Remembering Gloria Vanderbilt: America’s Beloved Socialite
By: Beverly Abellanosa
On June 17th, 2019, New York society mourned the loss of beloved heiress and socialite Gloria Vanderbilt. As announced by her son, CNN anchor Anderson Cooper, Vanderbilt was diagnosed with an advanced form of stomach cancer earlier this month. Though many remember Gloria Vanderbilt for her wealth and lavish lifestyle, few know of the tumultuous upbringing that shaped the society heiress and her consequent triumphs.
Gloria Laura Vanderbilt was born to Reginald Claypoole Vanderbilt, the heir to the Vanderbilt railroad fortune, and socialite Gloria Morgan Vanderbilt on February 20, 1924, in Manhattan, New York City. Following her father’s death from cirrhosis, Vanderbilt and her half-sister Cathleen Vanderbilt became entitled to half-shares in a $5 million trust fund (equivalent to $71 million in 2018).
Vanderbilt’s mother began to use her trust fund money to party across Europe while leaving Vanderbilt with a nanny. With the knowledge that Vanderbilt’s mother would control her finances while she was a minor, Vanderbilt’s paternal aunt Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney began to scrutinize her spending habits causing her to initiate one of the biggest child custody cases in history. After testimony was heard depicting a lesbian affair between Vanderbilt’s mother and a member of the British Royal Family as well as her apparent wasting of money, she was found to be an unfit parent and Whitney won custody of Vanderbilt. Vanderbilt’s mother was forced to live off of a significantly reduced portion of Vanderbilt’s trust and was eventually completely cut off by Vanderbilt once she turned 18.
Being raised by her aunt, Vanderbilt’s childhood life consisted of living in mansions in New York City and Long Island with frequent trips abroad and elite prep schools. Vanderbilt soon began to search for fulfillment through becoming an artist, a fashion model, a playwright, an actress, and a poet. Additionally, Vanderbilt became friends with pioneers of creative arts such as Diane Von Furstenberg and Truman Capote (Vanderbilt would serve as the inspiration for Holly Golightly in his novel Breakfast at Tiffany’s).
Gloria Vanderbilt’s endeavor into the fashion industry first began at the age of 17 when she appeared in Harper’s Bazaar. She soon became the face of many clothing and fragrance lines, prompting her to create her own line of clothes and fragrances. In the 1970s, Vanderbilt created her own line of scarves which were soon followed by her own line of designer jeans that had her signature on the back pocket and were the most tightly fitted of the time. L’Oreal would also launch eight fragrances under her name from 1982 to 2002.
Vanderbilt’s impact has reached various industries ranging from fashion, film and T.V., publishing, and art. She has appeared in a multitude of television dramas such as Playhouse 90, Studio One in Hollywood, and The Dick Powell Show as well as written four volumes of memoirs, three novels, two books on art and home decor, and wrote as a contributing writer to Elle, The New York Times, and Vanity Fair. She has also opened two art collections.
While many may be quick to criticize Gloria Vanderbilt for not leaving an inheritance for her children, one must realize that she has seen what inheritance can do to a family. Vanderbilt’s son CNN anchor Anderson Cooper has stated that his family does not believe in inheriting money and he personally believes inherited money is “a curse” and an “initiative sucker.” Gloria Vanderbilt will forever be remembered as one of America’s most beloved socialites and a woman who refused to be defined by the constraints of her identity.