Heiress, fashion icon and artist

Born: February 20, 1924;

Died: June 17, 2019

GLORIA Vanderbilt, who has died aged 95, was an artist, actor, model, fashion designer and socialite, and the heiress – from the point her father Reginald Claypoole Vanderbilt died in 1925 – to one of the great Western fortunes of the day. For almost a century, from the public battle over her custody in the 1930s to vivid interviews about family and life when she was in her nineties, Vanderbilt existed in a unique place in American public life.

She was one of the republic’s closest embodiments of royalty, yet in true American style, this manifested through her Hollywood-style celebrity and her entrepreneurialism. According to accounts which are unverified and disputed – for many female celebrities and socialites laid claim to the distinction – she was an inspiration for the character of Holly Golightly in Truman Capote’s 1958 novella Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and Vanderbilt certainly lived up to the image of impossible glamour presented by Audrey Hepburn in the 1961 film adaptation.

Yet Vanderbilt was no country girl who had adapted to New York café society. She was the real deal, a muse to the public and to famous men she dated and married, yet one with a clear sense of self-possession born of a childhood and youth which were luxurious but anything but emotionally stable. At the age of ten, amid the fallout from her father’s death, her paternal aunt Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney fought a successful public court battle to remove Vanderbilt from her mother Gloria’s custody, amid then-scandalous rumours that Gloria was an unfit parent and had a lesbian affair. The young Gloria was dubbed “poor little rich girl” by the press.

In the 1950s Vanderbilt studied acting at the off-Broadway Neighbourhood Playhouse School of the Theatre under the renowned acting teacher Sanford Meisner, creator of the famed Meisner technique; she appeared onstage in New York theatres, and during the late 1950s and early ‘60s took small roles in television series including Studio One in Hollywood, Shirley Temple’s Storybook and The Dick Powell Theatre. In 1981 she returned to the world of television fiction with a two-part appearance as herself on the light entertainment drama The Love Boat.

Vanderbilt also studied art at the Art Students League of New York, creating her own paintings, and from the late 1960s onwards, her work appeared on Hallmark greeting cards and her own range of textiles and potteries, both of which for a time became staples of middle-class American home decoration arrangement. Her painted work also appeared in galleries, particularly in later life.

Even accounting for the glow which wealth and privilege might confer, as well as the glamorous brand viability of her own surname, it was no surprise that Vanderbilt also managed to carve out a career as a fashion model throughout much of her young life. She appeared on the cover of Harper’s Bazaar magazine at the age of 17 and became a favourite of the photographer Richard Avedon, while her other greatest successes also came through the fashion and beauty industry.

In conjunction with New York manufacturer Mohan Murjani, in 1976 Vanderbilt lent her name – literally, with a monogrammed logo on the rear pocket – and ideas to a line of denim jeans aimed at women which would be both upmarket and particularly slim-fitting; both selling points were market-leading innovations and in the first decade, spurred by the endorsement of Debbie Harry, Geena Davis and Vanderbilt herself, sales were in the hundreds of millions of dollars. Her name-as-brand spread to other items of clothing and accessories made by Murjani, and it was also used to launch her own long-running fragrance line with L’Oreal.

In later years Vanderbilt also took to writing, and in addition to work for publications including the New York Times, Vanity Fair and Elle, from 1970 she published two books on home décor, six sets of memoirs and three novels; the latter including 2009’s Obsession: An Erotic Tale, written while in her eighties. Barbara Goldsmith’s book on her early life Little Gloria… Happy At Last was released in 1980 and the television adaptation earned six Emmy nominations and one Golden Globe nomination two years later, while Paul McCartney & Wings’ 1974 song Mrs Vandebilt (sic) was inspired by her.

Born in Manhattan in 1924, Gloria Laura Vanderbilt was the only daughter of railroad heir Reginald Claypoole Vanderbilt and his second wife Gloria Morgan; a paternal half-sister, Cathleen, died in 1944.

Her lovers were a matter of public record, and included Marlon Brando, Frank Sinatra, Howard Hughes and Roald Dahl, while she was married four times; to Hollywood actor’s agent Pat DiCicco (1941 to 1945), who was physically abusive; to famed conductor Leopold Stokowski (1945 to 1955), with whom she had two sons, Leopold and Christopher; to the film director Sidney Lumet (1956 to 1963); and to the “love of her life”, the author Wyatt Emory Cooper (1963 until his death in 1978).

With Cooper she had two more sons, Carter - who died by suicide before his mother’s eyes in 1988 - and Anderson Cooper. In her later years Vanderbilt also became known as Anderson’s mother, her son now a nationally-recognised CNN news anchor, and in 2016 the pair collaborated on the joint memoir The Rainbow Comes and Goes and the HBO documentary Nothing Left Unsaid.

Anderson announced his mother's death and read a eulogy live on air, saying of the 95-year-old: “ask anyone close to her and they'd tell you, she was the youngest person they knew – the coolest and most modern.”