Photo: Thomas Laird

On Saturday, August 27, it became obvious to Anderson Cooper that Katrina was going to be a very big storm and a very big story. So he cut short his vacation in Croatia, got on a plane to New York, and then headed south.

He landed in Baton Rouge on Sunday night and rented an SUV with plans to drive to New Orleans, but he was a few hours too late—the storm had already begun to pummel the city. He decided to wait for the hurricane to come to him, and then weathered it on the air as it slowly exited the Gulf Coast and churned northward.

Over the next day or two, largely cut off from his producers in New York, he struggled to figure out where he should go. By Tuesday night, he was anchoring his show on CNN, Anderson Cooper 360°, from Gulfport, Mississippi, standing in front of a giant floating casino that had washed inland. The next day, he went to some of the hardest-hit towns in that state: Bay St. Louis and Waveland. By the time I finally am able to get through to him on a satellite phone, it is Friday, though he doesn’t seem to know what day it is. At this point, he has been in the field for more than 100 hours, gotten into an on-air tussle with a senator, and been hailed by some as a model of what a television journalist should be. As I talk to him, he is sitting on what used to be someone’s front yard in Waveland, an antique-toy-car collection scattered all over the ground around him. He is a stew of emotion: dejection, regret, sadness, anger. “I was really affected by the bodies,” he says, his voice cracking. “I’ve seen a lot dead bodies before, and I’m not sure why these dead bodies affected me so much, but I sort of haven’t been able to stop thinking about them.”

When I ask what his life has been like for the past few days, he says, “I’m fine.” Long pause. “It’s a horrible story to cover.” Another long pause. “Frankly, I feel privileged to be here. I’m really … I don’t want to leave … Um … ” He starts to cry. “I’m sorry,” he says, “I’m going to have to call you back in a second.”

When I first met Cooper a month earlier in Manhattan, there were much more mundane things on his mind, like where to go for lunch. Because he sticks out like a silvery human hood ornament, I spotted him talking on his cell phone from two blocks away. He was standing in front of Vinyl, a self-consciously hip restaurant in the far West Fifties. Though it was midday on one of the hottest days of the year, Cooper couldn’t have looked more put-together in his impeccably modern black suit, crisp pink shirt, and perfectly knotted purple-and-blue tie. What is it about people with that particular combination of icy blue eyes, pale skin, and silver hair? Cooper’s appearance lends him an aspect of otherworldly knowingness and inner calm. But appearances can be deceiving.

The restaurant was his choice, but it was crowded, close, and loud. He quickly realized that it was a bad idea, and that’s when things started to get a little strange. We stepped back into the heat and bustle of Ninth Avenue, and Cooper began to do some restaurant calculus in his head. After a few mumbled half-sentences, he said, “Well, there’s a greasy spoon in the next block, or there’s the Italian place across the street.” Finally we headed in the direction of the diner, but halfway down the block he changed his mind. “Let’s be grown-up and go to the Italian place,” he said, and we turned around. But in that restaurant he was equally unhappy, so we walked out once again. As he pointed out a bistro and a Thai place across the street, I could see the wheels of indecision spinning again. “Thai places are always quiet,” he said, and within a minute we were finally seated in … a tiny, noisy, hot Thai restaurant.

Even after the decision was made, Cooper was restless and uncomfortable. In an attempt to break the ice, I paid him a compliment about his show.

“Um.” He stared at his water glass. “Um.” He picked up the glass and took a sip. “You know, we try to do a mix of stories … um … ” He put the glass down, played with his chopsticks. “I don’t know.” He was squirming in his seat. “I really hate talking about myself.”

You do?

“Yeah. Sorry.”

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.”

Vanderbilt agrees that her son is especially sensitive and emotional and that he was shaped in some way by losing both of the other men in his family. “These are the two events that affected him at gut level. Later, when he became a reporter, it enabled him to do this with compassion and maturity way beyond his years. I’ve always thought that TV is like an X-ray. And when you see Anderson on TV, what you see is what you get. He really is like that.”

The first thing you notice upon entering Cooper’s newsroom on the seventh floor over the new Time Warner Center on Columbus Circle is a vast wall of glass that offers a breathtaking view over the tops of the trees in Central Park. Even if Cooper has to share the space with Paula Zahn, it’s quite a tasty piece of real estate dedicated to putting him on the air every night. The second thing you notice is Cooper himself. Though he has a roomy corner office, he prefers to hang out at a desk on the fringe of the newsroom so he doesn’t miss anything.

He takes me into his office, which is filled with souvenirs and keepsakes from his travels—a MANDELA FOR PRESIDENT poster; a piece of a car that got blown up in Sarajevo; a photograph of Cooper slumped on the pavement, waiting for Hurricane Dennis to make landfall—but only one personal memento: a framed family portrait taken in 1972. Carter, Anderson, and their mother and father are all casually dressed in white and navy and happily draped across one another on a gingham-covered couch.

