In a century that saw its fair share of larger-than-life socialites, few covered quite as much ground as Gloria Vanderbilt, who has died at 95 after fascinating Americans for, essentially, her entire life.
As a child, Gloria Vanderbilt was the original “Poor Little Rich Girl.” One of many, still-monied descendants of the original Cornelius Vanderbilt, Gilded Age railroad tycoon, her father died when she was a baby and her mother was famously inattentive. When she was 10, her aunt sued for custody in a case that was splashed across the nation’s newspapers. When she reached adulthood, she cut a wide swath through the 20th century; as her New York Times obituary put it:
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.
She would eventually find success in her own right, in the form of blue jeans. It was an early collaboration between a clothing maker and a famous name; Vanderbilt wasn’t actually designing the “Gloria Vanderbilt” jeans that bore her name from start to finish. But she certainly put in the work to make them a success, appearing in the ads and criss-crossing the country doing promotional appearances at department stores. A 1979 New York Times piece on the label’s meteoric rise to success captures the atmosphere:
A recent appearance in Minneapolis was moviestar impressive. On a Friday afternoon, a crowd of several hundred had gathered in the designer jeans area of Dayton’s (next to “Indeed Dresses”); their necks craned to catch her entrance. They thrust copies of her book, “Woman to Woman,” at her to autograph; they asked for her advice on decorating, on dressing, on careers; they thanked her for her jeans. From toothless old women to chubby adolescents, they thronged and whispered: “She’s not as skinny as I thought.” “Oh, Mommy, she touched your bag.” “She looks prettier here than on TV.”
While she was very warm and interested and exceedingly professional, it was quite clear that she was not one of them. There is the perfectionism of her appearance, her expensive‐looking skin, the scent of her Oscar de la Renta perfume, and her chiseled, yet exotic, features. “She has that Bacchanalian look the Vanderbilts all had,” says Diana Vreeland.
The collaboration set the stage for the numerous celebrity fashion lines that have come since.
She would paint, model, design, and write multiple memoirs; at 85, she even wrote an erotic novel. Vanderbilt is survived by her son, Anderson Cooper.