Gloria Vanderbilt lived an extraordinary life. A wealthy heiress, she was married four times and had romances with the biggest names in show business, but she was a powerhouse all on her own and a force to be reckoned with. Nonetheless, all the triumphs and riches in the world couldn’t save her from tragedy.
She passed away on June 17, 2019 at the age of 95. In her memory, here are 43 facts about the great Gloria Vanderbilt.
1. When I Look Into My Father’s Eyes
Vanderbilt was the only child of railroad magnate Reginald Claypoole Vanderbilt and Gloria Morgan Vanderbilt. Almost from the beginning, her father had a special connection to his daughter: when he first saw his baby girl, Reginald was reported to have exclaimed, “It is fantastic how Vanderbilt she looks! See the corners of her eyes, how they turn up?”
2. Daddy’s Gone
Reginald, however, was haunted by demons, and his enormous wealth simply wasn’t enough to buy his way out of his problems: He was a desperate alcoholic, and when Gloria was only 18 months old, he died of cirrhosis of the liver.
3. A Hefty Stipend
With her father’s death, Gloria became a very rich baby. The young Vanderbilt and her half sister were now heiresses to a fantastic fortune equivalent to about $71 million dollars in today’s money. Of course, the months-old Vanderbilt was too young to control her estate, so her extravagant, beautiful mother Gloria Morgan—who was just 21 years old at the time—took over “responsibility” of the vast sum…with disastrous consequences.
4. Friends in High Places
For years, Vanderbilt’s mother carted the young girl to and from Paris while she took part in lavish soirees and shopping trips with friends and family. One of the figures milling about the little girl’s life was Gloria Morgan’s identical twin sister Thelma, who was mistress to no less than the Prince of Wales at the time, the future King Edward VIII.
5. ‘Till Daddy Takes the T-Bird Away
All this high-rolling, however, came to a tumultuous halt. Gloria’s paternal aunt, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, got sick of seeing the little girl stuck in the middle of this spendthrift, immoral lifestyle. She demanded custody of young Gloria and declared Mama Morgan unfit to parent—an allegation that kicked off one of the most dramatic periods of young Gloria’s life.
6. The Trial of the Century
The ensuing custody battle over the little Vanderbilt was called “The Trial of the Century.” It ignited the press, who published story after story digging deeper into the circumstances of Gloria’s baby-socialite life, with many focusing on the Vanderbilts’ great wealth in contrast to her mother’s debauched, irresponsible lifestyle.
For example, it was said that Vanderbilt’s mother frequently caroused with lovers in the house, and often left nude photos lying around where young Gloria could surely stumble across them.
7. Et Tu, Mother?
Even the young widow’s own mother commented on her socialite daughter’s inability to nurture the child. As she said, “[my] daughter paid absolutely no attention to little Gloria. She devoted herself exclusively to her own pleasures. … She took long trips to Germany and other places. …She seldom wrote to me or inquired about the baby.”
8. My Little Mixologist
During the trial, it was even alleged that Gloria’s mother had recently tried to teach the little girl how to mix cocktails.
9. The Money Train Stops Here
Eventually, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney won primary custody, though Gloria’s mother was permitted visitation rights to her daughter. Nonetheless, every visit was closely watched to make sure there was no attempted wheeling and dealing going on during their time together. All this did not help endear little Gloria to her mother: once she had full control over her trust fund, she temporarily cut off her mother from any allowance.
10. High School Dropout
Still, it was far from a happy ending for Gloria when she was living with her aunt. Almost as soon as Vanderbilt went to live with Gertrude, the vibrant girl felt stifled by the strict rules of the house and the stuffy way of living her aunt promoted. As a result, when she was only 17 years old, Vanderbilt left high school early to go live with her mother in Beverly Hills.
11. First Comes Love…
In 1941, just after her impulsive teen move to Hollywood, the young Vanderbilt met Pat Di Cicco, an acting agent and probable mobster. The young couple were quickly married, though the union dissolved after just four years.
12. If at First You Don’t Succeed
Vanderbilt’s first ill-fated marriage was far from her last. In fact, she was married a total of four times, with her second marriage to famed conductor Leopold Stokowski coming just a few short weeks after her divorce from Di Cicco.
13. Blended Family
Stokowski was more than four decades older than the young, beautiful Vanderbilt, and he already had three children from previous marriages running afoot. Vanderbilt became an instant stepmom, and later had two sons with Stokowski, Leopold and Christopher, in the course of their 10-year marriage.
14. The Loss of a Mother
Gloria really only got to know her mother toward the end of her mother’s life, as they didn’t exactly have a relationship while Vanderbilt was growing up. Yet, still, she once said that her mother “was certainly the most influential person in my life.” Remembering the custody battle, Vanderbilt admitted that her mother was just “this gentle person, who was unable to cope. She really couldn’t.”
15. Third Time Isn’t the Charm
Always a mover and a shaker, Vanderbilt’s third marriage was to Sidney Lumet, the director of acclaimed films such as 12 Angry Men and Network; at the time, she was his second wife. Yet there was no happy ending to be had here, either: their (childless) marriage broke apart in 1963 after seven years together.
16. Denim Dreams
Those skinny jeans you might be wearing? You can pretty much thank Gloria Vanderbilt for them. After dipping her toes into fashion with a line of scarves, Vanderbilt actually kick-started the tighter-jean trend in 1976 when she released her line of designer jeans for women, complete with her signature swan logo on the back pocket.
17. All Publicity Is Good Publicity
Vanderbilt also started another trend: the fashion designer as public figure. Despite her innate shyness, Vanderbilt would often make public appearances to show off her wares, something that was uncommon for the time.
18. A Real Work of Art
Vanderbilt became interested in art of all kinds from a young age. After dropping out of school, she studied acting at the Neighborhood Playhouse and visual art at the Art Students League of New York. Perhaps unsurprisingly, she had a talent for art, and in the 60s her visual designs were licensed by the likes Hallmark and Bloomcraft.
19. Fourth and First
Despite her rocky martial history, Vanderbilt really got it right with her fourth husband, Wyatt Emory Cooper. Though Vanderbilt herself wasn’t new to the altar, it was the first and only time that Cooper ever married—and it stuck. They had two children together: Carter Cooper and famous CNN news anchor Anderson Cooper.
The all-American good looks of Vanderbilt and Cooper often led them to be on best-dressed lists whenever they were out together.
21. A Tragic End
Though the iconic pair were married for 15 happy years, their bliss came to a tragic end. In late 1977, Cooper suffered from a heart attack and had to go in to have open heart surgery in January, 1978. Sadly, he didn’t make it past the operating table, and died in the hospital. He was mourned both by Gloria and his young sons—but as you’ll see, the tragedy wasn’t over…
22. The Tax Man Cometh
In the 1980s, Vanderbilt nearly suffered a financial ruin. It came out that her fraudulent lawyer had never paid the IRS on her behalf, and she owed millions in back taxes. She had to sell two homes to rectify the situation, and took the man to court to get the money back. It was a long, drawn-out process—with the lawyer actually dying during litigation—but she was eventually awarded the win, even though she never recovered the money.