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June 6, 2014 5:46 pm

Gloria Vanderbilt

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The 90-year-old heiress and pioneer of designer denim breaks from her daily peanut butter sandwich to talk about the triumphs and tragedies of an extraordinary life
Illustration by Patrick Morgan of Gloria Vanderbilt©Patrick Morgan

Gloria Vanderbilt, now 90, has been famous for many things in the course of an extraordinary and varied life. An artist, actress, heiress, model, socialite and fashion designer, she’s been married four times (to agent and film producer Pat DiCicco, conductor Leopold Stokowski, film director Sidney Lumet and author Wyatt Cooper) and courted by luminaries from Marlon Brando to Frank Sinatra, Howard Hughes to Roald Dahl.

As if in contrast, every day she eats the same thing for lunch: a peanut-butter and jelly sandwich and, occasionally, an apple. Yet for this interview, Vanderbilt has agreed to put aside her routine and to go round the corner from her studio to Ze Café. As a kind of quid pro quo, however, she first wants me to come to her studio, a small white room in a ground floor apartment on the far east side of Midtown Manhattan, just below the apartment in which she actually lives.

It’s not a bad deal. The apartment, which represents nine decades in a suite of rooms, is about as close as you can come to a life in microcosm. It’s very full.

Vanderbilt was born in February 1924, the only child of railway heir Reginald Claypoole Vanderbilt and his second wife, Gloria Morgan. A year later, Reginald drank himself to death and, after a bitter court case, his young widow lost custody of her daughter, little Gloria, to a paternal aunt, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney (founder of the Whitney art museum in New York).

In the intervening years, Vanderbilt has been through so many incarnations that everyone has their own version of her: to me, she will always be the woman whose form-fitting jeans, with distinctive signature and swan logo, invented designer denim in the 1970s. For the writer Truman Capote, whom she knew in her early years as a society beauty, she really was a “swan”. All these versions of her are contained (or memorialised) in her apartment.

“Oh, hello, so nice to meet you,” she says, her copper-toned hair in perfect place, her cosmetically flawless skin stretched taut by that familiar almost fanatically optimistic wide smile that has seen off tragedy amid her triumphs. In 1978 the “love of her life”, her fourth husband, author Wyatt Cooper, died aged 50 during surgery. A decade later her elder son with Cooper, Carter, committed suicide at the age of 23. The smile telegraphs, however, in screaming capital letters, the belief that something better is just round the corner, as long as you keep moving forward.

. . .

Today she is wearing loose black trousers, a zip-up cashmere sweatshirt, and no visible jewellery. There’s a blue smock tossed over a chair, which is what she wears when she works (she is getting ready for a solo show in New York and has a lot of wall space to fill). She no longer makes the collages that brought her fame when shown at New York’s Hammer Gallery in 1969. The talk-show host Johnny Carson liked them so much he displayed them on The Tonight Show, which led to Vanderbilt’s career as a textile designer.

Nor is she working on the “dream boxes” – Plexiglas boxes full of doll parts and other found objects – that she began making afterwards. “I like to move on to new things,” she says, which feels like an understatement of sorts. She began showing her art in 1952 and has had dozens of shows since then (her paintings sell for up to $45,000). Recently she has discovered pastels, and the studio, which used to be Cooper’s office, is crammed with canvases – as well as antique dolls, her books, and a bust of her father that “my mother said she sculpted, but I have my doubts.”

Gesturing around her, Vanderbilt says: “This is my work since 2013.” On an easel there is an enormous painting of two bodies melding together; smaller sketches, stacked three-deep, include one with the words, “I put a note into this jar and threw it into the sea, that is how I found my love”; hanging on the wall there’s a full-length portrait of a curly-haired woman entitled “JCO by the sea”. JCO is writer Joyce Carol Oates, who also happens to be one of Vanderbilt’s best friends and muses.

“I’m obsessed with her beauty. She’s thin as a stick with this amazing hair and eyes, like someone from another planet. I must have painted her hundreds of times, and I never quite get her,” she says.

