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The Last ‘It’ Girl

An era in American pop culture and high society has passed

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By Michael E. Dugenia

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Gloria Vanderbilt, the last of America’s golden girls and old money aristocrats, has died at 95 in New York. As reported by her son, CNN’s Anderson Cooper, she died surrounded by friends and family.

While many of today’s celebrity followers may not know who she is, aside from the fact that she was the mother of Anderson, she was one of the original “it” girls of the 20th century. Long before and more notable than any of the Kardashian girls, she was one of the first to live inside a glass bubble, endlessly hounded by photographers. Her presence always making the newspaper headlines back when the word paparazzi was yet to be loosely used.

I came to know about her not for her notoriety but for the famous ladies’ jeans she lent her name to in the early ’80s as well as fashion accessories like umbrellas, scarves, and fragrances. Before her, jeans where worn mostly by men and none looked feminine. She changed all that, making denims lady like; jeans that literally hugged the woman in the right places. It was chic, modern, and oh-so-feminine. And it was a hit! Women couldn’t seem to get enough allowing the one-time heiress to build a fashion empire that was worth 100 million dollars.

Of course, she was no stranger to wealth. Born Gloria Laura Morgan Vanderbilt, she was the daughter of Reginald Claypoole Vanderbilt, a grandson of Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt, one of the men who built America during the gilded age and, at one time, the wealthiest man.

Being born into great wealth, however, did not guarantee happiness. Her childhood was marred by a bitter and much-publicized child custody battle between her mother, the former Gloria Morgan and Vanderbilt’s rich aunt, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney. Amid scandalous allegations of child neglect, illicit affairs, and child abandonment, she was the pawn in a struggle that left her scarred and insecure.

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THE GIRL IN THE MIRROR Gloria Vanderbilt, pictured in 1954, was thrust into the spotlight as the “poor little rich girl” at the center of a sensational custody battle in the 1930s, before finding fame in her own right as a designer (AFP Photo)

As a grown up, she married four times. First, at 17, to Hollywood agent Pat DiCiccio who physically abused her. They divorced in 1945. Her second husband was to renowned conductor, Leopold Stokowski, more than two decades her senior. Though the marriage lasted 10 years, and resulted in two children, they divorced in 1955. She went on to marry director Sidney Lumet, but that too ended in divorce in 1956. Her last husband was to writer, Wyatt Emory Cooper. They had two sons, Carter and news anchor, Anderson. The marriage lasted until his death in 1978.

Gloria Vanderbilt was no stranger to tragedy. Having endured a tumultuous childhood marked by maternal neglect, a very public custody battle, the death of her last husband and great love, perhaps the most devastating was the suicide of her third son, Carter, who leapt to his death from his mother’s 14th floor New York apartment. In the book, Nothing Left Unsaid, she detailed how he took his own life in front of her leaping to his death from her apartment balcony. But being a survivor, she soldiered on, perhaps driven by her ravenous love of life.

She was a woman of contradictions— worldly yet pondering, modern yet grounded, vulnerable but always phoenix-like, forever rising above the ashes of pain and tragedy.

Apart from her success in fashion, Vanderbilt was also an accomplished painter, producing many fanciful works, such as Truman (a 1956 portrait of Truman Capote), Anderson Hays Cooper (a 1975 portrait of her son), and 60 Washington Mews (2012), to name a few.

She also penned many books such as A Mother’s Story, Once Upon A Time, It Seemed Important At the Time, Woman to Woman, Obsession: An Erotic Tale, Nothing Left Unsaid, as well as books on design and art. Recently, she and her son, collaborated on a book entitled The Rainbow Comes and Goes: A Mother and Son on Life, Loss, and Love, where she candidly discussed what it felt to lose a son and how she coped with Anderson being gay.

The book, a frank and poignant look into the relationship between mother and son, gave us a peek into who and what this remarkable woman was all about. She was a woman who loved and loved freely but, like all of us, she was just human. Prone to weakness and strength, passion and objectivity, but above all, a human being who lived life to the fullest and lived according to her terms.

The more I look into the life of this famous woman I am writing about, the more I see that there is truly more to her than just the name and the fame. She was a woman of contradictions—worldly yet pondering, modern yet grounded, vulnerable but always phoenix-like, forever rising above the ashes of pain and tragedy and loss and emerging stronger, wiser, more alive.

As younger and more superficial celebutantes hug the headlines in print and social media, the passing of Gloria Vanderbilt is truly the end of an era. An era of old money mingling with self-made fortunes, of old-world values giving way to modern sensibilities, of love and life prevailing over tragedy.

Gloria Vanderbilt has died by the time the “it” girl has come full circle. And there will never be another one like her. Ever.

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