His brother’s suicide was the precipitating event for his career as a journalist, Cooper tells me. Not long after graduating from Yale, he went out on his own—armed with just a home video camera and a fake press pass—to places like Burma and Somalia, and then edited his video journals into reports, which he sold to Channel One, the closed-circuit classroom news network. He wrote about one of these early trips in Details: “I’d come to be a reporter. At least that was the excuse. The only thing I really knew is that I was hurting and needed to go someplace where the pain outside matched the pain I was feeling inside. Somalia seemed a good place to start.” Over the next couple of years, Cooper traveled to Thailand, Vietnam, Rwanda, Bosnia—basically anywhere there was conflict or suffering in the early nineties. “Loss,” he tells me, “is a theme that I think a lot about, and it’s something in my work that I dwell on. I think when you experience any kind of loss, especially the kind I did, you have questions about survival: Why do some people thrive in situations that others can’t tolerate? Would I be able to survive and get on in the world on my own?”

His work for Channel One led to a job as one of the youngest correspondents ever at ABC. But the network didn’t quite know what to do with this young guy whose reports were often six minutes long and shot on camcorders. He eventually wound up in the purgatory that is World News Now, the overnight newscast that, Cooper says, “no one within ABC actually watched.” Cooper thought his career as a newsman was going nowhere, so when ABC offered him the job to host the reality show The Mole, he jumped at the chance. His justification: “Frankly, I didn’t see much of a difference between the stuff that I was seeing on news shows and reality TV.” But it seemed doubtful at the time that he could ever go back to serious news.

He managed to, though, landing a gig in early 2002 co-hosting CNN’s morning show with Paula Zahn. More than a few people at CNN thought it was unseemly that the host of The Mole was given such a prominent slot. “I don’t think they liked me very much,” he says, “and I don’t think I was very good.” He realized he was in trouble when he got sent to Afghanistan—without a dedicated camera crew. “I got to Kabul and I was like, ‘Hey, wait a minute. This is how you get pushed out. You get sent far away without any backup.’ ”

Finally, he caught a break. When he returned from Afghanistan in May, Cooper was asked to fill in for Aaron Brown on NewsNight, and something clicked. “I loved working that show,” he says. “It was a better format for me. The week I was there, they let me play with stuff and morph things around, and the audience responded because I was just being real, being myself, because I had nothing to lose.” Anderson Cooper 360° followed in September 2003.

When I ask Cooper what he thinks about being labeled the “emo-anchor,” he says, “As in Emo Philips? Or emo-tive? I hope it’s not Emo Philips.” He can’t resist one more crack. “Let me emote here, if I may.” He laughs. “I didn’t go to anchor school or work in a local station, so I never really learned the patter and the emphasis, the one-word-in-the-sentence kind of cadences. The best thing I can do is just be myself and not pretend to be this hard-bitten reporter. I feel like I’m making it up as I go along. I’m not the best TelePrompTer reader and I say um too much and I stumble and I stutter a lot.”

His non-anchor appeal has exerted a strong pull on some of his viewers. Later that night, as we are leaving the Time Warner Center, a security guard appears to escort Cooper from the lobby to the Town Car waiting just across the sidewalk. Cooper explains that a couple of months before, a woman who had made contact with him in the past grabbed him when he was coming up out of the subway one morning. Then, two nights earlier, another woman turned up. She had sent Cooper a teddy bear dressed in a suit and tie in the colors that he wears on the air: gray and blue. Angry that he didn’t respond, she turned up outside the building to see him. CNN doesn’t want to take any chances, hence the bodyguard.

Becoming famous is clearly a mixed bag for Cooper. “Suddenly, living in New York has never been more like living in Mayberry,” he says. “People at the deli are like, ‘Hey, Andy!’ But the fame element is probably the least compelling thing about this job.” He tells me that he learned how to handle it from watching his mother, who told him never to read anything written about himself if he wants to stay “clear.” He says, “The stuff that a lot of people dream about—becoming famous or whatever—is ultimately not going to lead you to happiness. I am certainly a child of privilege, and I’m well aware of it, but for me the greatest privilege of my childhood was learning that at a very young age.”

When he first came to CNN, Cooper says, “I don’t think they liked me very much, and I don’t think I was very good.” He got sent to Afghanistan without a camera crew. “This is how you get pushed out.”