Another muse is Aurélia Thierrée, a French actress and cabaret artist who is “Oona Chaplin’s granddaughter”. Chaplin and Vanderbilt were young socialites together. (Talking to Vanderbilt can feel a bit like talking to a real-life Zelig: every time a famous name comes up – boom! – she’s got a story.) I ask if she ever gets painter’s block. “No,” she says with a shrug. “When I start, I don’t stop. I don’t do many works at once, just one at a time, and I work fast.”

I don’t read anything about myself. The publicity I got as a child was such a terrible experience

Most canvases take her an average of two to three days to complete. One of the few times she has had a problem with a painting was with a portrait she has been doing of her youngest son Anderson, a news presenter on CNN. She has been working on it for a long time: it’s a sketch of him with a list, in red, of all the hotspots he has visited since 1993: Cambodia, Rwanda, and so on. “I’ll probably have to start over,” she says.

“I did another one of Anderson years ago when he was at Dalton [a private school in New York],” she says, “and I made him take it to school to show, and he says he was mortified. But now I think he rather likes it.”

Vanderbilt takes me into a guest bathroom, where she has painted every tile with designs and the names of friends and dates that are special to her. Then she shows me a fireplace she made and installed in another room. It’s a surround painted bright turquoise with glittery silver, a little kitschy but also endearing. “I would redecorate every six months if I could,” she says.

Did you always, I ask, want to make art? “Yes, since I was a girl, but there was no way to discuss it; it was only when I was at the Wheeler school [a private day school] in Providence that I met a wonderful art teacher and it seemed possible.”

I ask if she was worried about not being taken seriously, or concerned that her celebrity status would overshadow her work.

“Well, I did study at the Art Students League [of New York],” Vanderbilt says, “but I think I learnt as much from posing for great artists like René Bouché and Marcel Vertès, and I was very lucky in that all my husbands were very supportive of whatever I did. Stokowski was very supportive of my painting, Sidney [Lumet] of my acting, and Wyatt Cooper was a miracle of support. Boy, do I miss him. I’m always thinking, ‘Why aren’t you here so you can see this, and I can get your take on it?’

“But Anderson has a great eye, and he’s always my first viewer, if he’s here. He could have been an artist but he went another way.”

It seems as good a moment as any to suggest that we go our own way and eat. Vanderbilt takes my arm, and we walk slowly round the corner to Ze Café, which is largely empty. When the waitress brings a menu, Vanderbilt says: “You tell me what you are going to have. I always order and then end up wanting what the other person gets, because it looks better.”

We order sparkling water to drink and both choose the soup of the day: parsnip with balsamic vinegar glaze. “I don’t like to get too thin,” she says. “I try to make myself eat.” For dinner, she usually has angel-hair pasta “mixed with kale, a can of petit pois, some crumbled bacon and shredded carrot, red pepper and olive oil,” and, for dessert, maybe “Cool Whip [an imitation whipped cream]. It’s so fake, it’s disgusting but it’s impossible to replicate.”

There were only two periods in her life when Vanderbilt was not making art: in the 1950s, when she acted for seven years in plays such as Ferenc Molnár’s The Swan and William Saroyan’s The Time of Your Life (on Broadway), and when she worked in fashion. “I acted for complicated reasons,” she says, “and I don’t begrudge it but I wish I had been painting instead. Acting is a completely different kind of life; you are dependent on so many other people, and, no matter how well you do, I don’t think you feel that it’s ever enough. It wasn’t really for me.”

I say it seems to me she was the first of the socialite designers – the woman who paved the way for names such as Carolina Herrera, Tory Burch and even Victoria Beckham. “I never considered myself a dress designer,” she says. But she also says she never doubted her ability to recognise a good product. “It’s a matter of taste, isn’t it, sensing what can go with what? I don’t think it has to do with education.” Besides, she had been in Vogue enough as a subject to feel that she belonged there, in whatever form.

The fashion career happened by accident anyway. Vanderbilt was making textiles based on her collages (this was after her Tonight Show appearance) and those became scarves and other accessories, and then Murjani, a Seventh Avenue manufacturing company run by Warren Hirsch, a “merchandising genius”, had an idea. “They had a lot of denim in the warehouse,” Vanderbilt says, “so they said, ‘Why not put my name on jeans?’ And that’s when I really made a lot of money.” The jeans launched in December 1977 and sold millions of pairs. Vanderbilt did TV commercials and personal appearances. In 1980, at the peak of the brand’s success, she earned $10m. “The money you make yourself is the only kind of money that has any reality,” she says.

