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R.I.P. Gloria Vanderbilt, socialite and fashion icon

Gloria Vanderbilt in 1978
Photo: Alex Gotfryd (Corbis via Getty Images)

Gloria Vanderbilt, the artist and socialite who was a member of the famous, and fabulously wealthy, Vanderbilt family, has died, according to CNN. She died at home surrounded by friends and family, after having been recently diagnosed with stomach cancer. Her son, CNN anchor and journalist Anderson Cooper, said in a statement: “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.

Vanderbilt was born in 1924, the daughter of railroad magnate Reginald Vanderbilt. Early in her life, she was the subject of a fierce custody battle between her mother and her aunt, Reginald’s powerful sister. Gloria’s aunt won custody, and Vanderbilt grew up on her aunt’s extravagant estate, attending exclusive schools surrounded by her cousins.

Gloria Vanderbilt surrounded by Cary Grant and Bruce Cabot, c. 1940
Photo: Hulton Archive (Getty Images)

At the age of 21, Vanderbilt inherited a considerable trust from her father and divorced Pat DiCicco, the Hollywood agent she had married when she was 17. She subsequently married Leopold Stokowski, a famous conductor more than four decades her senior, with whom she had had two sons, Leopold and Christopher. In 1956, Vanderbilt married Sidney Lumet, director of Twelve Angry Men and Dog Day Afternoon. Her fourth and final husband was author Wyatt Cooper, who she married in 1963. They also had two sons: Anderson and Carter, who died by suicide at the age of 23.

In her early 20s, Vanderbilt also started following creative pursuits like painting and acting. Her first stage appearance was in a play called The Swan, which eventually became the symbol for her fashion empire. As Vanderbilt continued her artistic pursuits, CNN notes that “she produced fashion and textile designs that would earn her the 1969 Neiman Marcus Fashion Award.” In the ’70s, Vanderbilt once again became a household name, adding her considerable cachet to the designer jeans craze by merging with Indian designer Mohan Murjani’s Murjani Corporation.

Soon, Gloria Vanderbilt jeans took their place alongside brands like Calvin Klein, Bonjour, and Sasson, offering an even tighter fit than most of the jeans of the time (“Like the skin on a grape” enthuses a model in a TV ad). Vanderbilt eventually launched fashion lines that expanded past jeans, along with home goods and fragrances. Her famous face and unique hairstyle made her one of the most readily recognized fashion icons of the time, although she reportedly found these appearances difficult due to social anxiety.

Vanderbilt’s early years were explored in the 1982 mini-series Little Gloria… Happy At Last, and she chronicled her fascinating life in a series of memoirs, starting with 1979’s Woman To Woman, and including volumes like 1985’s Once Upon a Time: A True Story and 1995’s A Mother’s Story, about her grief following Carter’s death. Her last book was a joint venture with her son Anderson Cooper: 2016’s The Rainbow Comes And Goes, which followed the HBO documentary about the pair called Nothing Left Unsaid. She also wrote fiction, including 2009’s Obsession: An Erotic Tale, released when she was 85.

Even in her later years, Vanderbilt continued painting, with exhibits in Vermont in 2017 and The World Of Gloria Vanderbilt: Collages, Dream Boxes And Recent Paintings at the New York Design Center in 2012. As Cooper described his mother in his statement, “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.”


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Gwen Ihnat

Gwen Ihnat is the Editorial Coordinator for The A.V. Club.