Gloria Vanderbilt doesn’t Twitter. She is, however, so e-mail obsessed that when she forces herself to log off, she starts to wonder what she’s missing. But then, how else does the modern pragmatist function?
When it comes to her work, Vanderbilt is indeed pragmatic, even if that tendency manifests with a girlishness that seems more genuine than calculated. She declines to describe her current paintings because one is better off checking them out at “www dot all-one-word gloriavanderbiltfineart.com. That’s my Web site, and it’s sponsored through the Southern Vermont Arts Center.” A story she wrote 15 years ago about her first love, a Princeton lad, and then recently tweaked and retweaked, was just published in an issue of the literary journal Boulevard. “I’ll get you a copy,” she offers, rushing to retrieve one. And while she avoids reading her own press, including, she promises, this article, she cops to checking out the photos, “the only part I really care about.” Yet she sits willingly for interviews because “well, if you have a career, you do have to.… It’s part of the territory.”
In Vanderbilt’s case, that’s one expansive landscape, as over the years she has traveled far in full public view, an object of journalistic and general prurient fascination since age 10. “Gloria is one of the last bridges between the Gilded Age that’s gone and today,” notes Wendy Goodman, whose photo-based biography, The World of Gloria Vanderbilt, will be published next year. “Certain women have a tremendous mystique you cannot put your finger on. She just radiates something very mysterious.”
For this story we meet in Vanderbilt’s Beekman Place apartment, nestled in one of Manhattan’s rare discreet neighborhoods on a street she likens to a London mew. Dressed in languid collar-to-toe whites, she makes a calm counterpoint to her surroundings. The space bubbles over with visual stimuli 80-plus years in the gathering, each piece somehow referencing that mystique and many—10 collages, two dream boxes, four paintings—of Vanderbilt’s own creation, work ranging from fanciful to disturbing. The effect is part tony elder bohemian, part batty Miss Havisham, even if the latter never shared lodgings with paintings as grand as the pair flanking the fireplace: her 1982 portrait by Aaron Shikler and one of her mother, Gloria Morgan Vanderbilt, when she was an 18-year-old bride honeymooning at the Ritz in Paris, painted in 1923 by Dana Pond. Between the two is Vanderbilt’s own 1953 still life Objects on Blue and Yellow, purchased by her dear friend Richard Avedon at her one-woman show. “Anderson Cooper bought it back for me at auction,” she says, beaming, referring to her famous son.
Vanderbilt settles into the sofa as comfortably as her regal posture allows to address the topic of the day: her new novel, Obsession, published by Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins. At 160 pages and in easy-to-read print, it could be mistaken for a third-grader’s chapter book but for its telltale subtitle, An Erotic Tale, a handle confirmed by opening randomly to almost any page. The story is about a woman, Priscilla, who thinks her marriage to “America’s most controversial architect,” Talbot Bingham, is blissful, even if when it comes to the joy of sex, she fakes it. When her husband dies suddenly, Priscilla uncovers a series of letters from his lover, Bee, who recounts in vivid blue detail the particulars of their various dalliances, the language not easily quoted here in complete sentences: “I will begin, softly at first so then you can sleep a few more minutes, the long, slow delicious process.…”
Vanderbilt’s new book.
The fairy-tale twist: Is Bee Priscilla’s nemesis or her alter ego? It’s a guessing game in which Vanderbilt delights and claims to be unsure of—but not for lack of consideration. “I’ve written some notes out,” she explains and begins to read from her prepared text. “Another world, exotic and surreal.… A type of thrust to unity.… Through the use of bodily and sexual pleasure the story achieves a universal understanding of identity.… The sexual dimensions,” she concludes, looking up from her paper, are not troublesome but “true of fantasy, self-exploration.”
Troublesome, perhaps not, but blush-inducing definitely, both for their specificity of description—props include a whip, a Mason Pearson hairbrush, and various fruits and vegetables—and the author’s over-the-top, rapturous prose. She insists “the only thing that would ever embarrass me would be something I would write that would be badly written.” Yet despite having gone on the record in her various memoirs about her own considerable affairs of the heart, she insists this book is fiction and not autobiographical in the least.
“I think it’s in character in a lot of ways,” notes Ben Brantley. Vanderbilt’s friend of nearly 30 years, the New York Times theater critic calls her an aesthetician whose “greatest aim in life is to create beauty out of anything.… Nothing about Gloria surprises me,” he continues. “She’s a romantic; she always has been. More than anyone I know, she has a teenager’s infatuation with love and everything that goes with it.”
