Gloria Vanderbilt, Heiress With a Knack for Reinvention, Dies at 95

Courtesy of Photofest
Gloria Vanderbilt in 1975.

Born into a life of privilege, Anderson Cooper's mom forged her own identity as an actress, author, blue jeans designer and businesswoman.

Gloria Vanderbilt, who was thrust into the spotlight as a child heiress before going on to establish herself as an actress, artist, author, fashion icon and socialite, died Monday. She was 95.

Vanderbilt, whose life included a nasty battle for her custody when she was 10, a string of high-profile relationships that began when she was still a teen, four marriages and the suicide of one of her children, died of stomach cancer at her Manhattan home.

"Gloria Vanderbilt was an extraordinary woman who loved life and lived it on her own terms," said son Anderson Cooper in an on-air eulogy that aired Monday morning on CNN. Cooper said they learned she had advanced cancer only this month. "She spent a lot of time alone in her head during her life, but when the end came she was not alone. She was surrounded by beauty and by family and by friends."

During the on-air report, Cooper played a recorded video of his mother laughing while they were together in the hospital. "I never knew that we had the same exact giggle. I recorded it, and it makes me giggle every time I watch it," he said in the touching news segment. "What an extraordinary life. What an extraordinary mom. What an incredible woman."

Vanderbilt never let her travails define her. Instead, she forged her own identity through her artistic endeavors. She appeared on both the stage and television in the 1950s. In the '70s, as one of the pioneers of designer jeans, she took the fashion world by storm. The brand that began with Gloria Vanderbilt Jeans branched into other clothing items, perfume and home goods, earning her millions in her own right.

In recent years, Vanderbilt gained attention for a different reason — as the mother of broadcast journalist Cooper. The two appeared together on his CNN program Anderson Live and were the focus of Liz Garbus' 2016 HBO documentary Nothing Left Unsaid: Gloria Vanderbilt and Anderson Cooper, which featured a series of candid conversations between mother and son.

"My mom has lived many different lives and has inhabited many different skins," Cooper says in the documentary. "She has this public face, but the reality of her life is so different than what the public face is."

Vanderbilt was so prolific, it prompted Life magazine to dub her "a feminine version of the Renaissance Man" in 1968.

Born in New York City on Feb. 20, 1924, Gloria Laura Vanderbilt was the daughter of railroad heir Reginald Vanderbilt and Gloria Morgan, his second wife. According to the 1989 book Fortune's Children: The Fall of the House of Vanderbilt, her father was heard to say when Gloria was born: "It is fantastic how Vanderbilt she looks! See the corners of her eyes, how they turn up?"

An alcoholic, Reginald succumbed to cirrhosis of the liver when Gloria was only 18 months old, and she inherited half of a $5 million trust fund. (The other share went to Gloria's half-sister, Cathleen.)

As Gloria's mother was only 20 at the time of her husband's death, she was not legally allowed to control the trust fund. Instead, it was administered by a New York surrogate court judge. Morgan petitioned the court to release $4,000 a month to care for her daughter, but she used the money to fuel an international nonstop party, spending months traveling through Europe and cavorting with the likes of the Prince of Wales, who was having an affair with Morgan's twin sister.

Meanwhile, the young Gloria was left in the care of her grandmother, Laura Kilpatrick Morgan, and her nurse, Emma Kieslich.

Gloria Morgan's neglect of her child finally caught up with her in 1934 when her sister-in-law, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney (a sculptor and patron of the arts who founded NYC's Whitney Museum in 1931), sued for custody of the child. The newspapers had a field day, calling her "the poor little rich girl" and dubbing it "The Trial of the Century." Reports surfaced of Morgan's "alleged erotic interest in women." The defense countered that much of Whitney's work featured nudes, undoubtedly an immoral influence on her niece.

After five weeks of salacious testimony, the judge awarded Whitney custody of the youngster. (The events were re-created in the 1982 NBC miniseries Little Gloria … Happy at Last. Starring Angela Lansbury, Bette Davis, Christopher Plummer, Martin Balsam and Maureen Stapleton, it received six Emmy nominations.)

But Vanderbilt's life in the public eye was just getting started. She was still in her teens when she appeared in a photo spread for Harper's Bazaar. She headed to Hollywood and developed a fondness for older men; Errol Flynn, Ray Milland and Howard Hughes were among those she dated. At 17, she married Hollywood agent Pat DiCicco.

The two divorced four years later (Vanderbilt would reveal that DiCicco had abused her emotionally and physically). But before the marriage was officially over, Vanderbilt was already in love with conductor Leopold Stokowski, and they wed in 1945. She was 21, he was 63. During their 10-year marriage, they had two sons, Stanley and Christopher.

After reported flings with Frank Sinatra and Marlon Brando, Vanderbilt wed director Sidney Lumet in 1956, and they stayed together until 1963.

Four months after divorcing, Vanderbilt married for the fourth and final time, to writer Wyatt Cooper in 1963. The marriage produced two sons, Carter and Anderson. Wyatt Cooper died in 1978 during open-heart surgery. A decade later, as Vanderbilt watched, Carter, then 23, committed suicide by jumping from his mother's 14th-floor New York penthouse terrace.

