Gloria Vanderbilt was an artist, heiress, designer and philanthropist who, for many Americans, may be best remembered for her blue jeans. She died at the age of 95.
Vanderbilt’s son, Anderson Cooper, announced her death Monday, airing an obituary for her on CNN. Vanderbilt had cancer, he said.
“Earlier this month, we had to take her to the hospital. That’s where she learned she had very advanced cancer in her stomach, and that it had spread,” Cooper said.
“What an extraordinary life. What an extraordinary mom. And what an incredible woman,” he said, his voice quavering a bit at the end of the remembrance.
Vanderbilt had full lips, eyes that turned up at the corners and a patrician bearing. She was, in fact, descended from shipping and railroad tycoon Cornelius Vanderbilt, one of the richest men in American history. She was born in 1924, and her father died shortly thereafter. Vanderbilt was raised by a beloved nurse because her mother was away in Europe living a high society life, and by 1934, the tabloids were calling her “poor little rich girl” because of a sensational custody battle instigated by her grandmother and aunt.
In 1981, she told radio host Lloyd Moss, “As a child, I did not feel that I was treated as a person. I felt really that I was treated as an object. And nobody ever really, kind of, thought, ‘What is she really like? What does she like? What are her talents? What does she want really?’ ”
When Vanderbilt’s aunt — Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, who founded the Whitney Museum of American Art — won the custody battle, Whitney fired Vanderbilt’s beloved nurse.
Eventually, Vanderbilt developed her own creative drive and earned her own income. As she told Moss, “If you have to really work for it, when you do achieve it, even though it really takes longer, it means more.”
She did make it, and having a famous name helped. Vanderbilt was known for vivid paintings and collages, and she was asked to design everything from china to linen. By the 1970s, she was designing glamorous skinny jeans. Her signature was embroidered on the back right pocket of every pair, and a tiny gold swan was embroidered on the front. She even modeled the jeans herself in TV ads.
Vanderbilt also attracted talented, interesting men throughout her life. She was married four times, and her husbands included the conductor Leopold Stokowski, with whom she had two sons, and director Sidney Lumet. Later in life, her companion was the trailblazing photographer and musician Gordon Parks.
Vanderbilt’s fourth marriage to writer Wyatt Cooper, with whom she had two more sons, was marked by tragedy. Cooper died in his 50s, and in 1988 their older son, Carter Cooper, killed himself by jumping from an apartment balcony as he was talking to his mother.
Vanderbilt recalled that day to her younger son, CNN journalist Anderson Cooper, in a 2011 interview: “I said, ‘Carter, come back,’ and for a minute I thought he was going to come back, but he didn’t. He let go. And there was a moment when I thought I was going to jump over after him.” But then she thought of Anderson.
Vanderbilt opened up about her life in memoirs, and she also wrote art books and novels. But she said that her children were her greatest achievement. She was a woman who seemed eager to share her life lessons.
“I believe that we have to cherish the pain we experience, as we cherish the joy,” she told Lifetime. “Because without one there wouldn’t be the other, and it’s what makes us alive. And I think that’s very, very important.”
Vanderbilt told friends and interviewers that she believed in being positive. Over her fireplace, she had painted the message: “Be kind to everyone you meet, for everyone is fighting a great battle.”
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