She also retains a young person’s belief in what’s possible. Vanderbilt has developed a fantasy casting for Obsession the movie, and one gets the impression she’d volunteer for screenwriting duty in a heartbeat. Her perfect director: Luis Buñuel, but since “he’s not with us,” Barbet Schroeder. Talbot: Jeremy Irons. Nadine (Bee’s rival for Talbot’s attentions at the Janus Club sex retreat): Nicole Kidman. Bee: Anne Archer “as she was in Fatal Attraction,” Julianne Moore or Maggie Gyllenhaal. She rejects a suggestion, Angelina Jolie, as too sophisticated. As for Priscilla, Bee’s possible alter ego goes unmentioned. Such is not the case with Maja, the “ever solicitous duenna of our establishment.” Vanderbilt’s actor of choice: “myself.” A few days later, she will call with some amendments. Jolie is in; the other Bee contenders are out. And Irons is replaced by French actor Daniel Auteuil. Why? Talbot’s mother was Roman.
As a young woman, in fact, Vanderbilt spent seven years pursuing an acting career. She quit because she determined that no level of success would be enough and because “it brought out things in me that I didn’t really like.… [In] my marriage to Sidney Lumet [her third husband], I kept putting off having a baby because I wanted more success, and things like that.”
Vanderbilt was already a mother. Of her two sons by second husband Leopold Stokowski, the elder, Stan (Leopold Stanislaus), runs a gardening business in Sag Harbor, New York; his wife, Emily Goldstein, has “a wonderful gallery in East Hampton called the Drawing Room.” The younger son “lives in upstate New York and is out of touch with all of the family,” she says. The stories of Vanderbilt’s sons by her fourth and last husband, Wyatt Cooper, whom she calls her “soulmate,” are well-known. At 23, Carter committed suicide by jumping out of a window in Vanderbilt’s then apartment as she watched, helpless to stop him. Anderson Cooper has gone on to media fame. “Wyatt and I both knew both our children would be stars,” she says. “Carter might be president today had he lived. He was golden and true, as Anderson said at his memorial, and he had a trace of F. Scott Fitzgerald, a romantic-readiness attitude to life.” As for Anderson, Vanderbilt glows with pride at the mention of his name. “I think he’s so successful because what you see is what you get,” she says. “There’s no bull. There’s no facade.”
Certainly there wasn’t in his response to Obsession, which she sent him early on. “A lot of it, in my opinion, is funny,” she says. “He said he didn’t get it.” (Still, she stresses that he is totally supportive of the project.) Vanderbilt has the opportunity to turn the critic’s table on him daily. After each viewing of AC360º—she proclaims herself the CNN program’s most devoted fan—she e-mails him her comments.
Yet despite her understandable fascination with one hot television show, Vanderbilt has hardly become a pop-culture junkie. “I can’t bear to look at Paris Hilton and all that,” she says. “I mean, it really doesn’t grab me. I don’t think she’s interesting, and the sense of values seems sort of off-kilter. How old is she now?”
Perhaps 27, 28.
“She ought to know better.”
Nor has Vanderbilt followed the running trial of Brooke Astor’s son, Anthony Marshall. The loaded mother-child relationship “doesn’t even interest me at all. She never grabbed me,” she says.
Today Vanderbilt remains quietly social and enjoys a loyal circle of friends. She favors intimate dinner parties at home (“Eight is a perfect number”), sojourns to a neighborhood restaurant and, yes, amour. “I’m always in love,” she says, of the condition she considers her greatest beauty secret. (It’s working; at 85, she’s gorgeous.) Though her latest romance is relatively recent, “the next time I see you, I may be in love with somebody else.”
Were she to find herself in the market, Vanderbilt has definite opinions on what to look for: “Dependability, first and foremost. Chemistry, which is basic. Warmth is absolutely essential. I don’t like cold people at all. It makes me feel really insecure. Somebody who is established. And a yacht would be nice.”
Which is not to say the lady’s acquisitiveness veers only toward the spectacular; rather, Vanderbilt appreciates simpler pleasures as well. She notes, for example, a recent success acquired via the Williams-Sonoma catalog: “I just got a wonderful juicer.”
Book: Courtesy of Ecco