper, fell to his death from her Manhattan penthouse at 23. He had been hanging from a terrace wall and, despite her pleas, as she later described the moment, let go.
Jeans, and a Style Empire
In the mid-1970s, when jeans were cut mostly for men, the clothing manufacturer Mohan Murjani signed Vanderbilt to market jeans for women with her signature on the back pocket. She promoted them in memorable television ad campaigns and public appearances, setting new trends in apparel marketing as the first American to exploit a famous family name on designer clothing. (Others, like Calvin Klein, were self-made status symbols.) Her national in-store promotional tours were like movie-star appearances.
Gloria Vanderbilt jeans soon became a $100 million-a-year business, with skirts, sweaters, jackets, linens and fragrances joining her growing product lines. After years of living on inherited money, Vanderbilt had a share of the profits and a burgeoning income of her own — $10 million in 1980 alone — and it felt good.
“I’m not knocking inherited money,” she told The New York Times in 1985, “but the money I’ve made has a reality to me that inherited money doesn’t have. As the Billie Holiday song goes, ‘Mama may have and Papa may have, but God bless the child that’s got his own.’”
As competition from other designer labels increased in the late 1980s, however, her fashion income faded. She continued to spend lavishly, a lifelong habit, and gossip columnists reported that she had fallen on hard times. A partnership she formed with her lawyer and a psychiatrist soured. In 1993, she sued them and won a $1.5 million judgment, but collected almost nothing.
Two years later, she was hit with federal and state liens for back taxes totaling $2.7 million, and had to sell her East Side town house and her home in Southampton, New York, to satisfy the judgments. She denied being broke, but she moved into a small Manhattan apartment owned by Anderson Cooper. The place was “not appropriate to my feelings about sunlight and beauty,” she said, but she insisted that she still had “my talent and my energy.”
As her fashion income dried up, Vanderbilt resumed writing, and it all came pouring out — poetry, short stories, novels, including erotic tales, and a series of autobiographies that detailed early years of isolation and misery, middle years of romance and creative struggles, and later years as a wife, mother and entrepreneur. Critics generally applauded.
In a 1985 memoir, “Once Upon a Time: A True Story,” Vanderbilt wrote in the voice of a child about her parents. In a review for The Times, Barbara Grizzuti Harrison called the book “immensely sad,” noting that the author had never been poor, but in a way was “as impoverished as any child in any mean slum.”
“She never enjoyed the greatest privilege of all — that of being poised and grounded in maternal love,” Harrison wrote. “Her book, a series of deft verbal snapshots, is a haunting lament for that primal love, a cry of the heart that speaks to the child in all of us.”
Born to Privilege
Gloria Laura Morgan Vanderbilt was born in Manhattan Lying-In Hospital on Feb. 20, 1924, the only child of Reginald Claypoole Vanderbilt and his second wife, Gloria Morgan Vanderbilt. Her father was a sportsman-playboy who had squandered much of his own $25 million inheritance. Her mother was a self-indulgent beauty and jet-set precursor. They lived in New York and at the Breakers, the Vanderbilt estate in Newport, Rhode Island.
Little Gloria, as the family called her, and her much-older half sister, Mary Cathleen, her father’s daughter by a previous marriage, who lived in another household, jointly inherited a $5 million trust fund when their father died in 1925. Gloria’s mother, legally a minor, could not control the trust, but won a court-approved $4,000-a-month allowance to raise her child. She used it for years to support her own lavish party life in Paris, London, Biarritz, the Swiss Alps and the Riviera.
There were passing parallels between Little Gloria and Little Orphan Annie, with whom she identified all her life. The Harold Gray comic strip character was born in New York in The Daily News six months after Gloria, and led a similarly precarious life of dislocations and adventures. (Gloria collected Little Orphan Annie mugs and other memorabilia.)
Gloria, too, had a lonely, insecure childhood, parked in Paris for months on end or trailing her mother around Europe with a nurse, Emma Sullivan Keislich, who, with a maternal grandmother, Laura Kilpatrick Morgan, provided some emotional support.
Gloria returned to New York in 1932 to have her tonsils out and stayed the summer to recuperate with her paternal aunt, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, a sculptor, widow of Harry Payne Whitney and founder of the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. She was said to be America’s richest woman.
Swayed by reports from private detectives, family servants and Gloria herself, Whitney concluded that the mother was a horrendous influence on the child, and extended her stay indefinitely. After a court cut her allowance, the mother sued to get Gloria and the allowance back. Whitney countersued to keep her niece.
The ensuing child-custody battle in state Supreme Court in New York riveted and scandalized the nation for 13 weeks in 1934 with lurid testimony of a mother’s greed, debauchery and cold indifference to the girl — accounts magnified by hearsay evidence and sensationalized reports in the tabloid press. In the depths of the Depression, the case confirmed Americans’ worst impressions of the superrich.