Not long after, however, Vanderbilt found she was being defrauded by her psychiatrist Christ Zois and by her lawyer, his friend Thomas Andrews (to whom she had given power of attorney). The pair had been bilking her of her fashion earnings, and had sold her name to a corporation in Florida, and she found that she owed millions in back taxes. She had to sell homes in Southampton and New York, and, though she sued the pair and won $1.5m in 1993 (by which time Andrews was dead), most of the money was beyond recovery.

“Trusting them was a huge mistake,” she says. “Not quite as bad as getting married at 17, which no one should do, but pretty bad. On the other hand, if you don’t trust your psychiatrist, who do you trust?” Pointedly, she does not sign her paintings the way she signed her denim. Instead of scribbling her name, she superimposes a very graphic G on a V – it still looks like a logo.

Since her fashion career ended, Vanderbilt has concentrated on art and books. She has written nine (not including her art and design books). Her works include the story of her first and second marriages (Black Knight, White Knight, 1987), a memoir of her son Carter (A Mother’s Story, 1996); and an erotic novel (Obsession, 2009), which she wrote aged 85. Though most of her books are autobiographical, she says the point was never to “set the record straight”.

As our soups arrive, she continues: “I think I am very much drawn to loss and trying to articulate that. I think people who have no parents go through life feeling like something is missing but they don’t know what it is because they never had it.”

Cooper is buried in the Moravian cemetery on Staten Island, where the enormous Vanderbilt mausoleum is located. “He wanted to be there so the boys and I could come visit him,” she says. Carter is next to him. Vanderbilt recently visited the graves with Anderson while they were being filmed for a documentary on Vanderbilt being made by HBO. Is it weird having your life picked over yet again?

“No!” she says. “I feel like I can die now. Generally, I don’t read anything about myself. The publicity I got as a child was such a terrible experience. I realised that if I was going to accomplish anything in life, I would have to stay clear-headed and part of that was not reading other people’s opinions about myself. But this may be the one thing I watch.”

Vanderbilt tends to give her work quite narrative titles: “Where Will We Live When the World Goes Dark?”; “The Left Hand is the Dreamer” (also the name of a recent show of her work in New York for 1stdibs). She is fascinated by how much you can convey in a very brief space, both in paint and in print.

“I was having lunch with Joyce [Carol Oates] the other day and telling her about a ‘short short’ I had written with the title ‘It Came True’,” she says – a “short short” being a short story told in as few words as possible.

“The story went, ‘Lots of happiness ahead for you, little one, he said.’ And Joyce said, ‘Why not title it, “Did It Come True?” instead.’ ”

Why not, I ask, as I pay the bill.

“Well, it would probably make the story more interesting,” Vanderbilt admits. “But it’s pretty cynical. And, you know, I’m not cynical.”

What are you, then? “True-blue!” she cries (meaning “loyal”), and seems so delighted that it’s hard not to think she’s been waiting for an opportunity to work that in.

We get up to walk back to her studio, and she tucks her hand into the crook of my elbow. What now? I ask. “I’ll work until three when my energy really drops,” she says, and then she’ll take the back staircase to her own apartment, where she likes to watch the reality show Judge Judy, where litigants agree to air their troubles on TV instead of a regular courtroom – “which has nothing to do with where I come from”. For all her protests about not caring what people think, Vanderbilt is not unaware of her image.) By 10.30pm, she’ll be asleep. And then the next day she will get up, and the routine will start again.

“It’s the only way you ever get anything done,” she says, as we reach her door and she puts out her hand for me to shake. It is a clear indication that, chummy as we might have felt over lunch, it’s time to move on.

This interview was conducted while Vanessa Friedman was the FT’s fashion editor


Ze Café

398 East 52nd St, New York, NY 10022

Soup of the day (parsnip) x 2 $18.00

Bottle of San Pellegrino $7.00

Total (incl tax and service) $33.22

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