Gloria Vanderbilt, once America’s most infamous heiress, died on June 17 aged 95. In 2004 she published her memoir, It Seemed Important at the Time, and sat down with Adam Higginbotham to discuss fame, fortune, and flings with famous men
She put on the blindfold first, and he told her not to be frightened. He placed the LSD on her tongue, and then the music started: she’d chosen Tristan und Isolde, conducted by her ex-husband Leopold Stokowski. And soon after, the trip began. Suddenly she was right there in the concert hall, getting up from her seat in the audience, climbing the podium, and taking over from Leopold. “It wasn’t like a dream,” Gloria Vanderbilt tells me. “I was absolutely there. Conducting the Liebestod.”
After a while, the therapist removed her blindfold. To her surprise, everything in the penthouse room at 10 Gracie Square looked entirely normal. Even the colours in the paintings were no more intense than usual. But when she looked down at her left palm, she saw three figures: Mary going into Jerusalem on a donkey, with Joseph behind her. A tiny, living bas relief. But she felt there was something wrong with the hand. She was seized with a real and powerful urge to get rid of it – to chop it off. Eventually, the therapist talked her out of doing it. But the urge remained.
“That stayed for a long time,” she says, “that feeling of wanting to go into the kitchen, get a knife and cut my hand off.” Gloria Vanderbilt’s acid trip lasted from nine in the morning until two in the afternoon, sometime in 1964, when people did such things entirely within the bounds of the law, and under medical supervision. She tells me all this late one afternoon in Manhattan, the dim autumn light filtering through the windows of her Upper East Side home. Even after 40 years she can remember every detail.
But two days later, at 4.30am, I’m woken by the sound of the phone ringing. It’s Gloria: she has something important she forgot to tell me; something she left out of her account of the acid trip; about the hand. “In palm-reading the left hand is what you were born with, and the right hand is what you make of yourself. And the thing of cutting it off is cutting off what you were born with – and keeping what you’ve made of yourself. And the story,” she says urgently, “doesn’t make any sense without that.”
She knows something about birthright; and of making something of yourself. Gloria Vanderbilt was born in New York City in 1924, an heir to the Vanderbilt shipping fortune: one of the greatest inheritances of the 20th century. Later she would earn a second fortune of her own. By the time the century was out, she would have lost both of them.
Today Vanderbilt is still remembered for the jeans she launched in 1978, which – with their tight-fitting cut and her distinctive signature on the back pocket – brought disco fashion to the suburbs and defined the concept of “designer” denim. But she’s also had a successful career as a painter and as a designer of textiles and paper products; she briefly experimented with acting; and she’s written two novels and four volumes of memoirs.
The latest of these, It Seemed Important at the Time, is the “romance memoir” collecting the reminiscences of the flings, affairs and marriages of a woman who has spent eight decades in the thin atmosphere of privilege and glamour at the apogee of American high society.
On a quietly expensive street near the UN building, the back door of Gloria Vanderbilt's house is opened by a frail old woman who speaks with a gentle Irish accent - Nora, who has been Gloria's assistant for more than 50 years. She shows me into Gloria's studio, which is filled with the collages and paintings she creates here. Much of one room is filled with Gloria’s Perspex “dream boxes”, containing three-dimensional collages of found objects. One holds the torso of a shoproom dummy with tinsel for pubic hair; another a child’s doll surrounded by spanners covered with glitter.
In person, Gloria Vanderbilt has little in common with most 80-year-old women. Her hair – a shining auburn bob – is that of a model in her twenties; her face – with the strange, rectangular smile that in photographs often looks like a taut grimace – betrays eerily little of the desiccating passage of time. This is partly the result of plastic surgery – “Oh, of course!” she says. She explains that four years ago she developed such severe skin cancer that her doctor (“a genius”) had to cut away an area an inch across and an inch deep from the middle of her face. “My whole nose,” she says, “practically went.”
