Gloria Vanderbilt Heiress And Jeans Queen Dies at 95: American heiress Gloria Vanderbilt, a designer and artist who became one of the most chronicled socialites of her era, died Monday at the age of 95, after a battle with stomach cancer. The great-great-granddaughter of railroad tycoon Cornelius Vanderbilt was thrust into the spotlight as the “poor little rich girl” at the center of a sensational custody battle in the 1930s, before finding fame in her own right for her line of designer blue jeans and it-girl fashion.
Vanderbilt, the great-great-granddaughter of financier Cornelius Vanderbilt and the mother of CNN newsman Anderson Cooper, who announced her death via a first-person obituary that aired on the network Monday morning.
“Gloria Vanderbilt was an extraordinary woman, who loved life, and lived it on her own terms,” her son, the CNN anchor Anderson Cooper, said in a tribute read on air. He further added, “She was a painter, a writer, and designer but also a remarkable mother, wife, and friend. She was 95 years old, but ask anyone close to her, and they’d tell you, she was the youngest person they knew, the coolest, and most modern.”
Vanderbilt was well-known for her tumultuous love life. Her life was chronicled in sensational headlines from her childhood through four marriages and three divorces. She married for the first time at 17, causing her aunt to disinherit her. Her husbands included Leopold Stokowski, the celebrated conductor, and Sidney Lumet, the award-winning movie and television director. In 1988, she witnessed the suicide of one of her four sons.
Vanderbilt was a talented painter and collagist who also acted on the stage (The Time of Your Life on Broadway) and television (Playhouse 90, Studio One, Kraft Theater, US Steel Hour). She was a fabric designer who became an early enthusiast for designer denim. The dark-haired, tall and ultra-thin Vanderbilt partnered with Mohan Murjani, who introduced a $1 million advertising campaign in 1978 that turned the Gloria Vanderbilt brand with its signature white swan label into a sensation.
At its peak in 1980, it was generating over $200 million in sales. And decades later, famous-name designer jeans – dressed up or down – remain a woman’s wardrobe staple.
Vanderbilt wrote several books, including the 2004 chronicle of her love life: It Seemed Important at the Time: A Romance Memoir, which drops such names as Errol Flynn, whom she dated as a teenager; Frank Sinatra, for whom she left Stokowski; Marlon Brando and Howard Hughes.
She claimed her only happy marriage was to author Wyatt Cooper, which ended with his death in 1978 at age 50. Son Anderson Cooper called her memoir “a terrific book; it’s like an older Sex and the City.”
Noting her father’s death when she was a toddler, she said: “If you don’t have a father, you don’t miss it, because you don’t know what it is. It was really only when I married Wyatt Cooper that I understood what it was like to have a father because he was just an extraordinary father.”
Her father, aristocrat Reginald Claypoole Vanderbilt, is said to have exclaimed after her birth in Manhattan on February 20, 1924. He said, “It is fantastic how Vanderbilt she looks! See the corners of her eyes, how they turn up?”
Baby Gloria Laura Madeleine Sophie was left with a multi-million dollar trust fund after Reginald — the descendant of wealthy Dutch and English shipping and transportation barons — drank himself to death slightly more than a year later.
Her notoriously unstable mother Gloria Laura Mercedes Morgan swept Vanderbilt away to Paris to be raised by a nanny, while she became a mainstay of the party circuit with her twin sister.
But Vanderbilt’s philanthropist and artist aunt, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney — founder of New York’s famed Whitney Museum of American Art — sued for custody in 1934.
She won after a highly publicized trial that at moments heard the young girl weep and wail and aired sordid testimony of greed and debauchery as most Americans suffered under the Great Depression.
The socialite-in-waiting dabbled in art, modeling, poetry and acting in a bid to carve out an identity beyond her lavish inheritance. Eager to grow up quickly, she married for the first time at age 17, to an alleged mob associate of the boss Charles “Lucky” Luciano.
“As a teenager, she tried to avoid the spotlight, but reporters and cameramen followed her everywhere,” Cooper said. “She was determined to make something of her life, determined to make a name for herself, and find the love she so desperately needed.”
A regular of best-dressed lists and gossip columns, Vanderbilt’s A-list coterie included Charlie Chaplin and Truman Capote, who is said to have drawn inspiration from the lithe, raven-haired heiress for the iconic character Holly Golightly — played in the film version by Audrey Hepburn — of his 1958 novella “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.”
Her myriad creative endeavors led Life magazine in 1968 to dub her “a feminine version of the Renaissance Man.”
After her first failed marriage she tied the knot three more times, first to the conductor Leopold Stokowski, with whom she had two sons, and then to director Sidney Lumet.
Her final marriage to Wyatt Emory Cooper in 1963 produced two more sons, Carter Vanderbilt Cooper and Anderson Hays Cooper.
She suffered major personal tragedy — her last husband died during heart surgery in 1978, and Vanderbilt endured the horror of losing one of her sons to suicide 10 years later.
The Vanderbilt family has said Carter had been troubled by depression and may have experienced a psychotic episode due to a medication he was taking. The 23-year-old arose in the middle of the night, apparently confused, and leaped to his death, they said. Vanderbilt rarely spoke of the incident but later called it the worst event of her life.
Vanderbilt posted on Instagram on her 95th birthday earlier this year, “I do believe that it is only once you accept that life is a tragedy that you can truly start to live…. and, oh, how I have lived! So many lives, so much work, so much love. It is incalculable.”
She was open about her numerous love affairs with single and married men, which she detailed in a 2005 memoir. She also wrote poetry, short stories, and novels — including erotica she penned in her 80s.
Vanderbilt has once said, “You must always have great, secret, big fat hopes for yourself in love and in life. The bigger, the better.”