'Little Gloria' Stamps Her Signature on the Present

Times Society Editor

There's no need to feel sorry for the former "poor little rich girl," a pawn in a celebrated custody battle, a child who grew up with a lot of money and very little sense of security and love.

That's all in the past, neatly put into perspective. And now at 61, stylish, tall and ultra-thin, Gloria Vanderbilt has come into her own. She's taken her famous name into commerce and the arts, scored nicely in both areas and helped make that old and aristocratic family more famous than ever.

These days it gives the fragile-looking "Little Gloria" a great deal of pleasure to know that on her own she has earned much more money than she ever inherited from the shipping and railroad fortune made by her great-great-grandfather, the doughty Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt.

'Once Upon a Time'

"I am a writer," she said, her low and well-modulated voice showing a trace of steel, "and when you're a writer, you write." That's exactly what she did for four months last year, writing in longhand with a pencil on large, bound books, for sometimes eight or nine hours at a time. The result is the first volume of her autobiography, "Once Upon a Time" (Alfred A. Knopf: $16.95), which was No. 10 on The Times best-seller list this week.

Vanderbilt also has her signature on the back of designer jeans and on bottles of fragrance and bath products, on wallpaper and home furnishings, fabrics and ceramics. The commercial enterprises, she said, now "take care of themselves." The only business she's actively involved with is the Gloria Vanderbilt Glace, a tofu ice cream.

First of Series

She is also an artist with a great flair for color whose works have been shown in one-woman exhibitions, the author of a book of love poetry and two how-to books (one on collages and one on beauty). But this autobiography, the first in what will be a five-book series, is the one she considers "my first book."

She's winding up a promotional book tour. After that it's back to New York and her writing.

The first book, written as a rather breathless first-person narrative, takes her from her father's death in Newport, R.I., in 1925 when she was still a baby, through the custody trial won by her aunt, through the traumas of an unhappy childhood to the visit at age 17 with her mother and her mother's twin, Lady Thelma Furness, at their house on North Maple Drive in Beverly Hills.

Book two, she said, "picks up exactly where the first leaves off. It starts at the party (on the Fourth of July in the Malibu Colony) that's about to happen at the end of the first book." The cut-off age for the second volume is 21 when she receives her inheritance, $4 million. And it will cover her first marriage to Howard Hughes aide and actor's agent Pasquale (Pat) di Cicco.

She believes that she always knew she would write her autobiography. "There was not a day I didn't live it, relive it. I didn't know what form it was going to take."

But then a cousin sent her a snapshot of a round-faced baby with dark, almond-shaped eyes on a sled with a friend in Central Park. The photo of baby Gloria trimmed to show only her face appears in the frontispiece of the book. "I knew that child, I had never lost touch with her, and that's when I knew that I would do the book from the point of view of the child I was. It just clicked into place, and I couldn't wait for Christmas to be over so I could get started." Looking back she reflects, "I must have been ready. I could only write this now. Even five years ago I couldn't have."

The custody battle was between her mother, Gloria Morgan Vanderbilt, and her aunt, the art patron and sculptress Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney. In 1982, Gloria Vanderbilt told a reporter for W, the bi-monthly glossy offshoot of Women's Wear Daily, that she felt her grandmother, Laura Kilpatrick Morgan, had brought on the custody battle because she had not approved of the life style of her daughter, Gloria Morgan. For Little Gloria it was "truly awful. I was treated terribly, and everyone behaved badly." Today she's more reluctant to talk about that episode in her life because, "It's something I will write about in a later book and to comment further is not appropriate at this time. If I talk too much I might not write it."

Writing that first volume, she said, was easy. "It was like automatic writing or striking a vein and letting the blood flow." The second one is "more difficult. I want it to have the same immediacy, but as one gets older one thinks on different levels. There are things about my mother I want to get right, things that were not resolved until later (there was the period between the ages of 20 and 38 when Little Gloria had no contact with Big Gloria). I understand her now as I didn't then. There's a delicate balance in presenting it.