But Vanderbilt is also wily and quick, her memory acute, and her movements precise. She may be a little hard of hearing, but only once, when she nearly trips over a trailing end of the thick canvas cloth that covers the work-table in the studio, is there any hint at the fragility you might expect from someone her age.
So it comes as a surprise that her book – a scant 160 pages of large type and wide margins she describes as “short takes – just throwing tarot cards out on a table, throwing dice” – is maddeningly unspecific. Its fractured, gossipy narrative is free of important details, and individual characters – Howard Hughes, Marlon Brando, Frank Sinatra, or her platonic friend Truman Capote, who based the character of Holly Golightly on the teenage Vanderbilt – prove remarkably elusive. (“I didn’t,” she says archly, when asked about the one and only night she spent with Brando, “have any long philosophical discussions with him.”)
This, she admits, is deliberate. “Everything in life is elusive,” she says. “So that’s the way it came out. It’s something you can’t quite catch.” What have you left out? “Hundreds, millions, trillions of things.” What’s the most significant one? “Oh, I’m not going to tell you,” she says, and laughs. “The heart of another is a dark forest. You know that. I’m never going to know you and you’re never going to know me – so what I’ve left out is the same thing in you, which nobody else is ever going to know. Do you understand that?”
I was thinking, I say, of something less metaphysical. “Well, that’s my answer.”
Gloria Vanderbilt has lived in the public eye for almost as long as she can remember. The only child of Reginald Claypoole Vanderbilt – a reckless gambler and womaniser who ran through $17 million in seven years and drank himself to death at 45 – Gloria became his heir when she was only 15 months old. When her mother left her in the care of a nanny and began using Gloria’s trust fund to chase men across Europe, her grandmother stepped in to contest custody.
The resulting court case became a national sensation in the tabloid press, making the ten-year-old Gloria infamous as the “poor little rich girl”. The judge sent her to live with her aunt, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, who, it was said, never appeared before lunchtime, or without a hat. She raised Gloria under strict supervision, hoping that she would one day become a nun.
In 1941, at 17, she went to visit her mother in California, at the house she rented in Beverly Hills, and Aunt Gertrude allowed her to stay for the summer. Abruptly, Gloria’s life changed. Instead of being chaperoned to tea dances with nice boys at the Plaza, now she spent her nights at Ciro’s and Mocambo, squired by Hollywood stars like Van Heflin, Bruce Cabot and Errol Flynn.
And she had also been noticed, lounging beside the pool of the Beverly Hills hotel in her shocking-pink strapless bathing-suit, by Pat DiCicco, Howard Hughes’s press agent, gofer and – it was rumoured – sometime procurer. Gloria began seeing DiCicco, who, shallow but garrulous and film-star-handsome, favoured white-on-white suits and all-night card games.
An introduction to Hughes himself followed. At 36 Hughes was an eminently eligible bachelor renowned as a pioneer aviator, film-maker and multi-millionaire, still decades away from his infamous fate as a paranoid wretch marooned at the top of one of his own Las Vegas hotels. At his house in Santa Barbara, Gloria recalls, all the furniture was covered with dust-sheets, and he played a record of Moonlight Sonata for her constantly. He would pick her up from her mother’s house, and they would go to diners or restaurants where Howard always ordered the same thing – steak, peas and a baked potato.
“It’s very hard for me to connect him with what he apparently became,” she says. “I just thought he was terrific. I was crazy about him, and would have married him in a minute. But then,” she says, “I would have married anybody in a minute because I wanted to get out.”
Desperate not to have to return to her aunt Vanderbilt saw only one escape route: finding a husband. And when things didn’t work out with Hughes, in December 1941 she turned to the next available man. “I kind of panicked,” she offers by way of explanation, “and suddenly there I was: married to Pat DiCicco.”
