Unbearably long pause.
“I don’t know.” Big squirmy pause. “Why are you interested in writing an article about me?”
At the time of our lunch, there were plenty of reasons. Beyond the fact that his mother is Gloria Vanderbilt, that his sleek good looks and boyish charm inspire an awful lot of I-love-Anderson mania on the Internet, and that his sexuality is regularly discussed just under the radar, there was a sense that Cooper seemed to be on the cusp of some sort of career breakthrough. He was, as the New York Observer put it, the “emo-anchor”—his befuddled, sardonic style sometimes tipping over into adolescent excitability or deeply felt compassion. Under the new leadership of Jonathan Klein, CNN was increasingly leaning toward an Andersonian emotionality, and seemed to be gaining some traction. And with the network anchor chairs recently vacated by Dan Rather, Tom Brokaw, and Peter Jennings, the inevitable what’s-next-for-the-news stories often mentioned Cooper as a rising, if unlikely, star.
Later, there would be other reasons. But neither of us could imagine them on a sunny day in midtown.
It should come as no surprise that Anderson Cooper is close to his mother. For one thing, they are a family of two. For another, they are alike in two very particular ways: They are both ferociously independent and they both seem to derive a lot of satisfaction from defying expectations. When I call Vanderbilt to talk about her son, she has prepared a list of notes: (1) I admire him more than I can say. (2) He’s very cool. (3) He is my closest friend.
“I can talk to Anderson about anything,” she says. “He always gives the best take on things. I remember once, a while back, I was having this relationship with a married man. It was very complicated. And I was talking on and on, just nonstop, and finally I paused to take my breath and he looked at his watch and said, ‘Time’s up. Tomorrow at three?’ ”
After three failed marriages, Vanderbilt married Wyatt Cooper, the screenwriter and author of Families: A Memoir and a Celebration, in 1964. Their two sons, Carter and Anderson, were born two years apart, in ’65 and ’67, and grew up in a five-story mansion on 67th Street. “Always, when I go by there,” she says, “I look at the wisteria vine in front of that house because Carter and Anderson and I were there when their father, Wyatt, planted that vine. It was a little tiny foot-high wisteria. Now it’s grown up over the whole building.”
Because Vanderbilt had such a legendarily awful childhood, she and Wyatt went to great lengths to make sure their children were happy. “In the milieu I grew up in, parents did not really see that much of their children,” says Vanderbilt. “But from the very beginning, we included them in everything”—including parties with the likes of Charlie Chaplin, Lillian Gish, George Plimpton, and Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne. “We talked to them, we got their opinion, their feelings, their input. Wyatt said once, ‘No child should ever be called little.’ They were always treated like potential adults.”
Wyatt Cooper died of a heart attack when Anderson was just 10 years old, an event, says Vanderbilt, that affected him “enormously.” Mother and sons moved out of the mansion on 67th Street and into a penthouse duplex at 10 Gracie Square. Somehow, shortly after that, young Anderson got it into his head that he had to earn his own money, be independent. He decided he would be a model. “It’s embarrassing,” he says. “But there’s not many jobs a 10-year-old can get.” He was signed by Ford and modeled for Ralph Lauren, Calvin Klein, and Macy’s until age 13, when he quit because a creepy male photographer propositioned him.
Vanderbilt’s first clue that her son was not going to be content living the privileged, pampered life of a New York gentleman was when he decided, at 17, to go on a survival trip to Africa. “He wanted to go and I let him,” she says. “I knew it was in his nature to take risks, live on the edge. He got malaria and was in a hospital in Kenya, and he never told me about this until he came home safe. When he came back from the trip, we were at our house in Southampton with friends for the weekend. He arrived late and we were all sitting on the porch and he was covered with mosquito bites.”
On July 22, 1988, Anderson’s older brother, Carter, leaped to his death from the fourteenth-floor terrace of Anderson’s bedroom in the apartment on Gracie Square. The news that Gloria Vanderbilt’s son had committed suicide is one of those moments in New York that have always stuck with me—perhaps it was the detail that he jumped as his mother pleaded with him not to. Anderson, who was in Washington, D.C., at the time, can only speculate about why his brother killed himself: Maybe Carter was depressed over the breakup with a girlfriend. His mother believed a new allergy medication he was taking may have caused a psychotic reaction. But, in the end, everyone was mystified. “Anderson was about to start his senior year at Yale,” says Vanderbilt. “At first he didn’t want to go back; he wanted to stay with me to protect me. But of course I wouldn’t let him.”