June 10, 1985 12:00 PM

Gloria Vanderbilt was born with a good résumé. Her relatives came from society, her money from a trust. Nevertheless, in the course of 61 years she has strayed from the deb-socialite path. While her surname is a synonym for wealth, her full name is a designer label, and therein lies her special identity. Gloria V. is the ultimate patrician working girl.

She speaks in a voice that creeps up your neck and crawls in your ear. Her words come out in Katharine Hepburn cadences, accented with the clear suggestion of a Brahmin. Hers is a careful, tentative approach to speech, perhaps because she stuttered as a kid, stammered as an adult, and now has only the slightest hesitation every several sentences.

Her face, famous for five decades, is distinguished by alabaster skin, big brown eyes—”Vanderbilt eyes,” she calls them—and a schoolgirl hairstyle that makes her look like Noel Coward’s description of Gloria Swanson: “A very old 12.” Most recognizable, of course, is her trademark smile—broad, taut, and oddly rectangular.

Having first captured America’s attention by being rich and troubled, Gloria V. went on to put her hand—and her name—to paper products, perfume, sheets, shoes, blouses, leather goods, liqueurs, jeans, accessories and, recently, a tofu-based frozen dessert. Now her name appears on a book she has written about her first 17 years. The wonder is not that she does so much, but that she does anything at all, for the damage she has endured has been monumental. A longtime friend sums it up: “Gloria had an intensely dramatic childhood. Her father died when she was a baby—and he was a great drunk. Her mother was blindingly beautiful—and maybe had a love affair with another woman. It was worse than Annie.”

Her father, Reginald Vanderbilt, was a railroad heir, playboy and gambler. Her young mother was one of the beauties of her time—and her time was the Roaring ’20s. Gloria Sr. loved the beaches: Biarritz, Cap Ferrat and Palm. “Little Gloria” wound up as the subject, or perhaps the object, of a custody trial. The proceedings were available, on a daily basis, to all Americans who could read. “Aunt Ger”—Reginald’s sister, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney—won, and Gloria Sr. lost, surrendering not only custody of Little Gloria, but also three-quarters of the support that she had been used to.

Cut to Little Gloria’s first marriage, at 17, to a Hollywood actors’ agent named Pat di Cicco. He was 32 and identified in a story of the day as coming from “a long line of comfortably fixed Italian truck farmers, perhaps most noted for the broccoli they grew in Queens.” The marriage took place in a Santa Barbara church with Errol Flynn serving as an usher. Although the union created an estrangement between Gloria and Aunt Ger, the new bride told reporters how excited she felt: “What can one say about a first marriage, except that it’s wonderful?” The prophetically labeled “first marriage” lasted three years and three months. Right before divorcing di Cicco, Gloria inherited $4,748,020; right after, she married conductor Leopold Stokowski. She was 21, he was 63. To leaven the formality, the press referred to him as “Stokie.” He referred to himself as “the maestro.”

Known as a ladies’ man, he had been married twice before and had dallied with Garbo. For the first few years the Stokowskis did little socializing. They lived in a small flat. The decor included a nude portrait of Gloria, painted by Stokie. They had two sons, Stanislaus, now 35, and Christopher, 34. Halfway into their 10-year marriage, Gloria suffered what the press diagnosed as a nervous breakdown. An analyst reportedly advised her to express herself, so she rented a studio and began to get serious about writing poetry and painting. Then she started acting lessons with director Sanford Meisner. Stokie may not have been keen on the new, expressive Gloria. Of her acting debut—which he missed—he said, “I am always hopeful for the development of new talent.”

After divorcing Stokie, Gloria was involved in another custody suit, this one for her two boys. The trial took place in New York where, as a little girl, she had seen her own fate decided. Gloria won the fight, though not before providing the country with yet another spectacle. At one point during the battle, Stokie cabled from Warsaw that “Mme. Stokowska” had lied when she said he was 85 years old. He was, he said, only 72. (In fact, he was 77.)

Her next husband, Sidney Lumet, was her age and, at the time, a television director. They were married for seven years. When Gloria called it a day, Lumet took an overdose of pills and phoned Gail Jones—Lena Home’s daughter—to tell her what he had done. (She called the police; later he married her.) Gloria moved on to her fourth husband, Wyatt Cooper, a writer from Mississippi. She had two sons with him, Carter, now 20, and Anderson, 18. Their 14-year marriage ended with his death in 1978.