When Gloria testified, the judge cleared the courtroom. People outside heard weeping and wailing as the girl, coached by her aunt’s lawyers, sealed the outcome by telling the judge she “hated” her mother and wanted to remain with her aunt. Gloria later gave similar testimony in chambers to an appellate judge. The judge granted her wish, but gave her mother visiting rights.
Charges of moral unfitness against the mother were dropped. She retained a smaller allowance for Gloria’s maintenance, but lost rights to the girl’s trust fund. Vanderbilt later recalled that her mother rarely visited her, and that Aunt Gertrude told her once, but only once and never again, that she loved her.
Living at her aunt’s estate at Old Westbury, Gloria attended the Green Vale School on Long Island, and later Miss Porter’s School in Farmington, Connecticut, and the Wheeler School in Providence, Rhode Island. She recalled being taunted by schoolmates and communicating with her aunt mainly through lawyers.
But she developed interests in art, writing and the theater. She painted, kept a diary and gave her first stage performance at Wheeler in Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town,” portraying Emily Webb Gibbs, who dies in childbirth and in a reincarnation realizes that life is scarcely appreciated by the living.
Gloria dropped out of school at 17, joined her mother in Beverly Hills and was soon a glamorous figure on the Hollywood party circuit. She had flings with film stars and Howard Hughes, and in 1941 married Pasquale di Cicco, an actors’ agent and associate of the mob boss Charles “Lucky” Luciano. Di Cicco beat Gloria often and they were divorced in 1945.
She quickly married the 63-year-old Stokowski, with whom she had two sons, Leopold Stanislaus Stokowski, who was known as Stan, and Christopher. They survive her, as does Anderson Cooper. Complete information on survivors was not immediately available.
As a mother, society figure and wife of Stokowski, famed for his long association with the Philadelphia Orchestra, she settled down to a relatively quiet life in New York. She turned 21 and came into her trust fund, which had grown to $4.5 million. (Her sister, Mary Cathleen Cushing, died in 1946.)
Vanderbilt painted and showed abstracts, tried fashion modeling and wrote poetry, and even an unproduced play. She largely subordinated herself to her husband’s career, which often took him away on tours, but her outgoing persona reemerged in 1954. She acted in summer stock and made her television debut in Noël Coward’s “Tonight at 8:30.”
In 1955 she published “Love Poems,” largely drawn from her diaries, and appeared in television dramas, a Broadway revival of William Saroyan’s “The Time of Your Life,” and a summer stock production of William Inge’s “Picnic,” directed by Lumet. Later that year, she and Stokowski were divorced. She went through another bitter custody fight, this time for her own children, and won.
Vanderbilt married Lumet in 1956. They were divorced in 1963. Later that year, she married Wyatt Cooper, a writer. It was her happiest marriage, she often said, lasting 15 years until his death in 1978 during heart surgery. (Lumet died in 2011.)
Vanderbilt recalled golden summers in the 1970s with Cooper, whom she called Daddy, and their sons in Southampton: Anderson and Carter bringing in wildflowers and eliciting stories from their mother’s childhood, which she idealized.
By then, she had begun her fashion career, a creation of Murjani’s visionary president, Warren Hirsh.
“The marketing of Gloria Vanderbilt jeans is one of the most dramatic American business success stories of the decade,” The Times reported in 1979. “The key to its success was the marriage of a great name, Vanderbilt, to jeans, which began as the uniform of student demonstrators of the ’60s and developed into the fashion phenomenon of the ’70s.”
From 1978 to 1984, she earned more than $17 million. She had long since abandoned her interest when the Gloria Vanderbilt Apparel Corp. was sold to the Jones Apparel Group in 2002 for $100 million.
A Writing Life
Vanderbilt wrote occasionally for The Times, Vanity Fair and Elle. Besides several novels, many short stories and books on collages and home design, she wrote a series of memoirs, including “Black Knight, White Knight” (1987), on her first and second marriages, and “A Mother’s Story” (1995), about harsh events in her life, particularly Carter’s suicide in 1988.
She described it in detail: his dash across the terrace of her 14th-floor East Side penthouse, straddling the parapet as she screamed and pleaded, swinging his legs over the side, hanging momentarily, then letting go. It was, she wrote, “the final loss, the fatal loss that stripped me bare.”
Two other memoirs, 20 years apart, conveyed forgiveness for the mother who had neglected her in childhood and who died in 1965. The first, “Once Upon a Time” (1985), was dedicated to her. In lyrical prose, she acknowledged her longing for a mother who had become as mysterious as a lover: “Her face softer than any flower, the petal of her skin pulling at me with its beauty. How I longed to merge into her.”
Vanderbilt’s 2004 memoir, “It Seemed Important at the Time,” reminisced at length on her affairs with Brando, Sinatra, Kelly, Hughes and other Hollywood legends. “Shall I start with scandal, or broken dreams? With great love, or shattering loss?” she wrote, inviting readers into her guiltless ruminations.
But she also offered an explanation for her lifelong fascination with sex and romance.
“I would have to say that the love of my life was my mother,” she wrote. “The men are substitutes, let’s say, substitutes for my old sweetheart.”