Obviously, the other downside to his growing fame is that it serves to ratchet up the interest in his personal life, something he has been very careful to keep out of the press. There has been a lot of chatter on the Internet about the fact that Cooper may or may not be gay, and Village Voice columnist Michael Musto has taken pleasure in quoting the gay magazine Metrosource, which has referred to Cooper as “the openly gay news anchor.” It has been assumed in certain circles in New York partly because he lives what looks to some to be a gay social life. He’s often seen at parties with Barry Diller, and he’s friends with the lead singer from the outré gay rock band the Scissor Sisters. And then there was the tempest in a teapot regarding a slightly heated interview last fall with Jerry Falwell about gay marriage. Some Cooper-obsessed bloggers insist that the anchor outed himself on the air, taking the gay side of the debate and saying, “We pay taxes.” They claim CNN originally posted a transcript with the “we” and then later changed it to “You pay taxes.” Cooper has maintained all along that he said “you.”

When I bring up the sexuality issue with Cooper, he says, “You know, I understand why people might be interested. But I just don’t talk about my personal life. It’s a decision I made a long time ago, before I ever even knew anyone would be interested in my personal life. The whole thing about being a reporter is that you’re supposed to be an observer and to be able to adapt with any group you’re in, and I don’t want to do anything that threatens that.”

On Tuesday, August 30, the day that the levees were breached in New Orleans, Cooper suddenly found himself alone in Mississippi, cut off from the mother ship. His producers at CNN couldn’t reach him, nor he them. He couldn’t even get an e-mail on his BlackBerry. He went to fill up the gas tank of his rented SUV and restock his supplies at a Wal-Mart, where he was recognized by a woman who had fled Bay St. Louis, the small coastal casino town near Biloxi. The woman hadn’t heard anything on the news about her hometown, and she pleaded with Cooper to go there. So he started to drive. The water was so high he didn’t think he could make it in his SUV. “We made one of those dicey decisions,” says David Doss, his producer back in New York. “He abandoned the truck he was in and we tried to get him with a truck that was coming from Texas. We had this ‘Where’s Anderson?’ nightmare.”

He eventually found his way to a satellite truck that had arrived ahead of him in Gulfport, near Bay St. Louis, and that is when the scope of the disaster began to dawn on him. Two hours after arriving on the coast, he was on the air, and it was obvious from that first show that the lid on his pot was already beginning to rattle. He looked spooked. He sounded like he was on the verge of hyperventilating. He was given to rambling, at a loss for words. “I just don’t know how to describe it,” he said over and over.

After sleeping in the crew truck, the next day, as promised, he made his way to Bay St. Louis, where the destruction was so complete that he appeared even more distraught on the air that night. At one point during a live remote, he blasted Michael Brown from FEMA, his sense of outrage breaching journalistic decorum. Earlier that day, he had gone on a search-and-rescue mission in the nearby town of Waveland, holding his own camcorder and whispering intense commentary as the volunteers went from house to house. Ultimately, they realized that they weren’t going to have much success with the rescue effort—there were far too many dead bodies for one tiny town.

But it was on the fourth day of coverage, at the most dire and terrifying moment of the crisis, that Cooper came unhinged. He was interviewing Mary Landrieu, the senator from Louisiana, who had a big, sweet, southern smile spread across her perfectly made-up face. In a nonanswer to one of Cooper’s questions, she thanked President Bush for his “strong statements of support and comfort.” Finally, Cooper boiled over. “I got to tell you,” he said, “there are a lot of people here who are very upset, and very angry, and very frustrated. And when they hear politicians … thanking one another, it just, you know, it kind of cuts them the wrong way right now. Because literally there was a body on the streets of this town yesterday being eaten by rats, because this woman had been laying in the street for 48 hours. And there’s not enough facilities to take her up. Do you get the anger that is out here?”

Landrieu looked stunned that a CNN reporter—that any reporter—would embarrass her in front of millions of viewers. Almost immediately, bloggers lit up the Internet with Go Anderson! cheerleading. “Was it possible for us to love Anderson Cooper more than we already did?” wrote Gawker. “Yes, it turns it out, it was possible. Our love grew at about 7:30 last night, in the middle of 360°, when Coop … finally, well, flipped out. Mad as hell, you say? Madder.” A few critics argued that he had gone too far, but mostly people were thrilled. What none of them noticed was that at the top of the very next segment, Cooper’s emotions finally got the best of him. He was talking, off camera, with a group of exhausted evacuees, one of them holding up a tattered American flag. The show came back on the air with the image of the flag and then panned over to an unprepared Cooper, his face twisted up with tears. For a second, it looked like he was not going to be able to carry on. But he pulled himself together, his voice tremulous through most of the interview that followed.

The next day, when I get him on the satellite phone, he sounds dispirited, his anger from the night before tamped down. He is distracted and a little impatient with my question: Did you go too far with Landrieu? “I didn’t really plan on that. I just, uh, I guess I was just surprised.” He takes a breath. “Yeah, I would prefer not to be emotional and I would prefer not to get upset, but it’s hard not to when you’re surrounded by brave people who are suffering and in need. I feel like the people here deserve to have some answers.”

