Anderson Cooper's mother, heiress and fashion icon Gloria Vanderbilt, died in 2019
Vanderbilt was "much more creative and interesting and unconventional," Cooper told PEOPLE in 2016. An heiress to a massive fortune, she dated movie stars and married four times, in addition to having careers as an actress, painter and fashion designer.
"She lived an epic life as a wife, a mom, a lover, an actress, a designer, a writer ... and an artist," Cooper wrote on the one-year anniversary of her death. "When she was told she was going to die in a matter of days, she said, 'Well, it's like that old song says, 'Show me the way to get out of this world, because that's where everything is.' "
Vanderbilt died on June 17, 2019, at age 95 of advanced stomach cancer. After her death, Cooper paid tribute to his mother on his CNN show. "Love is what she believed in more than anything," he said. "Gloria Vanderbilt died as she lived: on her own terms."
But who is Gloria Vanderbilt? Read on to learn about her unique family history, adventurous life and unbreakable bond with her son Anderson Cooper.
She was born into American royalty
Vanderbilt was born into one of the richest families in America in 1924 in New York City.
She was the daughter of Reginald Claypoole Vanderbilt — the grandson of Cornelius Vanderbilt — who built the New York Central Railroad. Her father died when she was just 18 months old, and her 19-year-old mother, Gloria Morgan, suddenly had a vast fortune and freedom to travel the world.
"She wanted to have fun. I mean, she was suddenly this very rich widow and she arrives in Paris," Vanderbilt told PEOPLE in 2016. "She was a great, great beauty, had a twin sister and she just had a wonderful time."
Vanderbilt was raised primarily by her grandmother and a nanny, until a very public custody case. When Vanderbilt was 10, her mother and aunt Gertrude Whitney battled over who would raise her. Vanderbilt's aunt Gertrude eventually won custody.
She spent time in Hollywood
When she was in high school, Vanderbilt traveled to Beverly Hills, California, for what was supposed to be a two-week visit with her mother. It turned into two months, during which she dated a few Hollywood stars.
"The summer after my junior year in high school I went out on dates with movie stars every night: Errol Flynn, George Montgomery, Ray Milland," she once said. "My mother let me do anything that I wanted to do, and I hardly ever saw her."
During that time, she met her first husband, agent (and rumored mobster) Pasquale "Pat" DeCicco. They married in 1941, when Vanderbilt was 17, and divorced four years later. "I was mesmerized," she recalled. "He was forceful, domineering and supremely sure of himself. When you have low self-esteem, as I did, those qualities are attractive."
She married four times
After divorcing DeCicco, she married orchestra conductor Leopold Stokowski in 1945, when she was 21, and he was 63. She and Stokowski divorced in 1955. Vanderbilt also had love affairs with Frank Sinatra, Howard Hughes and Marlon Brando.
She later married Academy Award-winning director Sidney Lumet, before they divorced in August 1963. Vanderbilt then married screenwriter Wyatt Emory Cooper that same year, and they welcomed sons Carter in 1965 and Anderson in 1967.
Wyatt died in 1978 during open-heart surgery, at which time Vanderbilt became a single mother who always, Cooper later said, included her sons in her glamorous life.
"If famous people were coming over to the house, like Charlie Chaplin or Truman Capote, we would be sitting at the table next to them," Cooper told PEOPLE. "There wasn't a kids' table. We weren't sort of shunted off somewhere. We would be expected to kind of learn about who was coming and watch their movies and be able to converse with them."
She was a fashion designer
Vanderbilt had already been designing home goods, but after the death of her husband Wyatt, she became a household name when she started designing clothing, especially jeans.
"She was on television commercials and walking down the street, people would stop her all the time and compliment the jeans and talk to her," Cooper said. "My brother and I had a game that throughout the day, we would try to count how many women we saw with our mom's names on their jeans."
She lived in luxury
In the '80s and '90s, Vanderbilt lived in a posh townhouse on New York's Upper East Side that had six bedrooms and six-and-a-half bathrooms. It was listed for $12 million when its then-owner put the home on the market in September 2022.
The last home Vanderbilt lived in was a two-bedroom apartment in Manhattan's Midtown East. When Cooper listed the home on the market after her death, he revealed Vanderbilt's eclectic decor, including her vibrant collection of art.
She and Anderson gave each other dating advice
While he was promoting his book Vanderbilt: The Rise and Fall of an American Dynasty, published in 2021, Cooper talked about the things he missed about his mother.
"I miss the random phone calls with a crazy idea, or her asking me ludicrous relationship advice," he told PEOPLE. "I'm certainly not anyone to give relationship advice, but I would give my mom feedback when she would go on dates, what I thought about the guys. Some of them I really didn't think much of at all! We had a really unique relationship."
She and Anderson co-authored a book
In 2016, Vanderbilt and Cooper published The Rainbow Comes and Goes: A Mother and Son Talk About Life, Love, and Loss, a collection of email exchanges in which the two reflect on the loss of brother and son Carter.
"I think it's still hard to believe it's been so long because I think it's still so present in our lives, that sense of loss," Cooper told PEOPLE.
"When my mom turned 91, I wanted to use the time that we have left in our lives to get to know each other as adults," Cooper said about writing the book. "I realized I didn't want there to be anything left unsaid with my mom, I didn't want there to be questions that I still had about who she was and what her life was like. And I didn't want her to have questions about me as an adult."
She and Anderson created an HBO show
The same year their book came out, Vanderbilt and Cooper appeared in the HBO documentary Nothing Left Unsaid: Gloria Vanderbilt and Anderson Cooper.
In it, she gave a peek into her seemingly charmed but privately difficult life. "People were so fascinated with this family that apparently had everything," Vanderbilt said in the documentary. "I never felt that I belonged. I felt like I was an imposter."
Cooper added, "As a young kid, I didn't know the origins of this sadness that permeated her life. She has this drive, and that drive makes it impossible to have a calm existence."
Losing her inspired Anderson to start his own family
In the four weeks between his mother being diagnosed with cancer and dying, Cooper confessed to her that he wanted to become a father. "She was thrilled," he said. "I told her maybe two weeks before she died. When she started to get ill, it was very quick. [Wyatt] was just an idea in my head and a desire — but I thought, 'This is the time to tell her.' "
When she was around 85, Vanderbilt had offered to be a surrogate for Cooper if he decided to have a child. "I was like, 'Mom, I love you, but even for you, that is just bats--- crazy. That is just nuts,' " Cooper recalled with a laugh on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.
"Of course, it's going to be a boy," Cooper recalled Vanderbilt saying after he shared the news. "I didn't say that I would name him after my dad, but she knew that's what it would be — and she knew that if it was a girl, she would be named after her."
His son, Wyatt Morgan, was born 11 months later, and he has since welcomed another son, Sebastian Luke, who was born in 2022.
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