A friend who has known Gloria V. for 30 years—”through all her incarnations”—describes her as “not on the same wavelength as ordinary people.” A Gloria story: Burt Shevelove, Broadway playwright and director, came up to her apartment one hot summer day, and she rang for the butler. “Bring the ice-cream things,” she said. Out came three kinds of ice cream, nuts, whipped cream, the whole deal. She was going to make him a banana split. Then a big spoonful of whipped cream fell into the black bearskin rug. She never looked down. “Let’s move to the other room,” she said. Then she rang for the butler. “Bring the ice-cream things,” she said.

It is interesting that many friends of Gloria V. genuinely like her, feel protective toward her and do not wish to be quoted as having talked about her. One of them says, “There has always been a vulnerable, child like quality about her. She has had despair and aloneness, and maybe as a result she has terminal narcissism. A whole slice of her is a dreamy child.” Everyone who knows her well remarks on her shyness. A friend from the ’50s says, “Sometimes she can hardly speak, she is so shy. But when something interests her she may get on a run and bore you to death about a great piece of lace or something.”

If everyone remarks on Gloria’s shyness, there are two other things they always mention as well: her taste and her talent. Her artist’s sensibility is acknowledged to be both cultured and avant-garde. This is not a girl who thinks the Elgin Marbles are aggies and glassies. The actress Geraldine Fitzgerald remembers, “When Gloria was married to Sidney, there were red rugs, red chairs, a pink passageway and a yellow door. She had also covered the powder-room wall—not the mirror, the whole wall!—with shells. And she did it herself, without knowing there was anything unusual about her talents.” Fitzgerald thinks she knows why Gloria has not been given her due. “When you have good looks and money, people think you have nothing else.”

Vanderbilt was launched as a commercial designer 14 years ago when Don Hall, from Hallmark, saw some of her drawings in a gallery show. He thought they would work well as a paper-goods line—and they did, for two years. “My work is decorative,” Gloria says. “I know that’s supposed to be a dirty word, but I love that kind of thing very much. And it was a different look then.” Soon another manufacturer signed her for a collection of scarves adapted from her paintings. Now businessmen were coming to her, and she became one of the first designers to make appearances at stores. A friend points out that because of her shyness, it took grit to make those trips. Another chum believes Gloria was receptive to designing commercially “because she was broke and made no bones about it.” Gloria Vanderbilt tapped out? “She had some money,” says an acquaintance, “but not what people thought. She also had a lawyer who didn’t do well by her with investments.”

To some people, her various creative activities seemed like the aesthetic equivalent of impulse buying. “She has always wanted to realize her artistic self,” says one. “That’s why she has been an actress, painter, poet and designer. And she has always been a little bit successful.” Or a lot. When she first hooked up with Murjani, the clothing manufacturer, it was to do a blouse collection. Then came the fabulous success with Gloria Vanderbilt jeans. “She became Alice in Wonderland,” says a friend. “The last thing she ever thought would happen, happened: She made a living.” To say the least. In court papers filed in 1980, after she was denied permission to purchase a co-op, Gloria disclosed that she had earned $10 million that year. “Gloria didn’t earn a living on her name,” says a booster. “She got out and did it.” What she got out and did was follow through with an idea. “I had always worn the Fiorucci jean,” she says, “and it cost $100. I wanted to do one cheaper but with a good fit.” The time was right. “Everything is timing in life,” she smiles, “whether it’s business or private life.”

You could make a case that Gloria’s timing has been better when it comes to business. An old friend remarks, “There have been a lot of men in her life, therefore a lot of disappointments—otherwise there wouldn’t have been so many of them, right? She’s been on an endless cruise.” Another echoes the thought: “She is obsessive about men. She is on a constant quest for romance in a way that you only read about in storybooks.” Gloria herself admits that at a certain time in her life, she was “looking for the White Knight.”

She makes her first marriage, however, sound like the solution to a housing problem. “Di Cicco happened,” she says, “because I couldn’t live with my mother, and I couldn’t live with my aunt.” Stokowski (she does not call him Stokie) was, initially, a grand passion. “I loved him very much,” she says. An interesting footnote to the Stokowski marriage: From the time she was a young girl, Gloria’s best friends were Eugene O’Neill’s daughter, Oona, and New York socialite Carol Marcus. Each of the three married an older genius: Oona married Charlie Chaplin and Carol married William Saroyan—twice—before settling down with Walter Matthau.

