Her father, Reginald Claypoole Vanderbilt, was from one of the richest families in U.S. history. Her great-grandfather Cornelius Vanderbilt built the New York Central Railroad. After Reginald married his second wife, Gloria Morgan, the couple welcomed Gloria Vanderbilt in 1924.
Her birth made headlines. But just 18 months later, her father died of cirrhosis of the liver and she was left in the care of her 19-year-old mother.
“She wanted to have fun. I mean, she was suddenly this very rich widow and she arrives in Paris,” Vanderbilt explains in a recent interview with PEOPLE and Entertainment Weekly editorial director Jess Cagle. “She was a great, great beauty, had a twin sister and she just had a wonderful time.”
The Poor Little Rich Girl
While her mother attended parties and traveled, her grandmother “Naney” and her beloved nanny “Dodo” quietly raised Vanderbilt. But by age 10, she was back in the news. Dubbed the “poor little rich girl” by press when her socialite mother and her aunt Gertrude became locked in a courtroom fight, Vanderbilt found herself the center of the “custody battle of the century.”
Watch more of The Jess Cagle Interview with Anderson Cooper and Gloria Vanderbilt all this week on People.com.
“It was at the height of the Depression, and here was this incredibly wealthy family fighting over this 10-year-old child!” says Cooper of the media sensation that his mother became at an early age.
Vanderbilt’s aunt (who founded the Whitney Museum of Art in New York City in 1931) eventually won the famous case that revealed Vanderbilt’s mother was a lesbian and painted her as an unfit mother.
Many Famous Loves
As a teen, Vanderbilt traveled to Beverly Hills to reconnect with her mother for a visit that was supposed to last only two weeks. But two weeks in Los Angeles turned into months – and the trip eventually led her to meeting her first husband.
“The summer after my junior year in high school I went out on dates with movie stars every night: Errol Flynn, George Montgomery, Ray Milland,” she says. “My mother let me do anything that I wanted to do and I hardly ever saw her.” Vanderbilt also had love affairs with Frank Sinatra and Howard Hughes.
In 1941, at age 17, she wed agent (and rumored mobster) Pasquale “Pat” DeCicco in Santa Barbara, California. “I was mesmerized,” she says. “He was forceful, domineering, and supremely sure of himself. When you have low self-esteem, as I did, those qualities are attractive.” They divorced after four years and she married orchestra conductor Leopold Stokowski (best known for his work on Disney’s Fantasia) in 1945. She was 21. He was 63. Their union lasted 10 years.
Vanderbilt married for a third time, to Academy Award-winning director Sidney Lumet, but divorced in August 1963. Four months later she said ‘I do’ to author and screenwriter Wyatt Emory Cooper and gave birth to sons Carter (in 1965) and Anderson (in 1967).
Overcoming Tragedy: The Death of Her Husband and Son
After suffering several heart attacks throughout their marriage, Wyatt died on the operating table while undergoing open-heart surgery in 1978.
As Vanderbilt coped with the loss, she juggled single motherhood and her career. She found success as an actress and artist designing home furnishings, sheets and china, but it was her line of Gloria Vanderbilt designer jeans that made her millions.
Cooper recalls the success of his mother’s denim: “She was on television commercials and walking down the street, people would stop her all the time and compliment the jeans and talk to her,” he says. “My brother and I had a game that throughout the day, we would try to count how many women we saw with our mom’s names on their jeans.” Still, despite all the success, she lost almost every penny of it at the hands of a fraudulent lawyer.
But no loss she experienced would prepare for the tragedy to come.
For more on Anderson Cooper s extraordinary relationship with his mother Gloria Vanderbilt, pick up a copy for this week’s PEOPLE magazine, on newsstands Friday.
On July 22, 1988, her 23-year-old son Carter jumped off the terrace of her 14th-floor Manhattan penthouse and killed himself.
“It never goes away,” she says of the pain nearly 30 years later. “The most terrible word in the English language is ‘closure,’ in my opinion.”
And Cooper agrees: “It seems to me that’s a word used by people who haven’t experienced that kind of loss and anybody who has knows that time moves on, but the loss is still there.”
Still Full of Surprises at 92
Now at 92, Vanderbilt is sharing the never-before-discussed details of her life in a new memoir with Cooper and an inspired an HBO documentary, Nothing Left Unsaid, airing April 9. “I wanted to use the time we have left to get to know each other as adults,” Cooper says.
But Vanderbilt still has some secrets. “When I was 13,” Vanderbilt reveals in her PEOPLE interview, “I had a brief lesbian relationship with a girl in school. It felt so great.”
“What? Hello! This is news to me,” Cooper says with a smile. “You didn’t mention this in the book, Mom.”