5 Things You Didn’t Know About Gloria Vanderbilt

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Gloria Vanderbilt.
Gloria Vanderbilt.Photo: HBO

Anderson Cooper and his 92-year-old mother, Gloria Vanderbilt, walked the red carpet hand-in-hand at the premiere of HBO’s documentary Nothing Left Unsaid on Monday night, demonstrating a closeness that’s also depicted in the film. Nothing Left Unsaid, which premieres on April 9, traces their shared experience of love and loss through the years.

“You know, there’s nothing worse than having the regret of your parent dying and feeling like you didn’t know them or they didn’t know you as an adult,” Cooper told the Cut. Herewith, the five most interesting things we learned about Gloria Vanderbilt from the documentary.

She was still in high school when she got married for the first time. She dated movies stars and wealthy magnates like Howard Hughes. While only a senior in high school in California, she got married to the 32-year-old Hollywood agent Pasquale (“Pat”) De Cicco, but had a bad feeling about the whole thing. “I wanted to run, but where was I going to run to?” Gloria tells the camera. Four years later, they got divorced after Gloria was physically abused to the point of having to see a doctor for a black eye.

She was terrified of being abandoned. Gloria was married four times and had a string of affairs with high-profile men. In Nothing Left Unsaid, she reflects on how her fear of abandonment — stemming from a high-profile child-custody case when she was just 10 years old — led to several rocky relationships. She explains that this fear led her to end relationships and break up with men first because she didn’t want to feel like the one being dumped. Her marriage to Wyatt Carter, Anderson’s father, was the first in which she “understood what it was like to be a parent and to have a family.” Wyatt died during heart bypass surgery in 1978, at 50 years old.

She witnessed her son’s suicide. One of the most gut-wrenching parts of the documentary was hearing directly from Gloria about the suicide of her son Carter. Carter, then 23, had woken up from a nap in a daze and went to Gloria’s room. He ran through the entire apartment, up to the terrace. When Gloria got out to the terrace, Carter was straddling the balcony railing with his hand stretched toward her, signaling her not to come near. She got down on her knees and begged him not to do anything rash, but Carter slid over the ledge and fell 14 stories to his death. The documentary ends with Gloria and Anderson visiting the graves of Wyatt and Carter,* hand in hand. “It’s nice they’re next to each other,” Anderson says.

Her regrets fuel and inspire her artwork. Gloria has always been involved with artists: She was Truman Capote’s muse for his Holly Golightly character in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, was married to director Sidney Lumet, and had affairs with Frank Sinatra and Marlon Brando. But Vanderbilt is also an artist in her own right and started painting at 14 years old when she was living with her aunt Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, the founder of the Whitney Museum, in Greenwich Village.

She was an actress in the ‘50s, a fashion designer, a writer, and a painter. In the documentary, Gloria says the inspiration for much of her art has been her regrets — for not being around when the nurse that she grew up with, Dodo, died; for not being able to stop her son from running to the terrace where he committed suicide; and for not having more meaningful last words with her mother. Vanderbilt’s paintings speak to these themes, including one showing her son Carter looking out the window. This one’s titled Hireath, a Welsh word for yearning and the grief for the lost places of your past — the essence of all paintings, she says.

Anderson and his mother are not all that different. Anderson asserts this in the film. Both he and his mother dealt with the loss of Wyatt and Carter, and both feel that they’re more resilient as a result. In a final scene, Gloria reads a poem she wrote titled “Beauty” to her son, and she asks him, “What does this mean to you?” When Anderson points the question back at her, she says, “I had the heart of a child from then on. I could survive things, and I do.”

*This posted has been corrected to show that Vanderbilt and Cooper visited Wyatt and Carter’s graves.