U.S. heiress, designer, and author Gloria Vanderbilt dies at 95

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Thursday, June 20, 2019

U.S. heiress Gloria Vanderbilt died on Monday at the age of 95, her son Anderson Cooper announced. She had advanced stomach cancer. Scion of the wealthy Vanderbilt family and the subject of a heavily publicized custody battle early in life, she later also became a performer, artist, and designer of porcelain, linens, and a well-known line of designer jeans.

Anderson Cooper, of CNN, one of Vanderbilt's four sons, stated, "Gloria Vanderbilt was an extraordinary woman, who loved life, and lived it on her own terms [...] 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 in 1959.
Image: United States Steel Corporation.

Vanderbilt was born in 1924 into the wealthy Vanderbilt family, great-great granddaughter of the railroad and shipping tycoon Cornelius Vanderbilt. Her father, Reginald Claypoole Vanderbilt, died with liver disease when she was one. At the age of ten, Vanderbilt was the subject of a heavily publicized custody battle between her widowed mother, Gloria Morgan Vanderbilt, and her aunt, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, who controlled a large piece of the Vanderbilt fortune. Her aunt won.

Although she had a trust fund worth US$5 million that she shared with one half-sister, over the course of her life, Vanderbilt also earned income herself through various pursuits. Encouraged to explore creative outlets by a psychotherapist, Vanderbilt took acting lessons and eventually performed on stage in The Time of Your Life in 1955 and appeared on television programs. She also focused on art and design, creating paintings, collages, linens, and a brand of designer jeans that would generate millions in sales. In 1990, the Smithsonian museum featured her jeans alongside the works of designers including Coco Chanel in an exhibit on gender and style.

Syracuse University pop culture professor Robert Thompson remarked, "The thing that really made Gloria Vanderbilt penetrate the American consciousness was the blue jeans war of the late '70s and early 1980s [...] The jeans moved from being functional clothes to designer jeans [...] it was her attempt to take something that was so unglamorous and invest it in high fashion style."

Vanderbilt was married to talent agent Pasquale "Pat" Di Cicco; conductor Leopold Stokowski, who fathered two of her sons; director Sidney Lumet; and author Wyatt Cooper; but, according to her memoirs, also had some degree of romantic involvement with, amongst others, Errol Flynn, Frank Sinatra, and Marlon Brando. She would later say her union with Cooper was her only happy marriage.

Vanderbilt also authored several books, including the memoirs Once Upon a Time and Black Knight, White Knight and the 2009 novel Obsession, which the New York Times called "the steamiest book ever written by an octogenarian."

Vanderbilt is survived by two sons with Stokowski, Stanislaus and Christopher, and by her son Anderson Cooper. Another son, Carter Cooper, predeceased her.


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