"It's an extraordinary feeling," she said, "to know that I'm a writer and that I put it down as I saw it. It's an extraordinary feeling that I'm putting things in order. One of the things that was so difficult when I was a child is that I had no one I could communicate with."

She is endlessly fascinated by the similarities between her mother and her mother's twin, Thelma, who are both buried here at Holy Cross Cemetery.

"My aunt lived for six years after my mother died, which is astonishing because they really were one person. As a child I could not tell them apart, but as they grew older they were more easily recognized.

"It must be incredible," she said, "to sit in a room and to see someone exactly like you there. It must give you incredible support and comforting security."

A Ticklish Problem

The major characters in her first book--her strong-willed grandmother, her mother, her aunt--are all dead. But in subsequent books she'll deal with some who are still living. It's a ticklish problem because "people who are living have a copyright on their lives." She uses Sidney Lumet, the director and her third husband, as an example: "He and I are close friends and I respect and admire and love him. I truly do."

Her creative drive, she said, rose out of a need "to make order out of chaos. If I hadn't had a chaotic childhood, who knows what I would have done. But I was determined to put things right, and my way of doing that is to paint and write." The first thing she did, she said, was concentrate on her relationship with her children (she has four, the two oldest from her marriage to the conductor Leopold Stokowski, the two youngest from her last husband, the late writer Wyatt Cooper).

"Wyatt was an extraordinary father and we had a family life together. He taught me to treat children as persons, as potential persons. I was never treated as a person when I was a child. They (Carter and Anderson Cooper) were 10 and 12 when we lost him (Cooper), and they were so strong."

Cooper wrote a book about his Southern roots, "Families: A Memoir and a Celebration." He said he wrote it as a legacy to his children, to give them a sense of belonging. Cooper also persuaded his wife to make up with her Vanderbilt relatives from whom she had become estranged. Now in the summer she joins Vanderbilt reunions in The Breakers, the Newport home built by her Vanderbilt grandmother. It belongs to the Newport Historical Society, but her cousin lives on the top floor and when Gloria is there, "I stay in my father's old room. It's all as it was."

At this point in her life she can say easily, "I've been a success as a parent and in some mystic way I've put things right with my mother."

Her sons, she said, "are fascinated by the book." Her oldest one, Stan Stokowski, is married "and has two daughters, little tiny ones. The second one (Chris Stokowski) lives in Massachusetts. Anderson Cooper is in his second year at Princeton and I think he's going to be a writer." Son Carter Cooper, a multitalented young man, according to his mother, has been on an African survival trip since just after Christmas. In the fall, he'll enter Yale. "It's not easy to be a single parent," she sighed, "but they (her sons) are so extraordinary (it's one of her favorite words) and we've been blessed. We were always together.

Thinking About Marriage Again

"It's seven years since Wyatt's death," she said, her voice growing softer and lower. "And it's only now that I've begun to think about marriage." (Earlier this year there was talk she might marry Darren Ramirez, the handsome manager of the Gianni Versace shop in Beverly Hills and an acquaintance of long standing.) Evidently she's had second thoughts. She paused a moment before almost whispering, "I think what I really would like is to live with someone. But I don't think I could be attracted to someone not in the arts. Businessmen don't understand."

At the present her life is well ordered and pretty much the way she wants it--winters in New York ("I can't imagine living anywhere else"), summers at her Stanford White-designed, three-story cottage in Southampton, Long Island. "There's a very social life out there, but I'm not involved in it. I can paint there. And I have friends come for the weekend." She doesn't go out much in New York either. "I'm blessed with friends, and I like to have them in for dinner or go to their homes."

In September "Once Upon a Time" will be published in London and Vanderbilt will be there to see that it's launched properly. And then it's back to the saga of her life. "And after that series is finished I want to write a novel."

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