Gloria Vanderbilt, the intrepid heiress, artist and romantic who began her extraordinary life as the “poor little rich girl” of the Great Depression, survived family tragedy and multiple marriages and reigned during the 1970s and ’80s as a designer jeans pioneer, died Monday at the age of 95.
Vanderbilt was the great-great-granddaughter of financier Cornelius Vanderbilt and the mother of CNN newsman Anderson Cooper, who announced her death via a first-person obituary that aired on the network Monday morning.
Cooper said Vanderbilt died at home with friends and family at her side. She had been suffering from advanced stomach cancer, he noted.
“Gloria Vanderbilt was an extraordinary woman, who loved life, and lived it on her own terms,” Cooper said in a statement. “She was a painter, a writer, and designer but also a remarkable mother, wife, and friend. 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.”
Her life was chronicled in sensational headlines from her childhood through four marriages and three divorces. She married for the first time at 17, causing her aunt to disinherit her. Her husbands included Leopold Stokowski, the celebrated conductor, and Sidney Lumet, the award-winning movie and television director. In 1988, she witnessed the suicide of one of her four sons.
Tributes online came from celebrities and fans of her clothes alike. Alyssa Milano called her “an incredible woman,” Dana Delany said she treasures one of Vanderbilt’s paintings and model Carol Alt hailed her as a “fashion icon and innovator.” And one Twitter user mourned by remembering the canary Vanderbilt jeans she wore in junior high school.
Vanderbilt was a talented painter and collagist who also acted on the stage (“The Time of Your Life” on Broadway in 1955) and television (“Playhouse 90,” ”Studio One,” ”Kraft Theater,” ”U.S. Steel Hour”). She was a fabric designer who became an early enthusiast for designer denim. The dark-haired, tall and ultra-thin Vanderbilt partnered with Mohan Murjani, who introduced a $1 million advertising campaign in 1978 that turned the Gloria Vanderbilt brand with its signature white swan label into a sensation.
At its peak in 1980, it was generating over $200 million in sales. And decades later, famous-name designer jeans — dressed up or down — remain a woman’s wardrobe staple.
Vanderbilt wrote several books, including the 2004 chronicle of her love life: “It Seemed Important at the Time: A Romance Memoir,” which drops such names as Errol Flynn, whom she dated as a teenager; Frank Sinatra, for whom she left Stokowski; Marlon Brando and Howard Hughes.
She claimed her only happy marriage was to author Wyatt Cooper, which ended with his death in 1978 at age 50. Son Anderson Cooper called her memoir “a terrific book; it’s like an older ‘Sex and the City.’”
“I’ve had many, many loves,” Vanderbilt told The Associated Press in a 2004 interview. “I always feel that something wonderful is going to happen. And it always does.”
Ula Ilnytzky, The Associated Press