GLORIA’S SAD STORY
Byline: James Reginato
NEW YORK — “I see myself as a phoenix that rises again and again,” said Gloria Vanderbilt one day last week. While Vanderbilt may well be poised to take flight and begin yet another chapter in her tumultuous life, there can be no doubt that America’s most famous poor little rich girl has lately had an abundance of ashes.
Following the death of her 24-year-old son, Carter Cooper, in 1988, Vanderbilt has contended with a host of traumas, including bitter litigation with her former attorney and former psychiatrist, romantic turmoil and IRS hell. Forced to sell her Carnegie Hill townhouse in order to pay back taxes, Gloria has been living in a small apartment that belongs to her son Anderson. Considering the splendor and largess with which the heiress has lived, it would seem that things have hit rock bottom.
But, according to Vanderbilt, she’s ready to rebuild.
“Oh yes, I’m very much looking forward to it,” she says, referring her next phase. “I think of it as a rebirth.”
Vanderbilt is being interviewed in a windowless midtown conference room that belongs to Alfred A. Knopf Inc., which will publish her latest book, “A Mother’s Story,” on May 10. The story of Carter Cooper, and the horrifying summer day when he dropped to his death from the 14th-floor terrace of his mother’s apartment as she watched, it is also very much about the author herself.
Throughout the book, Vanderbilt returns to a central image, that of an unbreakable glass bubble in which she felt herself bottled.
“All my life, with each loss, I have tried to break out of the glass bubble,” she writes. “But instead of breaking out, I found myself breaking inward.”
“A Mother’s Story” recounts how Vanderbilt was able to survive the tragedy of her son’s death — but how the glass bubble didn’t. Sitting in the spartan conference room, Vanderbilt confirms that “it’s just gone — it isn’t there anymore.” Barriers down, she says she feels “a sense of freedom, a connection to everybody in the world.”
Under Knopf’s fluorescent lights, Vanderbilt does seem less ethereal. Her appearance has grown even more striking, perhaps because she is largely unadorned: very little makeup, an almost monastic brown knit skirt and sweater by Zoran.
“My dear, I’m faithful forever,” she remarks of her longtime favorite designer. “Though today I’m wearing a necklace. Thank God he’s not here — he doesn’t like any jewelry at all.”
But back to the business at hand: her new book. “It’s so hard to talk about ‘A Mother’s Story’ — because I say it all in the book,” she says. Vanderbilt believes her son’s fatal plunge was provoked by an allergy medicine that had been prescribed for him, one he took in the form of a respiratory inhaler. According to research cited by Vanderbilt, the drug is known to induce “agitation, terrifying nightmares and acute paradoxic, depressive states” as well as “uncontrollable outbursts.”
Vanderbilt is ambivalent about labeling her son’s death a suicide, “because it came totally out of the blue,” she says. “A suicide is defined as someone who intentionally takes his own life. I know he didn’t intentionally take his own life. I was there and he was not himself.”
A moment later, however, she admits, “He did take his own life, so it is a suicide. But he did not take it intentionally…None of these things are things we can prove. But he had plans for himself.”
A Princeton graduate and a promising writer, Carter seemed every bit the boy “golden and true” that his mother remembers in the pages of her book. But hints, flashes, of a darker side surface briefly. In Anderson Cooper’s eulogy, the text of which appears in “A Mother’s Story,” he tells the mourners: “We must all take heart, for he is out of pain.”
In the months that followed, Vanderbilt coped by opening herself as fully as she could. “I had extraordinary friends, and I talked about it with them constantly — I feel that was very important.”
She also joined a support group for family and friends of those who had taken their own lives. “I found that very, very, very helpful,” says Vanderbilt. “Pain connects people.”
How, the reporter asks.
“Haven’t you ever been in pain?” answers Gloria. “You have to have the courage to let pain possess you, to try not to push it away. It’s important to work through it, not take any medication, let it viscerally possess you. It takes a long time, but you do work through it. You never really recover. But you can laugh again. You can love again.”
With two volumes of autobiography and innumerable other accounts of her life previously published, Vanderbilt’s history has already been exhaustively chronicled. But “A Mother’s Story” does explore some new veins in the saga of Gloria’s solitary childhood. “Rich people brought up in that time and place were the exceptions if they did communicate with their children,” she notes. “Two things were never talked about — death and money — not necessarily in that order.”
Lo these many years later, it seems not so much has changed on that score. After Carter’s death, her Vanderbilt relations skirted any discussions about it.
“They don’t want to talk about it — but that doesn’t mean they’re not supportive. It’s just the way they were brought up. They showed their support by coming to the funeral, and in other ways. My cousin sent me a lot of rice pudding, which was the only thing I could eat.”
Vanderbilt contrasts her late husband’s Mississippi-based family with her own.
“In the South, it’s not like that. When Wyatt’s sister died, we went down for the funeral, and everybody was available, open to each other. They were wonderful when Carter died. But my family was too, in their way.
“A relationship doesn’t end just because the other person isn’t around any longer,” observes Vanderbilt. “My relationship to my mother keeps changing all the time.”
