Anderson Cooper pays tribute to his extraordinary mother.
Gloria Vanderbilt Photographed by Horst for Vogue, 1966
I don’t really know who the woman in this photograph is. She is my mom, of course, Gloria Vanderbilt—I recognize the face, the look in her eyes, the shape of her nose—but she has lived so many different lives, inhabited so many different worlds, that in this picture, as in many photos, I find it hard to really see her. Among other things, she’s been an actress, an artist, a designer, a writer, a wife, a mother, a lover, a victim, and a survivor. Every few years she seems to shed her old self, and is born anew.
The photo was taken by Horst in April 1966. My mom is wearing a Mainbocher dress and is in a grand old town house on Sixty-seventh off Park Avenue, where she lived with my father, Wyatt Cooper, whom she married in 1964, and my brother Carter, who was born in 1965. I am not yet born. In fact, I won’t be conceived for another seven months.
We lived in the house for another five years or so after I arrived, and though I recall some of the rooms, I’m not sure which one this picture was taken in. The one I remember most was a bedroom my mother covered entirely in patchwork quilts: the walls, the ceiling, the furniture, she’d even glued quilts to the floor and had them coated with polyurethane. It was like being inside a collage. I’ve never seen anything like it since.
My mom is 42 years old in this photograph, a year younger than I am now. She looks so much more grown up than I feel. I suppose all children, no matter what age, feel that about their parents.
“I remember being completely fulfilled, contented, and happy,” my mom said when I asked her about the photograph. Contentment is something my mom rarely admits to. She and I are similar in that way. We are both restless, always searching, looking into the future at what is coming next.
They sicken of the calm, who knew the storm,” she often says, quoting her friend Dorothy Parker, who died four days after I was born and was laid to rest in another Mainbocher dress my mom gave her.
I have never seen this photo before. It’s a beautiful picture—elegant, stylish—but it’s not really her at all. I think it says more about the person taking the picture than it says about my mom. It is a photo of how Horst, or perhaps some magazine art directors, saw her—who they thought she was or should be. It is not how my mom saw herself, and it certainly is not who she is now.
Yes, drape that arm around that pillow,” I imagine Horst saying, “and yes, the head, try resting it against that other one. Yes, perfect, languid but glamorous. Yes, as if you are just relaxing before guests arrive.
There certainly were glamorous parties in that house on Sixty-seventh Street. I recently found a photograph of me shaking Charlie Chaplin’s hand when he arrived for a party in his honor. He had just returned to the United States after many years in exile in Switzerland. My parents had shown us his films, but I was surprised to discover the youthful little tramp had become a white-haired man well into his 80s. I remember dinners with Truman Capote, and Lillian Gish. Al Hirschfeld and Charles Addams used to draw pictures for my brother and me.
The elegant life portrayed in the picture was real. That was my mom’s house, and that probably was her dress, and the needlepoint chair in the foreground was embroidered by my mother’s aunt Thelma. But the photograph focuses only on a part of my mom’s life; it doesn’t really capture her strength, her passion, the drive that propelled her forward through great successes and failures.
Unlike others who came from privileged backgrounds, who spent their days at country clubs or gossiping over long lunches, my mom has always had a relentless determination—a need to create, to achieve on her own—born of pain and loss.
My mom’s father died when she was an infant, and at the age of ten, she was taken away from her own mother, the result of a bitter custody battle begun by her father’s sister Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney. At the time, the height of the Depression, the battle of the Vanderbilts made daily headlines. The one constant in my mom’s early life was her beloved nurse, whom she called Dodo. When the judge awarded custody of my mother to her aunt, a woman she barely knew, he also banished Dodo from her life.
I have a black-and-white newsreel from that time, which shows my ten-year-old mom arriving in court, surrounded by a phalanx of fedora-wearing bodyguards. She is staring down, her eyes glazed. She is focused inward, and I see that she has already begun the internal dialogue she continues to carry on with herself to this day. Under the intense pressure of that early loneliness and chaos, and the fame that followed, my mom formed a rock-hard core that nothing could crack.
I sometimes think she would have been better off without that last name. It came with great advantages, no doubt, but great baggage as well, so many preconceived notions that color how other people see you. I am certainly glad I don’t have that name.
The problem with drive, however, is that if you have it, you are rarely satisfied, and you must continue to move forward toward new things, find new skins to inhabit. That’s another reason photos I see of her so often fail to capture her essence. They are mere snapshots in time, poses she is trying on and will soon move away from.
She has not always been successful, but no level of failure or betrayal or tragedy has diminished her drive to create. She’s what is sometimes called a survivor, but she has none of the toughness that term so often implies.
My mom is 86 now, though she has stopped celebrating birthdays and no longer thinks about age in the way she once did. She is the most youthful person I know and still believes great opportunity and great love is just around the corner. The funny thing is, if you spend even a short amount of time with her, you start to believe it as well.
She has a large art studio in an apartment below the one she lives in, and on most days slips down the back stairs to paint or write. She doesn’t call me often, because she is always concerned about interrupting me at work, but she has finally mastered E-mail and sends them frequently, inviting me to come look at a new painting or a new story she is working on.
If I were taking a photograph of her now, it would be of how she appears when I visit her. She is ensconced on a couch very similar to the one in the Horst photo, but she is barefoot because that is how she is at home when talking with me or with friends late into the night. She does not have any makeup on, because that is how she is most comfortable, most beautiful.
All around her are the objects she has collected through her many lives: shiny silver fish in a silver bowl; small boxes she bought in Europe; a Mexican cross from a long-ago trip. Every object has a story, a history. Nearby is the same needlepoint chair embroidered by her mother’s sister.
She may wrap a hand around a pillow, and lay her head back on another one, but she has none of the icy cool of the woman posing for Horst. No longer limited by old concerns, by things that once seemed important, even urgent, she is focused only on what she cares about, excited by what lies ahead, and able to laugh about all that she has been through, all the ways she has seen herself and been seen by others.
Article as published in the November 2010 issue of Vogue, on newsstands nationwide October 26th.
The World of Gloria Vanderbilt, by Wendy Goodman, will be published this month by Abrams.