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Gloria Vanderbilt at 100 – Mark McGinness

Blog | By Mark McGinness | Feb 20, 2024

Gloria Vanderbilt, 1958 (Library of Congress)

Gloria Vanderbilt would have been 100 today. Of course she will be forever remembered as “the poor little rich girl” but nearly all her obituaries also hailed her as a survivor. And a survivor she was.

That sense of humour and sense of fun. That old-world accent and, as Wendy Goodman, the author of The World of Gloria Vanderbilt, put it, “her velvet ribbon of a voice”. Her copper hair in a bob and that extraordinary grin – despite it all.

Veronica Horwell wrote evocatively in The Guardian,’[She] regularly updated her appearance & was frank about the surgery that enabled her to project not fake youth but a well-designed self: she had become the best of her artworks.’

In his history of the family, her son, the broadcaster Anderson Cooper observed the Vanderbilts created a fortune in one generation; became the richest in the word in the second & the first family in America in the third.

The patriarch and founding father was Cornelius ‘The Commodore’. The family had come from Utrecht in 1650 & by Cornelius’s birth in 1794 they were Staten Island vegetable farmers. At sixteen, he bought a ferry. By the civil war he lent the Government a fleet of his clippers. At 70 he expanded into rail and within 3 years he controlled New York Central Railroad and was the largest employer in the United States

At his death at 82, he left $95 million to his son heir Billy who nine years later left $62 million to each of his two surviving eldest sons, Cornelius II (Neily) and William Kissam.

In stepped some remarkable Vanderbilt wives who saw it as their time to spend that fortune. The family would build no fewer than ten mansions on New York’s Fifth Avenue.

Billy’s son, William Kissam, met Alva Smith, the daughter of an Alabama cotton planter and merchant. She had summered at Newport, was schooled in Paris and ripe for a rich heir. They wed in 1875 and had a daughter Consuelo and two sons.

The leader of New York, Caroline (THE Mrs Astor) and her ally and arbiter, Ward McAllister, believed the Vanderbilt cash too new and excluded Alva from their top 400.

So Alva built a copy of the Chateau de Blois at 660 on 5th Avenue. The 1883 housewarming was so grand that Caroline’s daughter was desperate to attend. Wily Alva professed she couldn’t possibly as she did not know Mrs Astor. Caroline climbed down, called on Alva and the Astors got to the ball,

In 1892 she had R. M. Hunt design the Marble House in Newport- modelled on the Temple of the Sun at Heliopolis - right next door to Mrs Astor’s Beechwood. She really put the built into Vanderbilt.

In 1895 Alva divorced William K and sold off Consuelo to the 9th Duke of Marlborough – saving Blenheim and its seven acres of roof.

Alice Gwynne Vanderbilt, wife of William Kassim’s brother Cornelius II, was also a force. She was so diffident she would not give her chauffeur directions to an address she knew - even after the chauffeur became hopelessly lost - because she thought it beneath her to speak to the man.

Alice presided over the family’s summer residence, Breakers, their 70-room Renaissance Revival mansion, Newport’s grandest “cottage”.

They inexplicably cut off their son Cornelius III for eloping with clever, rich, beauty Grace Wilson. The two got by on his $8.5million and what he made as a clever inventor. Grace would reign from 640 5th for 25 years. Queen Mary was a close friend & no Euro royal would visit the New York City without seeing Grace.

Some called her the Kingfisher but more called her Queen of New York.

Neily and Alice must have given up on disapproval by the time Cornelius III’s brother, Reginald Claypoole Vanderbilt (Reggie), their fourth and youngest son, came of age. An avid equestrian but also a gambler and alcoholic, he dissipated almost $25 million in fourteen years. In 1923, at 42 he married, as his second wife, one of the magnificent Morgans, 18-year-old Gloria (née Maria Mercedes Morgan).

Their daughter, Gloria Laura, was born on 20 February 1924. The family were so excited at her arrival that at her christening they forgot the water so Little Gloria was baptised in a bucket of White Rock club soda.

In September 1925, Reggie died of cirrhosis and at 18 months, Little Gloria inherited $2.5 million. For most of the next six years, as her administrator, Big Gloria led her daughter (and nurse Dodo) on a merry life in Paris, Biarritz, Monte Carlo and London.

As Little Gloria recalled in her memoir, Once Upon a Time (1985) “How I longed to merge into her. 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.”

The shooting/fallen star in her life was her mother’s identical twin, Thelma, wife of Marmaduke, Viscount Furness, the shipping tycoon; and mistress of David, the Prince of Wales, until early 1934, when she unwisely asked her friend, Wallis Simpson, to look after him while she visited her sister in America.

