Anderson Cooper on the Vanderbilt Dynasty


For the past 15 years, CNN presenter and “60 Minutes” correspondent Anderson Cooper has been sifting through his mother’s treasure trove. Cooper’s mother was Gloria Vanderbilt, known for her designer jeans, and as the “Poor Little Rich Girl” at the center of a notorious custody battle between her own mother (also known as Gloria) and Aunt Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney.

“That’s what I found recently; that was the headline of the Daily News on July 4, 1935: ‘Gloria loses child’. The cover after the trial.”

A 1935 Daily News headline about an appeals court ruling confirming the removal of little Gloria Vanderbilt from her mother’s custody.

CBS news

And there are photos of Gloria from the day her father died. “She’s the age my son is right now,” said Cooper.

“And there she is with her father,” said correspondent Mo Rocca. “Do you look at the guy and say, ‘Wait, wait, he’s my grandfather’?”

“I know! It’s crazy. It’s a different world,” said Cooper.

Anderson Cooper, author of “Vanderbilt: The Rise and Fall of an American Dynasty”.

CBS news

Another world where the name Vanderbilt was synonymous with tremendous wealth and privilege … a name Cooper didn’t want to be associated with: “I felt like taking care of her couldn’t do any good” , he said. “The Vanderbilts felt kind of a layman to me when I was a kid. I knew they had all of these houses and that they were museums now. But there was no reality in my life. “

But after his mother’s death in 2019 and the birth of his son Wyatt in 2020, Cooper decided to dig into this page of his family history and document it in a new book: Vanderbilt: The Rise and Fall of an American. Dynasty “(HarperCollins).


The Vanderbilts came to the New World from Holland in the 17th century. The first generations here were farmers. Then came Cornelius, also known as the Commodore. “Commodore Vanderbilt was a really extraordinary person,” said Cooper. “I mean, he grew up on a farm in Staten Island.”

Cornelius left school at the age of 11 and did his First Luck in shipping. “He built an empire of steamships out of a small, small boat that moves supplies.”

“And steamships were basically just the first chapter of his career?” asked Rocca.

“Right. Well that’s the crazy thing, is he built? two vast empires. It was late in life when he decided that steamers were the past and railways were the future. And he started buying up small railroads in the northeast. And finally he started a railroad company that provided basically all the rail connections on the east coast to Chicago. “

However, Cooper also discovered some unflattering aspects of his great, great, great grandfather’s character.

Rocca said, “When I read that you described him as greedy and merciless, I thought it was blunt!”

A portrait of Cornelius Vanderbilt from 1846 by Nathaniel Jocelyn.

Heritage Art / Heritage Images via Getty Images

“Well, I mean, that was him!” Cooper laughed. “I actually thought he might be a psychopath and then after doing a lot of research I went away and thought, ‘You know, this is a little tough.’ Who can really say that I mean who knows what’s on someone’s head We don’t have an MRI on them!

“But he himself said he had a mania for money. And other people have described it as a pathology. I think it was his only reason for it.”

By the time the Commodore died in 1877, it had amassed $ 100 million: “It had more money than the Treasury Department,” said Cooper.

One in twenty dollars in circulation belonged to the Vanderbilts!

By 1885, the Commodore’s son, William Henry, had more than doubled the family budget to about $ 230 million – nearly $ 6.5 billion in today’s dollars.

But it was the next generation of Vanderbilts whose ambitions had nothing to do with it Manufacturing Money. Cooper said, “Cornelius Vanderbilt II and his brother, William K. Vanderbilt, their wives decide that they will get the Vanderbilts to take over New York society.”

“And then do the issues begin?” asked Rocca.

“Yes. The cones are on.”

This generation of wealthy Vanderbilts longed for seriousness and spent a lot of money in mansions on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan and palatial “summer homes” in Newport, Rhode Island.

A view of Marble House, built between 1888 and 1892 in Newport, RI, by William K. Vanderbilt as a gift to his wife Alva.

Newport mansions

Rocca asked, “Pop Quiz: What Was The Vanderbilt Family? at least Favorite Constitutional Amendment? “

“Anything to do with taxes!” laughed Cooper.

The 16th Amendment to the Constitution introduced federal income tax in 1913. Inheritance and inheritance taxes soon followed. But Vanderbilt’s spending habits continued unabated.

Cooper said, “I see money as some kind of pathology that has infected subsequent generations because I think they all grew up on the idea that there would always be money and they didn’t really have to work.”

Gloria Vanderbilt and her aunt Gertrud Vanderbilt-Whitney in Long Island in 1934
“Poor Little Rich Girl” Gloria Vanderbilt with her aunt Gertrude Vanderbilt-Whitney, December 2, 1934.

Keystone France / Gamma Keystone via Getty Images

When Cooper’s mother, Gloria, was born in 1924, her legacy was greatly reduced and she received little guidance on how to maintain it: “This book has helped me understand my mother in ways I could never really have imagined, because once you see the world she was born into and the life her father led and the life her mother dreamed of and the life her grandfather led, you only see why she grew up Spent money and thought nothing of it. “

In 1978 Cooper’s father Wyatt died. “From childhood I saw myself as my mother’s protector after my father died when I was 10 years old. My mother was a remarkable woman, but I knew she had no plan. And she never had a plan.”

When it came to money matters, Cooper was almost parental to his own mother: “When I was 13, I talked to her about, ‘You know, you can get a bank account and you should save money. Saving‘ Money makes money. ‘ Just stupid things I’d read about. “

Gloria Vanderbilt at the film premiere
Gloria Vanderbilt in 1955.

George Rinhart / Corbis via Getty Images

“Would you say that when you were 13?” asked Rocca.

“Yes. She just never had a plan. She just felt – I heard once I think I was 14 or 15, I remember walking upstairs in the house and she was saying to a friend on the phone, of her, ‘Well, I’ll always be in be able to make money. ‘ And I remember pausing and freezing when I heard that and thought, ‘We are doomed.’

“And that was a big factor for me, that I started to work as much as I could. I got a job as a child model, because at 13 or 14 you can’t do much.”

Gloria Vanderbilt did Make your own fortune with these jeans. But Anderson Cooper never stopped working. “For me, work was what got me through everything. Work has always been the only constant in my life since I worked as a child model as a child. It was something reliable, that helped me calm down and know you, that I created a basis for a life. “

A life that now includes his son, 16-month-old Wyatt, to whom the book is dedicated.

Cooper said, “I thought, ‘I want to write a book for my son that explains part of his past or his family’s past.’ And I think it’s an honest take on this remarkable family – remarkable in good ways, but also in worse ways. “

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Story produced by Kay Lim. Editor: Joseph Frandino.

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