74 Minutes With Gloria Vanderbilt

Photo: Patrick McMullan

Found in Gloria Vanderbilt’s immensely cluttered art studio, below her apartment just south of Sutton Place: glitter; glue; paint (in tubes, dried on pallets, affixed to glass and canvas and mirror); broken mirrors; intact mirrors; doll heads; decapitated doll bodies; speckled bird eggs; decades-old gelatinous candy cubes; plastic masks; feathered masks; the Virgin Mary in many incarnations; a frog skeleton; collages of anonymous Elizabethans in paper lace; “Dream Boxes” of wedding-cake toppers and pill vials; a portrait of Vanderbilt’s deceased fourth husband, Wyatt Cooper; a life-size cardboard cutout of Vanderbilt’s hunky son, Anderson Cooper, taken from an airport where Vanderbilt had been conversing with it as part of a promotion for Cooper’s memoir; and, finally, Vanderbilt herself, a radiantly youthful 85, in red Japanese sandals, white Takashimaya blouse, gigantic necklace made from a stone chunk of Mayan ruins, and a defiantly unnaturally copper-colored bob.

Today, Vanderbilt paints. Five days before, she’d been fêted at good friend Diane Von Furstenberg’s store below the High Line for a different, but not wholly unrelated, artistic pursuit, her recently published book, Obsession: An Erotic Tale. Cooper, who has joked, “The six most surprising words a mother can say to her son are ‘Honey, I’m writing an erotic novel,’ ” couldn’t make it, though his absence likely had little to do with filial shame. Vanderbilt says she has only “two friends who thought the book would ruin my reputation, but they’re very square, very Waspy. The idea, I think, was that people have a certain image of me and it would be confusing that I would write an erotic book. But little do they know me!”

Certainly, as the heiress to a vast railroad fortune, Vanderbilt ran in the best New York circles. But she also went through four marriages—one to director Sidney Lumet—and affairs with Marlon Brando (“fleeting but fun”), Gene Kelly (“like Brando”), Howard Hughes (“very private”), and Frank Sinatra (“magical”). That she knows a thing or two about sex should come as a shock to no one.

These days, Vanderbilt shuffles more than she walks, and by 3 p.m., her energy gone, she’ll head upstairs for a nap and Judge Judy. But there are advantages to old age, too: “I couldn’t have written this book as a younger person.” Indeed, the novel, a Buñuel-esque mystery about Priscilla, the straitlaced wife of a prominent architect who discovers graphic letters of his affair with a courtesan upon his sudden death, is written with the kind of poetic authority that can only come from experience. And somehow Vanderbilt manages to build suspense and empathy while describing a spanking with a Mason Pearson brush, “throbbing drumlike” genitalia, and fresh carrots being thrust in the most unspeakable places. “A lot of it’s meant to be funny,” she says.

Her friends are even coming around now that Joyce Carol Oates gave it a rave blurb. And her publisher told her it was 80th on Amazon in its first week. “I said, ‘That doesn’t sound so hot!’ And he said, ‘No, no, we’re dealing with werewolves and vampires, so that is very good.’ ”

While promoting the book, Vanderbilt, who keeps an out-of-state lover, has become a sexual guru to the postmenopausal. “I do know some women who, as they get older, think that sex is over. And I just think it’s over for them. I think the quality gets better.” She advises taking it slow. “If we’re talking about sex as a slam-bam-thank-you-ma’am thing, that’s not sexy, even though for a lot of powerful men, that’s what their sexuality is. I think as you get older, you really want more sensuality, more chocolate sprinkles and clouds from heaven. And not … quick. I mean, more or less,” she chuckles. “Usually more is better.”

She’s also become a staunch advocate of not faking orgasms, which Priscilla does for her whole marriage and Vanderbilt admits she’s done, too. “But not recently,” she says. “Growing up, so many of us really got a sense of ourselves through the man that we were married to, and that’s very sad. I did an interview with Diane after the party, and we were asked, ‘Is it better to be a maîtresse or a wife?’ And we both together said, ‘Maîtresse!’ ”

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74 Minutes With Gloria Vanderbilt