The Vanderbilts, led by Reggie’s sister, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, egged on by Little Gloria’s maternal grandmother, Laura Morgan, believed that 10-year-old Gloria was being neglected. And so, in October 1934, the ‘trial of the century’ took place in New York. Aunt Gertrude sought custody, claiming Big Gloria was unfit, citing affairs with Nada, Marchioness of Milford Haven and a Hohenlohe Prince. Little Gloria, who had been schooled, said in testimony that she hated her mother.

The case was meticulously recounted in Barbara Goldsmith’s Little Gloria ... Happy at Last (1980) and adapted for television in 1982 (It was quite a cast with Bette Davis as Alice Vanderbilt, Angela Lansbury as Gertrude; and Christopher Plummer as Reggie). Gloria herself covered the event in Once Upon a Time (1985). Here was proof, mid-Depression, that money could not buy happiness.

Although Aunt Gertrude won, Gloria would later write, “As soon as my aunt was allowed to take charge of me, she lost interest.” And so she was raised by grandmother Laura.

In Hollywood at seventeen, having escaped her aunt and living with her mother, she captivated Howard Hughes but, at eighteen, married actor’s agent (and possible mobster), Pasquale (Pat) DiCicco. On their wedding night, the bride waited for him to join her. She woke in the morning to find him in the next room playing gin rummy with Zeppo Marx. She endured three years of abuse and they divorced in 1945.

She eloped to Mexico with the conductor, Leopold Stokowski, who, at 62, was 42 years her senior. They had two sons, Leopold (Stan) and Christopher. Some years into their marriage, in awe of the famed conductor, she suffered a nervous breakdown. While he urged her to stop supporting her mother he did not discourage her from painting and acting - in which she showed some promise.

In 1954, she debuted in a Pocono Playhouse production of Ferenc Molnar’s “The Swan” and the following year in a Broadway revival of William Saroyan’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play, “The Time of Your Life"

She mastered painting, textiles, acting & modeling and was a favourite of Richard Avedon. She was often credited with inspiring Truman Capote’s Holly Golightly, heroine of Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1958). But it seems the original was her friend Carole Grace Saroyan (later Matthau) (although she may have inspired Mag Wildwood, Holly’s best friend.) Capote’s notorious short story, “La Cote Basque” part of his last book, Answered Prayers (1975), effectively ended their friendship after he portrayed her as a vacuous multi-marrying adventuress, who did not recognise a former husband.

As her marriage to Stokowski was failing she had an affair with Marlon Brando who had just completed On The Waterfront and was at his physical peak. “If Leopold was God, here was Zeus,” she said.

Frank Sinatra was her next love. He remained her White Knight and gave her the confidence to leave Stokowski.

The director, Sidney Lumet, became her third husband and that union lasted 1963. She blamed herself for its failure.

Then, in 1964, she married her fourth and last husband. With Wyatt Emory Cooper, an author, screenwriter and great friend of Dorothy Parker, she had two more sons, Carter and Anderson. He proved to be the love of her life and a good father. Of Gloria he wrote, " …. she is a creature of some other mystery not altogether of this world, part wood nymph, part Earth Mother, and part American Beauty rose … She is as exotic as a unicorn and as subtle as an Egyptian temple cat … If she has not made of herself a living work of art, she’s come damn close, or as close as anybody I’d ever want to meet."

He died in 1978 after a series of heart attacks. The death ten years later of their elder son Carter, a 23-year-old Princeton graduate, was even more devastating. He had been depressed but it was still a totally unexpected tragedy when he went to the ledge of his mother's apartment and despite her pleas, let go.

She eventually joined a suicide support group and in 1996 wrote A Mother’s Story for other who had suffered loss.

Her greatest success were her GV blue jeans. Her name appeared on millions of hips. Her success as great as the Commodore’s. In 1980, she earned $10 million; but not long after she lost it all – defrauded by her psychiatrist and her lawyer.

In 2009, when she was 85, she published an erotic novel, Obsession, about a woman who discovers her late husband’s affair with a dominatrix. The New York Times acclaimed it as “the steamiest book ever written by an octogenarian.”

At the same age – 85 - she astonished her son, Anderson, by offering to bear him a child, claiming her doctor thought she could carry one.

Her last book, another memoir, The Rainbow Comes and Goes (2016), was written with Anderson.

At 91, four years before she died (on 17 June 2019), she quoted Woody Allen, who, when asked whether he’d like to live on in the hearts of people after he died, replied, “I’d prefer to live on in my apartment”.