Skip to main content

Gloria Vanderbilt, Child Heiress Turned Jeans Queen, Dies at 95

Gloria Vanderbilt, the “poor little rich girl” at the center of a scandalous 1930s society custody fight who put her Gilded Age name on the backsides of blue-jeaned teenagers 40 years later, has died. She was 95.

She died Monday, according to a statement by CNN, citing her son Anderson Cooper, who hosts a news program at the cable channel.“Gloria Vanderbilt was an extraordinary woman who loved life and lived it on her terms,” Cooper said.

A descendant of Cornelius Vanderbilt, a shipping and railroad magnate, she inherited about $4 million at age 21, much of which was spent by the time she was in her 40s. Although her life was played out on a public stage from the outset, her fame spiked in the late 1970s when she teamed with apparel-maker and entrepreneur Mohan Murjani to pioneer designer jeans for women that carried her signature on the rear pockets. She appeared in television commercials and at department stores as part of a marketing campaign that sold millions of pairs of jeans from which she earned $10 million in 1980. The humble denim pant had become a fashion phenomenon.

Money Maker

“That’s when I really made a lot of money,” the so-called Jeans Queen said, according to a 2014 article in the Financial Times. “The money you make yourself is the only kind of money that has any reality.”

In December 1988, the Gitano Group Inc. bought the Gloria Vanderbilt trademarks from Murjani Worldwide Ltd. for $15 million. It sold the division in 1993 to a private investor group for an undisclosed price. Gloria Vanderbilt Apparel Corp. was acquired by Jones Apparel Group Inc. in 2002 for $138 million.

Related Story

Her jeans enterprise ended in acrimony. She sued her therapist and her lawyer, who had power of attorney, for bilking her out of $1.5 million of her fashion earnings between 1978 and an 1986 and selling off some of her business interests without authorization. Vanderbilt’s lawyer had also become her “manager, adviser, agent, promoter,” according the New York magazine story.

‘Not Broke’

Vanderbilt won her civil lawsuit in 1993, but by then Andrews had died and she was unable to collect her financial judgment from his estate. Meanwhile, her licensing royalties had dwindled even as her lavish spending continued. She had to sell her five-story townhouse in New York and seven-bedroom home in Southampton on Long Island to pay $2.5 million in back taxes she believed Andrews had handled. She temporarily moved in with her son, Anderson Cooper, telling the New York Post she was “not broke.”

In 2004 the U.K.’s Daily Telegraph quoted her as saying, “I always spent money I had. And I always spent what I made. I’m not stingy.”

She began producing gallery-quality art and wrote memoirs and novels. Her books included 1987’s “Black Knight, White Knight,” the story of her first two marriages; “A Mother’s Story,” a 1996 memoir about her son Carter, who committed suicide in 1988; and “Obsession: An Erotic Tale,” a 2009 novel she wrote at age 85. She also wrote about her romances with celebrities including Frank Sinatra, Marlon Brando and Howard Hughes.

“I’m always in love, that’s one of my secrets,” she told the New York Times when the book was published.

Selling Paintings

She and her son, Anderson Cooper, wrote “The Rainbow Comes and Goes: A Mother and Son on Life, Love and Loss” whose publication coincided with a 2016 HBO documentary about them titled “Nothing Left Unsaid.”

By that point she was living in an apartment on exclusive Beekman Place in Manhattan. Having sold off her interests in her fashion businesses in mid-life, she made her living through sales of books and art. Her website showed a portrait of her friend, author Joyce Carol Oates, for $18,000.

Gloria Laura Vanderbilt was born in New York City Feb. 20, 1924, to Reginald Vanderbilt and his second wife, socialite Gloria Morgan.

“Her mother had married the wrong Vanderbilt — an affable drunkard and spendthrift,” who died when Vanderbilt was 15 months old, according to the New York article. “Just 43, he’d frittered away his $15 million inheritance and left behind a welter of unpaid creditors.”

Absent Mother

Her party-loving mother, who inherited nothing, often traveled to Paris and left the day-to-day upbringing of her daughter to a nanny and administered her funds.

Sparked by her mother’s plan to separate her from her beloved nanny, young Gloria’s paternal aunt, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, who founded New York’s Whitney Museum, successfully sued for custody of “the poor little rich girl.” A 1982 TV movie, “Little Gloria….Happy at Last,” retells the saga, which dominated Depression-era news reports.

Under her aunt’s guidance, Gloria attended elite academies, including Miss Porter’s School in Farmington, Connecticut, as well as the Art Students League in New York City.

Her fashion career began as a 15-year-old model in Harper’s Bazaar and she became the darling of leading portrait photographers such as Francesco Scavullo and Richard Avedon.

Designs Jeans

She started creating paintings and collages and after seeing her work at a gallery in New York, Johnny Carson showcased then on “The Tonight Show.” The exposure led to offers to design prints for scarves and dresses. When that business flopped, she grabbed onto a hot new trend — designer blue jeans, Vanderbilt wrote in a 2004 memoir, “It Seemed Important at the Time.”

In 1941, infatuated with movies, she married Hollywood agent and producer Pasquale “Pat” DiCicco . She divorced him in 1945 and married famed conductor Leopold Stokowski when she was 21 and he was 63. The couple had two sons, Christopher and Leopold, and divorced in 1955.

She then applied herself to acting, appearing in television dramas such as “Playhouse 90” and on Broadway in William Saroyan’s “The Time of Your Life.”

In 1956, she married director Sidney Lumet, divorcing him in 1963, the same year she married Wyatt Cooper, an actor and screenwriter with whom she had sons Anderson and Carter. Wyatt Cooper died in 1978.

Vanderbilt experienced what she called the tragedy of her life in 1988 when Carter, at age 23, committed suicide as she watched him jump off the balcony of her duplex apartment in Manhattan.

“I have inside me the image of a rock-hard diamond that nothing can get at, and nothing can crack,” she said in “Nothing Left Unsaid” to explain how she had weathered the sorrows of her long life. “And I’ve always known that about myself.”

Reporting by Patrick Oster with assistance from Charlotte Porter.