Once the bodies are counted, the Katrina aftermath will probably turn out to be the worst natural disaster in American history. It’s also the first one we’ve had to endure without the three sonorous authority figures—Tom, Dan, and Peter—who explained unfathomable events on the nightly news for a quarter century. With the field wide open, the two anchors who have defined the coverage of the Gulf Coast nightmare are Anderson Cooper and NBC’s Brian Williams, who was the first of the network anchors to broadcast from the storm and who became the main news filter for most Americans. In many ways, Cooper and Williams defined a fork in the road for the future of broadcast journalism. Williams responded to the anguish of Americans with the reassuring, authoritative presence of past anchors (though even he had to fight back his emotions to steady himself). When it feels as if the world is unraveling, the appeal of such a father figure is obvious. Cooper did the opposite. He didn’t calm us down; he made us feel even more unsettled. He became a proxy, both for the victims of Katrina and for his viewers, building a bridge between the two. He reacted the way any of us might have—raging against government officials when help didn’t come fast enough, and weeping when it all got to be too much. But it wasn’t just his raw emotion that set him apart; there are plenty of hotheads on television, and tearing up became more and more common as the tragedy continued to unfold. It was his honest humanity; he comes off as genuine because he is. He connected to those in the hurricane’s path, and to the people watching at home. He removed the filter.

And people watched. During the first week of hurricane coverage, Anderson Cooper 360° saw a nearly 400 percent increase in viewers. There had already been plenty of speculation about what Cooper’s future might hold, and since Katrina it has gotten only more intense. “I think viewers are so tired of cookie-cutter anchors with perfect diction and haircuts that there’s a growing market for television journalists who seem like real human beings, and Anderson Cooper is in that mold,” says Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz. Walter Isaacson, who ran CNN when Cooper was hired, gets right to the point. “I don’t want to get in trouble and second-guess my friend Andrew Heyward, but if I were running one of the big networks I’d make him the next evening-news anchor.” Cooper’s boss, Jonathan Klein, is just hoping to hold on to his new star. “I think other news executives are drooling over him,” he says. “He brings a new dimension to the job, which is a concept of an anchor as a kind of missionary. It’s a new model for thinking about what the anchorperson ought to be.”

For the moment, Anderson Cooper is not thinking about his future. He’s too busy covering a story. By Labor Day weekend, he’d finally made it into New Orleans, where there were fresh horrors for him to report on. At that point, CNN had brought in several RVs to serve as both living quarters and work spaces for their crews and reporters. As Charlie Moore, one of Cooper’s producers, told me, “We’re sleeping about six or seven people in each one, switching from couch to floor to bed and keeping our fingers crossed that the water’s clean.”

One afternoon, Cooper calls me. He’s closed the door to the RV and is finally alone and able to talk without distraction for the first time in days. “I was just out in the Ninth Ward in a flat-bottomed boat,” he says. “I was out all morning, and there’s bodies floating around and there’s people trapped in their homes. I watched two people being pulled out by helicopter, and they just became drenched in this water which has human excrement and human remains in it and gas and oil and all sorts of stuff. Anyway. Blah, blah, blah.”

I tell him that I need to ask him some questions that have nothing to do with the situation he’s in right now and he says, “Yeah, that’s okay. I’ll try to remember my former life.” We talk about his mother and growing up a Vanderbilt. And then he says, “It’s always interesting to me that people focus on my mom, and I get why, but my dad was born into a dirt-poor family in Mississippi and never made a lot of money in his life. I feel the Cooper Mississippi roots have far more relevance in my life and far more relevance to my worldview.”

His grandmother, he tells me, ran a general store in Meridian. “When I was there last week, a CNN crew got stuck on a road with some downed trees, and some people came with chain saws. One thing led to another, and the crew told them they worked for CNN, and it turned out they were my cousins.”

It is hard not to think of Cooper’s time in the South as a homecoming of sorts. After spending so many years traveling to exotic places steeped in death and suffering as a way to deal with his personal losses, he’s now covering a story of unimaginable death—in his father’s birthplace.

“I think I’m a lot like my father,” he says. “I reread his book, Families, probably once a year. To me it’s sort of a letter from him to me and sort of a guide on …” He starts to cry, but this time he doesn’t hang up. “Sort of a guide on … uh … Hold on a second.” Long pause. “You know, on how, uh, you know, how he would have wanted me to live my life and the choices he would have wanted me to make. And so I feel very connected to him. I’ve been told that we look a lot alike and that we have a similar sense of humor and a love of storytelling.” He takes a breath. “He was a pretty bad speller, though. I’m a better speller.” Laughs. “But I feel very connected to him, being down here. Maybe that’s part of why this story for me has been so … has had such an impact on me.”

So when are you coming home? I ask. “I can’t imagine leaving. I’m going to have to at some point, I guess. But it just feels like there’s no place else I should be.”