Post-Stokowski, when Gloria tried acting, she tried Frank Sinatra. But both were short-lived diversions. Wyatt Cooper is the man she and her friends speak of most. “He was the most incredible father,” Gloria says. “We would still be married today had we not been separated by death.” A friend remembers Cooper as “the antithesis of Sidney Lumet. Wyatt was truly elegant.” Another says, “Cooper was like a wife. She was painting then, and he would take the things to the framer. He was a source of stability and very happy with a home life.”

Today Gloria says she believes in marriage, but would prefer living with someone. She has two special friends—”totally different,” she says. Some of her chums feel she might marry one of them, Darren Ramirez, 38, who runs the Versace boutique in Beverly Hills. He was the boyfriend of the late actress Rachel Roberts. A pal of Gloria’s calls him “a terrific guy.”

Just in case Mr. Right No. 5 does not materialize, Gloria V. has plenty to keep her busy. She has launched a tofu-based frozen dessert that she predicts is “going to do better than the jeans!” Once again, she did not just hand over her name and her swan logo. “I sort of mixed around in my kitchen with tofu, which I eat a lot anyway, and seasonings. Then I passed it on to experts.” The result has been licensed by Frusen Glädjé.

In a perfect world, at least from Gloria V.’s point of view, you could dress up in Gloria Vanderbilt clothes, lie down on Gloria Vanderbilt sheets, be surrounded with Gloria Vanderbilt accessories, have a dish of Gloria Vanderbilt Glacé and curl up with Once Upon a Time (Knopf, $16.95), her new book.

The first time she wrote anything for publication was 1955, when she was 31. It was a book of poetry called Love Poems. A reviewer for the New York Times wrote: “Let it be said that Gloria Vanderbilt’s poems are surprisingly good and that they are not love poems.” When the publishing world learned there was to be something new’, a Vanderbilt autobiography, a collective gasp was almost audible: Her publisher, Alfred A. Knopf, announced that the chronicle would be released in five volumes. Bob Gottlieb, Knopf’s editor-in-chief, does not find the number excessive. Who else has had so many? Gottlieb pauses. “Well…Osbert Sitwell comes to mind.” Gottlieb can think of Sitwell; most people can think of no one. “Once Upon a Time is a brief book,” he points out. “One volume could have been 800 pages. And it’s not like a standard autobiography. Although she didn’t fictionalize, it is like a novel.”

Gottlieb has a point, simply because her life is like a novel. Once Upon a Time is a real-people fairy tale, both because it has wicked characters and scary stuff, and because it chronicles a childhood few people can imagine. Although her mother has been dead for 20 years, Gloria V. is still haunted by the woman’s indifference and her aura of unreality. She mentions having been “terrified, frightened” of her mother, and adds with resignation, “It’s hard to make her look good, but I understand. She was gentle and passive…she just never understood.”

Having been analyzed, and now in her seventh decade, did Gloria write the book to resolve what she calls “the phases of pain”? No, she says, “I did it because I’m a natural-born writer. I consider it a piece of work, not therapy. I always knew I would do the book, and it fell onto the page.” There’s a good chance some critics are going to agree with this assessment, because a few conventions of published prose have been totally ignored. Punctuation, for instance. There are no quotation marks in the book, which is not to say there is no dialogue. Commas are also at a premium—a regrettable omission, since Gloria V. is fond of repetition and, without commas, reading a book is difficult difficult difficult.

The author says of all this, “It’s the way I write, it’s the way it comes out.” Her friend Rex Reed observes, “Gloria’s writing is like the inside of a Fabergé egg.” Rococo though the text may be, it is an honest and moving recollection of a highly unusual girlhood.

If in some auditory version of a Rorschach test one were to say, “Poor little rich girl,” odds are the answer would be “Gloria Vanderbilt.” A more correct association would be “working woman, achiever.” She is not a rich woman who thinks she can paint, or design, or write. She really can do all these things and is not surprised by her successes. “Believing it, trusting it,” she says, “creates the kind of energy that makes it succeed. I did want to be successful and to make money. Money that I’ve made has reality to me. Money that I inherited does not.”

Well, she’s rolling in reality now, and the saga of Gloria V. is decidedly more upbeat than it was. Thanks to overriding ambition and innate creativity, the lady and her signature swan have come a long way. Her very name means class and it means money. In other words, Gloria Vanderbilt means business.

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