Remembering Gloria Vanderbilt

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Moon light and street light. Photo: JH.

Tuesday, June 18, 2019. Yesterday was sunny with big rain clouds to the south of us, looming. It was warm but, again, not humid; which is always a comfort. Gloria Vanderbilt died at 95. 

Gloria. Historically, she was an authentic figure of the  American 20th century folklore; an heiress of the 19th century robber barons, with a name that lent the idea of class distinction to her century. She personally benefitted from it, and filled the pages of books and American press and media with it. Barbara Goldsmith’s “Little Gloria, Happy At Last,” a big bestseller in the early ’80s is a gritty portrait of the childhood of the “poor little rich girl,” whose child custody case between her mother (also Gloria) and her paternal aunt Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney filled the tabloids that fascinated the American public of the Depression years of the 1930s. Cole Porter captured it perfectly in his song:

When folks who still can ride in jitneys
Find out Vanderbilts and Whitneys
Lack baby clo’es,
Anything goes.

She was the only famous, celebrated person I’ve ever met — and I’ve met lots of them in my line of work — who was charismatic on introduction and remained that person always. She was real. It wasn’t an act or pretense although you could imagine the same character in a movie. 

She probably had another side to her because we all do. But it was a natural awareness of her “fame” that was her defense, and her personal achievement. Because she always lived in Gloria’s world. It had been so with her all her life; not just the name but also the dame.

In Gloria’s words: “I recall a note from my Aunt Gertrude, received on a birthday long ago — Just think, today you are 17 whole years old! she wrote.”

That last sentence would have amused her on hearing. Gloria had many woman friends but she liked the company of men, all kinds of men. She was classy lady in bearing, and romantic and she had obvious active natural interests. She wasn’t coquette-ish;  she was womanly. Liberated by her childhood experience, she was always an independent woman. Aside from her early years with her own inherited big wealth which came and went as her life moved on, she simply pursued her interests. 

I’m guessing that it probably never really fazed her when she was low on funds which came in her later years.  She was naturally resourceful, like any entrepreneur/artist. And she always had generous friends who refilled the bank account. Bill Blass, at the end of his life was a major annual supporter. Gloria always lived in surroundings that accommodated her royal-ness; it was a matter of fact to anyone who knew her.

Gloria Vanderbilt and Bill Blass, Nov. 9, 1982. (AP Photo)

During that time, Gloria was offered a job on a commercial which paid her $25,000 (this is the figure that was going around among friends) which was a handsome sum at that time. Gloria took her bounty and went off to Ralph Lauren to spend all of it there. From one designer to another was an outrage to her old friend and benefactor. Nevertheless, he recovered and in the end provided generously for her in his will. For Gloria it was simply an opportunity to choose from someone else — whose work appealed to her. After all, it was just money.

A portrait of Gloria by Aaron Shikler, who was “a dear friend, and a great artist.”

She was as fascinated by people as they were of her. I met her in 1990 when I was living in California and had come to New York to research another personality of her social world. It was John Richardson who suggested I contact her using his name. And so I did. 

We met at an apartment she had at the time (she moved later to a townhouse on East 90th off Park, and even later to an apartment with a studio on Beekman Place, which I think was owned by her son Anderson Cooper).

Gloria with her son Anderson Cooper, when he was just 17.

She was radiant and warm and vulnerable — but wise — on meeting. When she first appeared, it was like “there she is, larger than life.” Naturally I was well aware of this character’s great multi-faceted life drama: she was not a celebrity, she was more like a legend. But real.

Gloria with her beloved Nanny Dodo, the mother she never had.

After that initial meeting at a restaurant nearby (Nicola’s), we occasionally dined together, and with others whom she wanted me to meet for my project. Up front and personal, she was delicate yet sturdy. She was curious, easily amused. She loved talking about her life – but only referentially, or if asked. The famous childhood and teenage marriage were not off-limits but it was so matter of fact that you never went there anyway.

In 1992 when I returned to live in New York, we resumed contact. She liked me. I was greatly flattered, because I liked her. She was what we used to call “down to earth” while always being celestial. When she answered the phone, the quiet, soft but certain voice answered: “Hello, this is Gloria…” as if to say “welcome.” I loved it. I can still hear it in my head as I write.  

Ours was not a great friendship, although we had several mutual friends and heard about each other – my hearing about her because friends loved to talk about Gloria. She was always a source of good stories. I wrote about her in back in the late ’90s, and she was very helpful in putting it together. She loved that stuff. 

She had a lot of friends, including friends from her childhood and school years. People wanted to know her. And she wanted to know them. Gloria was open and interesting and kind. There was no pretense. She wore it all  naturally. People on meeting her got that warm, delicate, full smile, as if she were honored to meet you.

Walking with Wyatt Cooper along Park Avenue.

She recalled her aunt Gertrude, who had been awarded custody of the young girl. You got the sense that there was no intimacy between aunt and niece. That was clearly because Gertrude wasn’t capable of expressing it openly. But Gertrude nevertheless was always a fascination for the young Gloria. Art for art’s sake. She once described Gertrude’s daily habits which were tightly organized. At a certain point in the mid-afternoon. Gertrude, dressed for serious business in suit and a flat, very wide brimmed hat, would go into her library. There, she would be set up in a high backed winged chair, by the window overlooking the grounds of the (Harry Payne Whitney) estate, with a writing table, and a large notebook for her writings.

Gloria Vanderbilt, left, and her Aunt Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney pose as they return to New York after a vacation in Cuba, April 28, 1939. (AP Photo)

Thinking back on it, it is easy to see that Gertrude was Gloria’s path to independence and freedom as an artist, a woman artist, and writer. In reviewing this long life of this remarkable person, Gloria, you can see that she was indeed, her art. Authentic, engaging, dramatic, and prolifically expressed. An achievement for the little Gloria; indeed, happy at last.  It is fitting that her departure from this life was announced by her famous son to millions of people across the world. Even in conclusion, her art was brilliantly marketed to a vast audience, an artist’s dream.

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