During the 1950s, Vanderbilt studied with artist and Metropolitan Museum of Art curator Robert Beverly Hale at the Art Students League. Her first solo exhibit opened in 1952 at the Bertha Schaefer Gallery. In 1969, a collection of collages using fine line drawing, painting, fabric and decoupage were exhibited at the Hammer Galleries.

Dream Boxes, Vanderbilt's macabre, doll-filled installations, debuted in 1996 at KS Art. The gallery repeated the one-woman exhibition in 2001. Dream Boxes also went on exhibit in 2002 and 2007 at the Southern Vermont Arts Center. In 2008, Vanderbilt's Dream Box Heart's Desire was installed as part of the permanent collection at New Jersey's Grounds for Sculpture. 1stdibs Gallery featured the exhibit, The Left Hand Is the Dreamer, a collection of drawings, paintings and collages, in 2014.

The 1950s also saw Vanderbilt try her hand at acting. She attended New York's Neighborhood Playhouse, studying with Sanford Meisner. Her stage debut came in 1954, playing the lead in The Swan at the Pocono Playhouse in Mountainhome, Pennsylvania.

The following year, she appeared on Broadway as Elsie in a revival of William Saroyan's The Time of Your Life. The production, which also featured John Carradine, John Randolph, Franchot Tone and Doris Roberts, closed after 15 performances.

Into the 1960s, Vanderbilt built her television résumé with roles on Producers' Showcase, Studio One in Hollywood, Kraft Television Theatre, Playhouse 90, The United States Steel Hour and Shirley Temple's Storybook. She also could be seen as herself in Person to Person, The Colgate Comedy Hour and Art Carney Special.

The year 1955 marked the beginning of her writing career with the publication of Love Poems.

In 1985, her memoir, Once Upon a Time: A True Story, was released. She penned works of fiction — The Memory Book of Starr Faithfull (1994), Obsession (2009), The Things We Fear the Most (2011) — and nonfiction, including It Seemed Important at the Time: A Romance Memoir (2004), in which she offered details of her real-life loves, and A Mother's Story (1997), where she wrote about her son's suicide.

Through the years, Vanderbilt was a darling of the New York social scene. One constant companion, Truman Capote, is said to have based Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany's on her.

In 1969, Vanderbilt's artwork led to one of her most successful reincarnations — as a fashion designer. One night, Johnny Carson showcased her Hammer Gallery exhibit on The Tonight Show. Donald Hall, CEO of Hallmark, and Lewis Bloom, president of Bloomcraft, saw the broadcast, and her artwork evolved into designs for Hallmark paper products and decorative fabrics for Bloomcraft. She expanded her designs into home furnishings.

Vanderbilt broke into fashion in 1976, when Glentex commissioned a collection of her paintings for their scarves. That year, she founded GV Ltd., a ready-to-wear company. Her career as a fashion designer took off when she partnered with Mohan Murjani.

While working at his blouse company, she was presented with an idea that would bring her even more wealth and fame.

Vanderbilt told People magazine in 2016 how she was designing blouses for Murjani when the company's president, Warren Hirsh, mentioned something that set her creative juices flowing. "He said, 'Murjani's, they've got all this denim fabric stored away in Hong Kong.' So I said, 'Why don't we make jeans, a really great fit jean?'"

Formfitting and emblazoned with her name and a swan logo (inspired by her 1954 theatrical debut), the Gloria Vanderbilt Jeans line was an immediate hit. Vanderbilt helped fuel the success by acting as spokesperson — unheard of at the time for a designer. She sold the rights to her name to the Murjani Group in 1978 and went on with GV Ltd. In addition to jeans, Vanderbilt's name could be found on perfume, shoes, linens, blouses, sheets, leather goods — even a frozen dessert.

Vanderbilt partnered with L'Oreal on a series of fragrances between 1982 and 2002. The first scent, Vanderbilt for women, was a popular mass-market perfume in the 1980s.

By the '90s, her finances took a downturn. Vanderbilt blamed it in part on her former lawyer and her psychiatrist, claiming they had defrauded her of $2 million. She sued. During the course of the trial, the lawyer died. The court ruled in Vanderbilt's favor and awarded her nearly $1.5 million, but she saw none of it.

The New York Bar Association did give her $300,000 from its Victims of Fraud fund, but Vanderbilt learned that she owed millions in back taxes (her lawyer had never paid the IRS). She was forced to sell her Southampton and Manhattan homes to pay the debt and soldiered on.

In 2016, she and Anderson partnered on the book The Rainbow Comes and Goes: A Mother and Son on Life, Love and Loss. The title was inspired by a Wordsworth poem, she explained when they appeared on Charlie Rose's PBS show.

"I'm fascinated by Anderson's interpretation of what the title means," she said. "The rainbow comes and goes … it goes, that's the end of it, [he believes]. My interpretation is it comes back again."

Said Cooper: "My mom's an eternal optimist. Even at 92, she believes the next great love, the next great adventure, is around the corner."