Growing up on the other side of the country, I didn’t know much about Gloria Vanderbilt. I only knew that my mom—and my grandma—liked her jeans. They were special. Fancy. “Chic.” I didn’t know what chic meant until I moved to New York and realized who the woman was behind that signature swan logo—and discovered this fixture of Manhattan royalty practically invented the term.
“Renaissance woman” has been such a cliche to describe Vanderbilt that Life magazine used it back in 1968. Actually, they called her “the feminine version of a Renaissance man.” At that point, Vanderbilt had been famous for decades, cycled in and out of a few marriages, and had enough nouns attached to her name to make even the hardest-working woman not feel up to snuff.
And now that the author, artist, fashion designer, actress, and heiress has died at the age of 95, at home while surrounded by friends, it’s time to reflect on the woman whose life spanned far beyond hip-hugging denim. One of her four children—inarguably her most famous—Anderson Cooper, once said of his beloved mother that she had been “famous for longer than anyone else alive.” He works in news; you know he’s telling the truth.
On Monday morning, Cooper appeared on CNN with an on-air eulogy:
“Gloria Vanderbilt was an extraordinary woman who loved life and lived it on her own terms,” he said. “What an extraordinary life. What an extraordinary mom. What an incredible woman.”
You can read many stories about Gloria Vanderbilt, including four memoirs chronicling her tumultuous childhood, motherhood, and love affairs. (Yes, she dated Frank Sinatra. And Marlon Brando. And Howard Hughes. And Gene Kelly. Won’t someone write the biopic already?) But the most probing exercise might be to take a scroll through her Instagram, created on the advice of Anderson, and which instigated Town & Country to label her an “It” girl at 93 years old. (“Well, why not?” she replied.)
Because with those carefully chosen images comes the rest of her larger-than-life story: Growing up as the heiress to the Vanderbilt railroad and shipping fortune; spirited away to Europe by her young mother, Gloria Morgan, after her father, Reginald Claypoole Vanderbilt, died unexpectedly when she was a year old; the bitter custody battle that ensued when her aunt Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, art aficionado and founder of the Whitney Museum of American Art, claimed her mother was “unfit” to raise her. (Maybe she was. She was only 18 when she married.) Gertrude was granted custody, but the trial sparked yellow journalism at its most fluorescent. Money! (The family had a lot of it.) Power! (But who would keep it?) Sex! (Was Gloria’s mother having an affair with a woman?!) It’s no wonder that decades later Gloria claimed the cartoon character she most related to was Little Orphan Annie.
At the time of the publicity-soaked trial, Gloria was only 10, and would remain in the papers for the rest of her life. But she chose a curious route. Instead of ducking from the public eye, she posed for it, gladly. She modeled for Richard Avedon and Horst P. Horst, and shared an image of her posing at 17, hair coiffed and body paralyzed by fear: “I was a frightened child desperate to be an adult.” She was raised by a nanny named Dodo and later partied with Salvador Dali and entertained Dorothy Parker and Charlie Chaplin.
Modeling wasn’t all. She studied acting with Sanford Meisner and even went to star on Broadway. She was a poet and a painter—throwing herself her one-woman art exhibitions of her watercolors and pastels—and channeled her life through her art. Oh, yes, and there were the blue jeans. And scarves, sheets, shoes. Fragrances. The scope and breadth of her creativity is quite remarkable, when you think about it. As she compulsively worked over her own life story, in words and through images, it was almost like she was turning over all the rocks before someone else could.
There were some sizable rocks. Vanderbilt married at 17 to the agent Pat DiCicco, whom she later said was abusive; had a May-December marriage with the conductor Leopold Stokowski with whom she had two sons; married the director Sidney Lumet and stayed married for seven years; and finally married Wyatt Emory Cooper, who she was with until his unexpected death. They had two children together, Anderson, and his brother, Carter, who committed suicide when he was 23 by jumping from the balcony of his mother’s 14th-floor penthouse. Gloria watched it happen. “Not a day goes by that I do not think of him,” she said on the 30th anniversary of his death. “He is close to me because he lives in my mind and heart forever.”
Her remarkable poise and lingering optimism in the face of a full and challenging life—you know it was challenging when the scandal of your lawyer and psychiatrist bilking you out of millions of dollars warrants only a footnote—is what made her such a fascinating figure. Her own curiosity for life made her one to watch for decades.
If you journeyed to her Upper East Side apartment, you’d find a cavalcade of colors and patterns; a fireplace she’d painted many times over with inspirational quotes; a near life-size portrait of her mother; and her own work covering every inch of wall. To some, the mishmash might appear suffocating (Anderson himself appreciates a much more muted palette), but to Vanderbilt, this was just life. Big, loud, colorful, ever-changing. Combine that with a good pair of blue jeans, and what more could you need?
But for all her wealth that came and went and came again, she seemed remarkably… normal. “I paint, I read, I have my peanut butter and jelly sandwich for lunch, and then I paint some more and read some more,” she told W around the time her Instagram captured a new audience. She was also a prolific writer. Aside from the memoirs, her keen eye was transposed into books on home decor, and she casually dropped an erotic novel titled Obsession when she was 85. No big whoop for Gloria.
Vanderbilt and Anderson Cooper remained remarkably close throughout their lives—she was his steadfast cheering section, he often said, supporting every move he made—even publishing a book of their emails, The Rainbow Comes and Goes, and filming a documentary, Nothing Left Unsaid, together, directed by Liz Garbus.
But Instagram somehow shows Gloria at her most unfiltered (and entrepreneurial—she sold her paintings there, too). After her birthday in 2018, Vanderbilt posted this caption, which sums up how a person who lived nine decades might feel about time: “Upon turning 94 my first thoughts are of Einstein, who said, ‘The distance between past, present and future is only an illusion however persistent. Time comes from the future which does not yet exist, into the present, which has no duration, and goes into the past which has ceased to exist.’”
During an interview around her final years, Vanderbilt was asked if she believed in God, and she said she believed instead in a collective energy, and that when we die, “we become part of the collective consciousness and energy, and then we are reborn again—not within the identity that we had when we died, but we continue to be reborn as part of that collective energy.”
True to form, she also had detailed requests for her funeral: She would like to be dressed in a Fortuny gown, would not like to have funeral cosmeticians do her face, and requested Judy Collins sing “Amazing Grace.”
That was Gloria, graceful to the end.