Gloria Vanderbilt, heiress, socialite, fashion icon and mother of CNN’s Anderson Cooper, has died, the journalist confirmed on the network on Monday. She was 95.
Vanderbilt had cancer, her son confirmed, explaining in a CNN obituary, “Earlier this month, we had to take her to the hospital. That’s where we learned she had very advanced cancer in her stomach and that it had spread. When the doctor told her she had cancer, she was silent for a while, and then she said, ‘Well, it’s like that old song: Show me the way to get out of this world, because that’s where everything is.’ “
“Love is what she believed in more than anything,” Cooper said. He continued, “Gloria Vanderbilt died as she lived: on her own terms.”
Throughout her life, Vanderbilt made a name for herself as an actress, fashion designer, artist and author, but her time in the spotlight began at birth.
Vanderbilt was born in New York City on February 20, 1924 into one of the wealthiest families in America. Her father was railroad heir Reginald Claypoole Vanderbilt, who was the great-grandson of Cornelius Vanderbilt who built the New York Central Railroad. Her mother was 19-year-old Gloria Morgan. Her father died from cirrhosis of the liver when she was 18 months old and was left in the care of her mother.
“She wanted to have fun. I mean, she was suddenly this very rich widow and she arrives in Paris,” Vanderbilt said about her mother in an interview with PEOPLE and Entertainment Weekly in 2016. “She was a great, great beauty, had a twin sister and she just had a wonderful time.”
While her mother partied and traveled, she was primarily raised by her grandmother “Naney” and her beloved nanny “Dodo.” By the time she was 10 years old, she found herself in the center of the “custody battle of the century” between her aunt Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney (founder of New York City’s Whitney Museum) and her mother. Her aunt eventually won custody after revealing in the case that Vanderbilt’s mother was a lesbian and painted her as an unfit mother.
Vanderbilt made the move to Hollywood as a teen, where she developed a fondness for older men.
“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 told PEOPLE. “My mother let me do anything that I wanted to do and I hardly ever saw her.” She 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 said. “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 and produced two sons, Leopold (in 1951) and Christopher (in 1952).
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).
Wyatt died on the operating table while undergoing open-heart surgery in 1978 and Vanderbilt became a single mom.
In the ’70s her name became synonymous with her booming jeans empire, but she began building her business in the housewares field. She first designed home furnishings, sheets and china, which eventually led her to designing dresses and then blouses on Seventh Avenue.
“So, I went from my own designing dress business on Seventh Avenue to designing blouses for [Mohan] Murjani,” Vanderbilt told PEOPLE. “And, there was a merchandising genius called Warren Hersch, and he had to manage the company. We were talking one day and he said, ’Murjani’s, they’ve got all this denim fabric stored away in Hong Kong.’ So I said, ‘Why don’t we make jeans, a really great fit jean?’”
Her strategy of making a “great fitting jean” worked. Every pair featured her famous swan logo and she appeared in ads for the jeans herself, which became a fashion sensation.
Cooper recalled the success of his mother’s denim in an interview with PEOPLE: “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 said. “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.”
Despite all the success, she lost almost every penny of it at the hands of a fraudulent lawyer, but her brand is still in stores today, including J.C. Penney and Khol’s.
Vanderbilt’s death comes just three years after she and Cooper penned a joint memoir called The Rainbow Comes and Goes: A Mother and Son Talk About Life, Love, and Loss, which offers a rare glimpse into their special relationship via a collection of intimate email exchanges.
“When my mom turned 91, I wanted to use the time that we have left in our lives to get to know each other as adults,” Cooper explained to PEOPLE at the time. “I realized I didn’t want there to be anything left unsaid with my mom, I didn’t want there to be questions that I still had about who she was and what her life was like. And I didn’t want her to have questions about me as an adult.”
In the same interview, Cooper and Vanderbilt opened up about how they coped following the suicide of their brother and son, Carter Cooper, who died in 1988.
“The most terrible word in the English language, ‘closure,’” Vanderbilt said.
“It doesn’t exist. There’s no such thing,” added Cooper.
“I think that maybe it was some kind of dream that happened and he seems so real to me still … Does that make any sense?” Vanderbilt said, adding: “The dream feels absolutely real,” she said. “Just as a real as we are here.”
Vanderbilt starred alongside Cooper in the 2016 HBO documentary, Nothing Left Unsaid: Gloria Vanderbilt and Anderson Cooper, where she reflected on her remarkable life.
“People were so fascinated with this family that apparently had everything,” Vanderbilt said in the trailer for the documentary. “I never felt that I belonged. I felt like I was an imposter.”
“As a young kid, I didn’t know the origins of this sadness that permeated her life,” Cooper said. “She has this drive, and that drive makes it impossible to have a calm existence. She’s the last person in my family alive, so I don’t want there to be anything left unsaid between us,” he said.