Vanderbilt says she thinks frequently of her famously unattainable mother, even though she has been dead 30 years.
“As I come closer to her, I come closer to myself,” says Gloria. “I understand her in ways I never possibly could have before. I’ve learned to have an enormous amount of self-esteem. I had very low self-esteem as a child. It’s taken me a long, long time to find that in myself. It goes back to that thing of respect, it’s so important, that. I was thinking about that in that interview, when I mentioned Harry Benson.”
Five years ago, in an interview with W, she volunteered that she was “seriously involved with a man who is in the middle of a divorce.” She then identified the gentleman as photographer Harry Benson. After publication of the story, Benson’s wife read Harry the riot act and the Bensons remain husband and wife.
Vanderbilt still seems to be smarting from that episode.
“What I said — that he was in the middle of a divorce — was only what he had been telling me for months. I’m not a home-wrecker and had never been involved with a married man.
“When you lose trust in someone, you lose respect for them, then the relationship changes.” A minute later, however, she adds: “It doesn’t mean it ends.”
When asked directly if she still maintains a relationship with Benson, Gloria parries: “The relationship has changed, put it like that. You lose trust and respect. It’s just different.”
Speaking of trust, Vanderbilt tells a much more harrowing tale when she recounts the saga of her former attorney Thomas Andrews (now deceased) and former psychiatrist, Dr. Christ (Chris) Zois.
“My lawyer and psychiatrist formed a company, which is illegal, and they defrauded me of my [home furnishings] license, and they stole money from me,” she states. While it would take days to recount what became the subject of extended and bitter litigation, the core of the case seems to hinge on Vanderbilt’s claim that the two formed a company, Design Management Partners (DMP), which bought her company, Gloria Concepts, for $1.6 million. She claimed she learned only after the sale that Andrews and Zois were DMP; Andrews claimed she knew all along.
“My litigation is almost resolved. The lawyer lost his license before he died, the psychiatrist lost his medical license [a decision about to be appealed].”
Vanderbilt was awarded a $2 million settlement in a New York court from Andrews’s estate, but the money was transferred to Florida.
“There are two states, Florida and Texas, where crooks can liquidate everything and take it down there and nobody can get it, even the IRS. But I have proceedings going on there now to get what I won, what they stole from me,” says Vanderbilt.
Zois, in a telephone interview earlier this week, recounted details of “a crazy therapeutic relationship,” but denied that he had broken any laws or even ethics.
“I met the lady in 1973. She was broke. I saw her [as a patient] at reduced rates until 1978,” he says.
That year, beginning with the funeral of Wyatt Cooper, Vanderbilt, her two young sons and Zois “started having social interaction,” he says. Eventually, they became “like family.” Meanwhile, “Vanderbilt and I were no longer in office-oriented therapy, but she would call me three or four times a day for advice.” During this time, “one day in the limo she tells [Andrews and me] she wants to go into business with us.”
“I only have myself to blame,” he continues. “Unlike others, I’m not blaming anybody else. I dug my own grave. When she gave me the widow routine, I fell for it. But I only did for her what I tried to do my whole professional life — to help somebody.”
He also claims he made money for her, in effect doing Gloria a favor by paying a premium price for a worthless company.
“When we bought the company for $1.6 million, it was making only $100,000 a year. This is defrauding. So now she’s back to the victim card. Everybody who knows her knows she’s a profligate spender. When Murjani was making her $1.2 million a quarter, she spent it faster than it was coming in. There’s nothing complicated here. When the money ran out, she ran out. She’s left every relationship she’s ever had in a rage.”
Ironically, Zois primarily practices what he terms “short-term psychotherapy,” a program designed to resolve a patient’s problems within a few months, or even weeks (the subject of his book, “Think Like a Shrink”). Asked why he didn’t apply such techniques with Vanderbilt, Zois replies curtly, “She’s not a candidate for short-term therapy.”
“He’s real slime in my book,” Gloria concludes. “But I still trust people. That’s the way I am. It hasn’t hardened me.”
If anything remotely positive can be said of this twisted tale, it is that at least the dust is settling. The IRS mess is over. It was caused, she says, because Andrews failed to send the checks to them.
“I’m completely paid off. I don’t have any more debts.” She says selling her town house was “difficult, but it resolved everything.” The tabloid feeding frenzy sparked by the fire sale didn’t faze her. “I never read any of it,” she says.
So now it’s back to work, although the question is, where? Back to fashion or home furnishing?
“I may, and then again, I may not,” she says. “I’m working on another novel, which is set in Newport, and I’m writing some magazine articles. I’m doing one for Elle Decor. I really write all the time now, and it’s very absorbing.”
Gloria says she’s also looking for a new home.
“I’m going to move soon. I have a dream in mind. I want to find a ballroom, with a fireplace and a few small rooms at the side with fireplaces, and a big kitchen.”
Seventy-two years old, and a veteran of all these many tragedies, it is rather unbelievable that Vanderbilt is still standing, much less ready to embark on a new life. When a reporter asks, finally, “How have you survived?” Vanderbilt, without missing a beat, replies quite flatly: “What’s the alternative?”