In all, Gloria Vanderbilt has been married four times. Husband number one was not a good choice. Pat DiCicco proved a big, temperamental and abusive man who called her “Fatsy Roo” and beat her. “He would take my head and bang it against the wall,” she says. “I had black eyes.” On their wedding night, Gloria took a long bath and waited in vain for him to come to bed. When she awoke the following morning, she found him in the next room playing gin rummy with Zeppo Marx.
While still married to DiCicco, she met Leopold Stokowski, a world-famous conductor who already had two ex-wives and once had an affair with Greta Garbo. Heedless of the difference in their ages – the white-haired maestro was 62, Vanderbilt only 20 – she fell passionately in love with him and divorced DiCicco in Reno. Gloria and “Stoki” were married for 10 years and had two children – Stan in 1950 and Christopher in 1955. Stokowski encouraged her interest in painting, poetry and acting, but he dominated her and kept her socially isolated, in awe of his fame and artistry.
Vanderbilt was 30 and working as a stage actress by the time she felt ready to break away from Stokowski – helped by a brief fling with Frank Sinatra. In the few months they spent together, she says she never saw any of Frank’s infamously dark side – even though he drank Jack Daniel's and loved to talk about himself, she never saw him be violent or rude.
“But I never lived with him,” she allows. “He created a kind of magic. People that do that – you want them to be part of your life.” He offered her a part in Ocean’s Eleven, and they talked of going to Bali together.
But a few months later Vanderbilt met the film director Sidney Lumet, who became her third husband. Sinatra remained a lifelong friend – as does Lumet, whom she divorced, after seven years of marriage, in 1963. Finally, in 1964, Vanderbilt met the man she regards as the love of her life. A writer and magazine editor from a sprawling and storied Southern family, Wyatt Cooper was a gentle, generous husband. He became stepfather to Stan and Chris, and together the couple had two more sons – Anderson and Carter.
“We had the family life that I’d always wanted,” Vanderbilt says. “He made me understand what it would have been like to have had a father – he was a most amazing father. I’d never experienced anything like it.” But Wyatt’s family also had a long history of early death, and in January 1978 he suffered the last in a series of heart attacks, and died in the operating-theatre. He was 50 years old. Twenty-six years later Vanderbilt clearly loves to talk about Wyatt, and the sons she had with him, more than anyone else; in her everyday life, she still goes by the name Mrs Cooper. “I’d be married to him today,” she says, “if he had not died.”
Gloria says still enjoys sex as much as she did when she was 17 and she’s never wanted a man she didn’t get: “No. Oh, no – I’ve been very lucky. With men.”
She has no regrets. “None,” she says firmly. “It’s not in my spirit to think in that way. And I won’t let myself.”
When Gloria Vanderbilt took personal control of her inheritance, at 21, the first things she bought were presents for those closest to her: mink coats for the adored nanny who had raised her, and for her grandmother Laura Kilpatrick Morgan; for Carol Saroyan, whose husband, the playwright William Saroyan, had “written something about grapes”, she sketched designs around the fruit for a brooch and matching earrings and had them made in diamonds at Van Cleef & Arpels.
“I do spend money. I like to spend money, on houses – on furnishing houses,” she says, “And I love to give presents to people. It’s just in my nature to be that way. I always spent money I had. And I always spent what I made. I’m not stingy.” But even the money she inherited in February 1945 – nearly $4 million, at the time when that was a truly enormous sum – wasn’t inexhaustible. By the time she married Wyatt Cooper, the fortune could no longer support Gloria’s lifestyle. Much of the money had gone on custody battles, divorce settlements and bad investments. Simple overspending took the rest.
But by the mid-1960s Vanderbilt’s dress-sense and flair for interior design made her a regular in the pages of fashion magazines, and her distinctive collages were exhibited in New York. In 1968 she signed a deal with Hallmark Cards. And it was not the dilettantism of a bored heiress – Vanderbilt had her own design studio and during the 1970s flew across the country, visiting department stores to market the products herself.
