Gloria Vanderbilt, the society heiress who stitched her illustrious family name into designer jeans and built a $100 million fashion empire, crowning her tabloid story of a child-custody fight, of broken marriages and of jet-set romances, died on Monday at her home in Manhattan. She was 95.
Her death was confirmed by her son Anderson Cooper, the CNN journalist in a broadcast.
To millions of women (and men) who wore her jeans, blouses, scarves, shoes, jewelry and perfumes, who saw her alabaster face, jet-black hair and slim figure in magazines, and who watched her move across a television screen and proclaim that her svelte jeans “really hug your derrière,” Ms. Vanderbilt was an alluring, faintly naughty fashion diva in the 1970s.
But behind the flair and the practiced, throaty whisper — a plummy voice redolent of Miss Porter’s School and summers in Newport — there were hints of a little girl from the 1930s who stuttered terribly, too shy and miserable to express her feelings, and a tumultuous American life chronicled faithfully in the gossip columns: every twist of her Hollywood affairs, her loneliness, bursts of creativity and the blow of witnessing the suicide of a son.
Eventually, too, the press reported on her real successes in the fashion industry — and on her late-in-life tax, legal and money problems — and re-examined her life of turmoil with deeper interest. There were also laudatory reviews of her memoirs, which looked back on the painful betrayals of lovers, husbands and her parents — a playboy father she never knew and a negligent teenage mother, whom she forgave.
She was America’s most famous non-Hollywood child in the Roaring Twenties and Depression years, the great-great granddaughter of the 19th-century railroad-steamship magnate Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt. In infancy, she inherited a $2.5 million trust fund, equivalent to $35 million today, which she could not touch until she was 21, though her mother gained access to nearly $50,000 a year.
Newspapers called her a poor little rich girl. Her alcoholic father died when she was a baby. Her mother left her with a nanny and partied across Europe on her money for years. When Gloria was 10, her mother and a wealthy aunt sued each other in the era’s most sensational child-custody case. The aunt exposed her mother’s escapades and won custody of a child left traumatized.
Growing up in her aunt’s mansions in New York City and on Long Island, with servants, chauffeurs, lawyers, tutors, private schools and trips abroad, Ms. Vanderbilt searched for fulfillment as an artist, a fashion model, a poet, a playwright and an actress of stage, screen and television. She had affairs with Errol Flynn, Frank Sinatra, Gene Kelly, Howard Hughes and Marlon Brando.
Her friends were Charlie Chaplin, Diane von Furstenberg, Bobby Short and Truman Capote, who was said to have modeled the character Holly Golightly after her in his 1958 novella, “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.” (Audrey Hepburn played the part in the 1961 film adaptation.) Ms. Vanderbilt surfaced regularly in society columns and lists of best-dressed women in America.
She married and divorced three men — a mobster who beat her; the conductor Leopold Stokowski, who was 42 years older and preoccupied with his own career; and the film director Sidney Lumet. She had two sons with Stokowski and two with her fourth husband, Wyatt Cooper. One son was Anderson Cooper of CNN; another son, Carter Cooper, fell to his death from her Manhattan penthouse.
In the mid-1970s, when jeans were cut mostly for men, the clothing manufacturer Mohan Murjani signed Ms. Vanderbilt to market jeans for women with her signature on the back pocket. She zealously promoted them in memorable television ad campaigns and public appearances, setting new trends in apparel marketing as the first American to exploit a famous family name on designer clothing. (Others, like Calvin Klein, were self-made status symbols.) Her national in-store promotional tours were like movie-star appearances.
Gloria Vanderbilt jeans soon became a $100 million-a-year business, with skirts, sweaters, jackets, linens and fragrances joining her growing product lines. After years of living on inherited money, Ms. Vanderbilt had a share of the profits and a burgeoning income of her own — $10 million in 1980 alone — and it felt good.
“I’m not knocking inherited money,” she told The New York Times in 1985, “but the money I’ve made has a reality to me that inherited money doesn’t have. As the Billie Holiday song goes, ‘Mama may have and Papa may have, but God bless the child that’s got his own.’ ”
A complete obituary will appear shortly.
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