When Life Magazine dubbed Gloria Vanderbilt “a feminine version of the Renaissance man” in 1968, they couldn’t possibly have predicted how fully she’d live up to that title. Over the past nine decades, Vanderbilt has packed in multiple lifetimes’ worth of experience. There is, of course, her famed pedigree, as the daughter of a railroad heir. There’s the matter of her romantic life, which has included four marriages (one to the director Sidney Lumet) and reported dalliances with Howard Hughes, Frank Sinatra, and Marlon Brando, among others. And then there’s her role as a muse, the supposed inspiration for Truman Capote’s Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany’s.
But even more noteworthy is her rich professional life: she was an actress in the early 1950s; is the author of a book of poetry, four memoirs and three novels (including an erotic one published when she was an octogenarian); was a fashion designer who created the tightest and skinniest of jeans in the 1970s; and has always been an artist.
Since her first solo exhibit of paintings in 1952, Vanderbilt has shown her works on paper at the Hammer Galleries in New York and the Southern Vermont Arts Center in Manchester. In 1996, she debuted a series of “Dream Boxes,” sometimes macabre, doll-filled installations. Her most recent endeavor is “The Left Hand is the Dreamer,” an exhibit and sale of drawings, paintings and collages with 1stdibs, which has its opening tonight at the company’s New York gallery. Less than a week after her 90th birthday, Vanderbilt chatted with W about her amazing life.
The title of the show is “The Left Hand is the Dreamer.” Why?
In mythology and palmistry, the left hand is called the dreamer because the ring finger on the left hand leads directly to the heart. I find it a very poetic idea. And that’s why I only wear nail polish on my left ring finger.
How long have you been interested in palmistry?
I guess I discovered it in adolescence. I mean, we all come across it at some point in our lives. I’m also very interested in astrology.
You just celebrated your 90th birthday, is it something you were looking forward to?
I can remember when I was in my 20s and I thought, I am never going to live beyond 30. It just seemed beyond the end. And then when 30 came and I was still on my feet I thought, I’m going to live forever. So from then on it was fine. But it is very interesting to think that one has reached that age and still is on one’s feet.
How did you celebrate?
HBO has been doing a documentary on me, so [my son] Anderson [Cooper] and I had peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and a long conversation, which HBO taped.
Your new show includes around 50 works made over the course of 8 months. What is the secret to your energy?
I’m very blessed with very good health, but my energy, which I’ve always had a huge amount of, as one gets older, it gets… But for those 8 months, I really took the veil so to speak and I worked from 9 until 3. I accomplished most of what I wanted in this show so I feel pretty good about it.
One work is called “Hireath.” I’ve never heard of that word before.
It’s Welsh and it means longing for something you never had or maybe just imagined. I had never heard it before. And it’s pronounced “hear-I-eth” with a kind of lilt at the end of it. Sometimes I just open a dictionary and point a finger to a word and it inspires me.
And there’s another called “Fat Girl Taking a Walk.” What was the spark behind that?
Well that actually is a collage. Many times working is kind of like channeling and I really don’t know what’s going to fall on the page. I just did this image of a fat girl and put her on a tiny mountain peak of grass that she’s walking over. It just amused me.
Did you have an overweight friend growing up?
I’ve had a lot of chubby friends. So maybe it’s one of them in my imagination.
There are a lot of animals in these works.
I love to think that animals and humans and plants and fishes and trees and stars and the moon are all connected.
Given your interest in dreams, have you ever been in analysis?
Oh yes, I was in analysis for years! And actually, I was betrayed by my analyst who formed a company with my lawyer and robbed me of my name and money and everything so my feelings about analysis have kind of gotten changed around. But the first analyst I went to did help me a great deal. When I first went I was 29 and the first thing I said to him was, Well, I’m here, but there’s one thing I’m never going to talk about and that’s my mother. About two years later her name came up.
Did you study art formally?
Yes, I went to the Art Students’ League and I studied with [artist and Metropolitan Museum of Art curator] Robert Beverly Hale. In my 20s I posed for a lot of artists like John Carroll and René Bouché and [Marcel] Vertes, a lot for Vertes. And I really learned a great deal from watching them work.
Have you ever wanted someone to pose for you?
I don’t use models at all except I’m obsessed with [writer] Joyce Carol Oates’s looks. I’ve done dozens of paintings of her and there’s one in this show. We’re great friends but she’s never posed for me. I have a certain image in my mind that I keep trying to capture but of course I never have. It’s really fascination with a muse.
I read somewhere that you are always in love.
Oh absolutely, that’s the key to everything.
And by that do you mean with a human being?
Well, if it’s not a human being it’s a tree or a flower. There’s a marvelous E.B. White story called “The Second Tree from the Corner.” A man is going in to see his analyst and he lies down on the sofa and doesn’t say anything. So the analyst says to him, Had any thoughts lately? And the man says, Well, when I was coming in to see you, it had snowed outside and there was a tree on the street, it was the second tree from the corner. And it was covered in snow and the sun was shining on it. And that just filled my soul. Because of the beauty of it. And these are things that one is in love with.
And are you currently in love with a tree or a person?
I’m in love with both! Both the snow-covered tree and the person.
“The Left Hand is the Dreamer” is on view to the public at the 1stdibs gallery, 200 Lexington Avenue, February 26th through March 27th. Works are available for purchase at 1stdibs.com