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‘Poor Little Rich Girl,’ fashion icon, heiress Gloria Vanderbilt, 95

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GLORIA VANDERBILT speaks at a panel for the HBO documentary Nothing Left Unsaid during the Television Critics Association Cable Winter Press Tour in Pasadena, California, on Jan. 7, 2016. — REUTERS

By Joseph L. Garcia, Reporter

IS IT possible for anyone to truly have it all? Gloria Laura Vanderbilt; socialite, artist, writer, and designer, died in her Manhattan home in June 17, 2019 aged 95. The life she led sought to answer the question.

Ms. Vanderbilt is remembered by younger generations mostly as the mother of CNN news anchor Anderson Cooper, but in her heyday, she was the news.

The question of having it all was undoubtedly in the minds of the masses in the midst of the Great Depression in the 1930s. For the answer, they looked to heiresses who were usually blessed with a good name, good looks, good education, and good amounts of money: all ingredients for a great life. From this milieu emerged the so-called Poor Little Rich Girls: Doris Duke, Brenda Frazier, Barbara Hutton, and Gloria Vanderbilt. The lives of these women, frequently plastered in the press, seemed to prove that no one could truly have it all: all their money and privilege couldn’t save them from themselves. At least, Ms. Vanderbilt, youngest of this set, and of the same mold, made the effort to save herself, and won. Perhaps therein lies the answer: it isn’t about getting it all, but the steps we take to get there.

Ms. Vanderbilt already had a handicap: her father, wealthy heir Reginald Claypoole Vanderbilt, had died when she was a baby in 1925, and little Gloria lived a peripatetic life with her mother, the fabulous Gloria Morgan Vanderbilt. The young and beautiful Mrs. Vanderbilt was the twin sister of Thelma, Lady Furness, who became a mistress of the future Edward VIII. The unstable life led by Mrs. Vanderbilt, as well as the possible control she would have over Gloria’s eventual inheritance prompted a bitter custody battle between the child’s mother and the child’s paternal aunt, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney. The custody trial in 1934 was sensationalized by the press as “The Trial of the Century,” and by the time she was 10, little Gloria’s face was already on newsreels and newspapers (certainly not an easy experience). Mrs. Whitney won custody over her niece, and Gloria was raised in luxury and a measure of loneliness in the family’s properties in New York.

The young Gloria’s talent in the arts would be honed at the home of her aunt, an artist and the founder of the Whitney Museum, and at several schools: the Greenvale School, Miss Porter’s School, the Wheeler School, and at the Art Students League. There would be marriages: she first married at the age of 17 to Hollywood agent Pat DiCicco, whom she alleged had abused her. In 1945, at 21, she married the 63-year-old conductor Leopold Stokowski, with whom she had two children. The marriage ended in divorce, and then she would marry a third time, to film director Sydney Lumet. She married her final husband, Wyatt Emory Cooper, who would father two sons, Carter and Anderson. “I think we should always be in love,” she told her son during an interview.




Ms. Vanderbilt had the option not to work, but she threw herself into it completely. She dabbled in acting and modeling; painted, wrote, and designed everything from household linens to greeting cards. From her work as a model and muse for some of the world’s most famous photographers and designers, Ms. Vanderbilt would join the other side as a designer herself. In the 1970s, Ms. Vanderbilt designed a line of jeans, moving on to other items of clothing, known for her signature and the golden swan label. While the items were eagerly snapped up by shoppers for bearing her famous name, there was a real aesthetic quality and value to her clothes, which flattered the female wearer immensely.

This would have been a perfect ending to this story. Unfortunately, her husband would die in 1978, and she would lose a son, Carter, to suicide in 1988. She would also face legal battles in the years to come over her finances after she accused her business partners and lawyers of defrauding her.

In time, she would heal. She had kept her patrician good looks all the way to her 90s, and remained young at heart: in her later years, she would see herself publishing several articles and books, including an erotic novel, and continued to create art, even opening exhibits in her 80s. She was active on social media platforms: her Instagram account attracted 207,000 followers, and her last post was dated seven days before her death from cancer.

Time is the greatest luxury of all, and even the greatest fortunes could not buy one second more than what we have been given. Ms. Vanderbilt was fortunate to have reached the grand age of 95, but even then it wasn’t enough. In a poignant seven-minute obituary on CNN from a son to his mother, Mr. Cooper said, “I know she hoped for a little more time, a few days or weeks at least. There were paintings that she wanted to make, more books that she wanted to read, more dreams to dream. But she was ready. She was ready to go.”

As for the other Poor Little Rich Girls, Misses Frazier and Hutton both died just in their 60s, fortunes reduced; fast lives wreaking havoc on their health. Ms. Duke lived up to 80, fortune intact, but her mind and body in a state of confusion. Ms. Vanderbilt outlived them all. As she died on June 17, 2019, she took with her the final glimmer of a world that no longer exists. Mr. Cooper said in his obituary, “I always thought of her as a visitor from another world, a traveler stranded here who’d come from a distant star that burned out long ago.”

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