Gloria Vanderbilt

“I’ve always believed that one woman’s success can only help another woman’s success.”

Gloria Vanderbilt, American artist, actress, fashion designer, 1924-2019.

Known as “the Queen of Jeans,” for having invented the first designer denim for women, Gloria Vanderbilt was an extraordinary woman, recognized for her artistic talent, her great beauty and style, her resilience in the face of adversity and tragedy, and her love of life. That the famous Gloria Vanderbilt stretch-denim jean released in 1976 featured a golden swan as its pocket motif, is a fitting metaphor for a woman who appeared to glide gracefully across the water while madly paddling underneath it in order to stay afloat. Despite being an heiress, she was famous for her work ethic and, thanks to the jeans, was a self-made business woman too. The embroidered swan was in fact a reference to her other career, as an actress, having performed in The Swan in 1955.  She also designed fabrics and tableware and wrote how-to books, novels, and poetry, and was an accomplished painter.

Vanderbilt was born in Manhattan, New York to a teenage mother, also named Gloria. When Gloria senior’s husband, a gambler, died when Vanderbilt was 15 months old, she decided to recapture her youth in Europe rather than be burdened by motherhood. After a well-publicised court battle, custody of “Little Gloria'' was awarded to Vanderbilt’s aunt, and she moved from Europe to New York to start a new life as an American girl. When her trust fund kicked in, she had to support her own mother with an allowance, and they were estranged for much of her life. 

Like her mother, Vanderbilt was a teenage bride, married at age 17 to a Hollywood agent who was abusive. She divorced him, and soon met a 63-year-old orchestra conductor at a party and married him three weeks later. They had two sons, but ultimately divorced while the boys were still young. One of her sons by that marriage never forgave her, and they, too, were estranged. Her final marriage produced another two sons, (“you’re going to have to start a baseball team” were her mother’s final words to her before she died). The elder, Carter, jumped from the balcony of their 14th floor penthouse right in front of his mother when he was 23. The other son is CNN broadcast journalist Anderson Cooper. Having also experienced the untimely death of her third husband from a heart attack, Vanderbilt forged on, saying “Only when you accept that life is a tragedy can you begin to live.”

In Cooper’s new “All There Is” podcast, he recounts packing up his late mother’s Manhattan apartments, and coming across a note in the closet labelling the skirt and blouse she was wearing on the day of Carter’s death. He also notes that while she was alive she made sure to inform him of her preferred make-up artist and the yellow Fortuny gown she wanted to be buried in, whether the casket was open or closed.  

Vanderbilt was known not just for her style but for her decorating talents, always perfecting the ambiance at her parties with opulent flowers and fragrant Rigaud candles. But trauma from her turbulent childhood underlay her wide smile and signature giggle. She once impulsively painted a quote above her fireplace: “Be Kind to Everyone You Meet for Everyone is Fighting a Great Battle.”

When her doctor gave her her cancer prognosis, she was characteristically optimistic, quoting the 1950 Peggy Lee lyric “Show me the way to get out of this world, because that's where everything is.”


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