“When I started travelling, I would go to a city and be on television and I used to get the question, ‘Why do you work? If I were you, I’d just go and lie on a beach somewhere.’ And I’d answer, ‘Well, I wanted to make something of my life.’”
But it was with less labour, and a more explicit use of her name, that Gloria Vanderbilt managed to earn her second fortune. In 1977 she signed up with Hong Kong-based clothes manufacturer Murjani, who had come up with new line of jeans, designed to fit the millions of American women who were too broad-hipped to get into the ultra-slim cuts filling the market. It cost Murjani $2 a pair to put Gloria’s swan logo on the front pocket, and stitch her signature on the back – but it turned out to be worth it. Gloria herself modelled the jeans in a series of television advertisements; they “really hug your derrière” she assured viewers, and they believed her. In 1980 alone they bought enough pairs of Gloria Vanderbilt jeans to make her $10 million.
On 22 July 1988 Carter Cooper unexpectedly came to visit his mother at her penthouse on Gracie Square in Manhattan. Although he had his own apartment, he had come to tell Gloria that he wanted to move back into his old room in the penthouse. He spent much of the day asleep in the library, but in the early evening suddenly appeared in the doorway of his mother’s room, his eyes glazed. “What’s going on? What’s going on?” he asked, again and again. He then sprinted upstairs to the roof terrace, sat on the parapet and, as Gloria watched in horror, swung over the edge. He held on to the wall for a few seconds, and then let go. He was 23 years old. Carter had recently split up with his girlfriend, and had been treated by a therapist for depression. But Vanderbilt still believes that, confused and disorientated by asthma medication he was taking, he did not deliberately take his own life. Among those who telephoned to offer their condolences was Marlon Brando, who Gloria hadn’t spoken to since 1954. It took years for her to come to terms with what had happened.
Carter’s death brought her much closer to two of her remaining sons: Anderson, now a news reporter for CNN, is, she says, her best friend; she speaks to Stan every few days. But her second eldest is different: none of the family has heard from Christopher in 27 years. “He’s cut himself off completely from all of us. He told us that’s what he wanted to do and he’s done it. When Wyatt died I thought that he would come back, and he didn’t. When Carter died, I thought he would come back, but he didn’t. And we respect his wishes.” When I wonder if she knows where Chris is, Gloria asks me to turn off the tape recorder.
Carter’s death was followed by more disaster. The Gloria Vanderbilt clothes line had begun to go into decline in the 1980s. But at the peak of her commercial success, Vanderbilt handed over control of her finances to her therapist, the charming Dr Christ L Zois, and a lawyer friend of his, Thomas A Andrews. She gave them power of attorney and control of her bank accounts, and between them they swindled her out of millions of dollars.
“They robbed me of everything,” she says. The lawyer and the therapist drained money directly from her bank account and sold off the licence to use the Gloria Vanderbilt name for home furnishings. Worse still, they ensured that her taxes went unpaid as far back as 1979. She was forced to sell both her rambling summer house in Southampton, Long Island, and her six-storey Manhattan townhouse, and moved into the two-bedroom apartment owned by her son Anderson. She successfully sued Andrews and Zois for $1.6 million, but she has yet to see a penny of it.
Today Gloria Vanderbilt is solvent again. “I didn’t declare bankruptcy. And I’m fine now. I had,” she adds with a small smile, “good friends.”
When I ask Gloria Vanderbilt whether she has met today’s most notorious heiresses, Paris and Nicky Hilton, she says she doesn’t know much about them. But she’s seen them a few times on television. She will admit that she thinks they’re a little ridiculous. “But I was as ridiculous at that age. I was probably worse. They seem kind of giddy where I had a philosophical strain going on somewhere – which maybe they do, too. They’re doing fine. What they’re doing now is what they want to do.”
What do you think they could learn from you? At this, the 80-year-old poor little rich girl allows herself a twinkle of mischievous irony. “Oh, honey,” she says, “they’ve got to learn it for themselves.”