Some of us are born in poverty, others are born into a world of fortune and fame. Gloria Vanderbilt, heiress, artist, actress and socialite, is a member of the famous New York Vanderbilt family. In the 2016 HBO documentary Nothing Left Unsaid, Gloria Vanderbilt, together with her youngest son, CNN reporter Anderson Cooper, dives into the archives that hold the secrets to her tragic and turbulent past. What has become of "the poor little rich girl" and how does she, at the age of 91, reflect on her life? Nothing Left Unsaid tells the tale of a young girl left to her own devices. It is a testament that even all the riches in the world cannot buy us happiness.
The Poor Little Rich Girl
Born in 1924 to Reginald Claypoole Vanderbilt and his much younger wife, Gloria Morgan, Gloria had a childhood far from the ordinary. Following her birth, her parents left her with a nanny as they went on to explore the world for six months. Gloria grew up in the care of her beloved nanny, Emma Sullivan Kieslich, whom she still refers to as "Dodo". Following the death of her father at the age of 45, Gloria's mother relocated the family to Paris. For a brief moment Gloria's life had achieved some form of stability, and surrounded by Dodo and her grandmother, she had found a degree of happiness. Not long after, and to the dismay of her grandmother, Gloria's mother fell in love with a German prince. Her grandmother arranged for young Gloria to be moved to the United States, where both she and Dodo believed Gloria, being a true Vanderbilt, belonged.
A plot to separate Gloria from her mother was set in motion, resulting in what was arguably one of the most high-profile custody cases of that generation. All Gloria cared about was keeping Dodo in her life, who had since birth fulfilled both the mother and father role. Whilst the judge, deeming Morgan an unfit parent, granted Gloria's aunt, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, child custody, he also demanded Dodo retire from her role as a nanny. He was afraid Dodo had too much of an influence on the youngster. Gloria, at the age of nine, was left devastated.
Vanderbilt Goes Hollywood
With one year of high school left, Gloria decides to go to California to visit her mother. With no true authority figure in place, it does not surprise me that she is drawn to the madness that is Hollywood and choses to extend her stay. At the tender age of 17, she marries Pat DiCicco, who we later find out was both physically and emotionally abusive towards her. Gloria's life proves to be a true whirlwind, as she is constantly in search of the love and affection she never had. Weeks after divorcing DiCicco, she therefore marries conductor Leopold Stokowski. She is 21, he is in his sixties. Gloria was looking for a father, she confesses in Nothing Left Unsaid, and she found him in Stokowski. Seven years later, in 1952, their son Christopher Stokowski is born, yet the couple chose to split in 1955.
Vanderbilt is surprisingly honest and open in the manner in which she discusses her marriages. She is clearly a wise woman who, looking back, acknowledges the mistakes and absurd choices she has made. "Sweetheart, I was 17", she says, which to me, having heard her story, is good enough of an excuse. "Now I can laugh at it, you know? It's like something that happened to somebody else, you know." she states, describing her marriage to DiCicco. One of my favorite moments in this chapter of the documentary is when Gloria confesses to Cooper that DiCicco's first wife died under mysterious circumstances, and he was a suspect. Cooper, amused, responds with a chuckle, "Did that not seem to give you pause? [...] Oh, God." To me, it is a perfect example of how Vanderbilt seems to live her life; fearless and impulsive, and perhaps with a hint of whatever is left of her childhood innocence.
Greatest Loves and Losses
Whilst still married to her third husband, director Sidney Lumet, Gloria falls in love with author Wyatt Emory Cooper, who is arguably her one true love. Together they had two sons: Carter Vanderbilt Cooper and CNN reporter Anderson Cooper. As an audience, it is heartwarming to hear her talk about Cooper and the life they had. He was, for instance, the one who suggested she reconnect with her mother. It is therefore all the more heartbreaking when we find out that they were not granted the happily ever after we were all hoping for. Here we have a woman who, regardless of her background, has been through more than her fair share of pain, and her strength and optimism through it all is inspiring.
Gloria Vanderbilt: I do think the point of view that it's only once that you accept that life is a tragedy that you can start to live. I do believe that.
Two of the biggest tragedies she addresses in Nothing Left Unsaid are the deaths of her fourth husband, Wyatt Cooper, at the age of 50, and of their 23 year old son, Carter. Carter jumped off the terrace of their 14th-floor New York apartment, right in front of the eyes of his mother. She describes his last moments in detail, just as she has shared them with Anderson thousands of times. She does not show much emotion but you can definitely tell that, understandably, it has had a tremendous impact on her life. The truth is, Vanderbilt simply has no more tears left to cry.
Anderson Cooper: How did you survive?
Gloria Vanderbilt: I really just cried. I cried, and cried, and cried, and cried, and cried, and cried, and cried, and cried. [...] I thought the worst thing that had ever happened to me was, you know, when I was nine, but that wasn't the worst, the worst is to lose a child.
When asked by Anderson how she was able to overcome the tragedies in her life, Gloria responds with "I have inside me the image of a rock-hard diamond that nothing can get at, and nothing can crack, and I’ve always known that about myself." This notion is once again highlighted in the last moments of Nothing Left Unsaid, when Gloria reads Anderson a poem she has incorporated in one of her art pieces. This particular poem strikes a chord with her, as it most likely reminds her of her younger self. As a child from a broken home, who essentially had to learn to raise herself, Gloria has become a strong, resilient woman; a woman with the hard heart of a child.
Beauty (Elinor Wylie)
Say not of beauty she is good,
Or aught but beautiful,
Or sleek to doves' wings of the wood
Her wild wings of a gull.
Call her not wicked; that word's touch
Consumes her like a curse;
But love her not too much, too much,
For that is even worse.
O, she is neither good nor bad,
But innocent and wild!
Enshrine her and she dies, who had
The hard heart of a child.
Anderson Cooper: What does that mean to you?
Gloria Vanderbilt: It means to me that I had the hard heart of a child from then on and that I could survive things. And I did.
The losses this woman has endured are inconceivable to an outsider. It therefore does not surprise me that in her search for love, warmth and happiness, she has often taken a wrong turn. What does surprise me is her ability to self-reflect on her life, loves and losses. Her art is hereby the red thread running through her life and Nothing Left Unsaid. It seems to be her way of dealing with whatever life throws at her, a way to immortalize that which is important to her. Nothing Left Unsaid is truly an intriguing account of a life fit for a Hollywood movie. Gloria Vanderbilt is an inspiring woman who, against all odds, has managed to find happiness in the little wonders life has given her; her children, her art, and her will to live life to the fullest.