For the past 15 years, CNN anchor and "60 Minutes" correspondent Anderson Cooper has been sorting through his mother's treasures. Cooper's mother was Gloria Vanderbilt, known for her designer jeans, and as the so-called "Poor Little Rich Girl" at the center of an infamous Depression-era custody battle between her own mother (also named Gloria) and Aunt Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney.
"This, I just found recently; this was the headline of 'The Daily News,' July 4, 1935: 'Gloria loses child.' The cover after the trial."
And there are photographs 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 that guy and go, 'Wait, hold on a second, he's my grandfather'?"
"I know! It's crazy. It's another world," Cooper said.
Another world where the Vanderbilt name was synonymous with enormous wealth and privilege … a name that Cooper says he didn't want to be associated with: "I felt like no good could come of me paying attention to them," he said. "The Vanderbilts, when I was a kid, seemed kind of like lay-abouts. I knew they had all these houses and they were museums now. But it had no reality in my life."
But after his mother's death in 2019, and then the birth of his son, Wyatt, in 2020, Cooper decided to delve into that side of his family history, documenting 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, a.k.a. the Commodore. "Commodore Vanderbilt was a really extraordinary person," Cooper said. "I mean, he grew up on a farm in Staten Island."
Cornelius left school at age 11 and made his first fortune in shipping. "From one small, little boat moving supplies, he built an empire of steamships."
"And steamships were basically just the first chapter of his career?" asked Rocca.
"Right. Well, that's what's so crazy, is he built two massive empires. It was late in life when he decided steamships were the past and railroads were the future. And he started buying up small railroads around the Northeast. And eventually, he formed a railroad company that basically was all rail service on the Eastern seaboard to Chicago."
Yet, Cooper also discovered some unflattering aspects of his great-great-great-grandfather's character.
Rocca said, "When I read that you described him as avaricious and pitiless, I thought, that's blunt!"
"Well, yeah, I mean, he was!" Cooper laughed. "I actually started out thinking maybe he was a psychopath, which then I came away, after doing a lot of research on, I was, like, 'You know, that's a little harsh.' Like, who can say really? I mean, who knows what's in someone's mind? There's no MRI that we have of him!
"But he himself said he did have a mania for money. And other people have described it as a pathology. I do think it was his sole reason for being."
When the Commodore died in 1877, he'd amassed $100 million: "He had more money than the U.S. Treasury," Cooper said.
One out of every twenty dollars in circulation belonged to the Vanderbilts!
By 1885, the Commodore's son, William Henry, managed to more than double the family coffers, to about $230 million – close to $6.5 billion in today's dollars.
But it was the next generation of Vanderbilts whose ambitions had nothing to do with making money. Cooper said, "Cornelius Vanderbilt II and his brother, William K. Vanderbilt, their wives decide they're gonna get the Vanderbilts to take over New York society."
"And then, the spending begins?" asked Rocca.
"Yes. The spigots are turned on."
Craving respectability, this generation of wealthy Vanderbilts spent lavishly on mansions that dotted Manhattan's Fifth Avenue, and palatial "summer cottages" in Newport, Rhode Island.
Rocca asked, "Pop quiz: What was the Vanderbilt family's least favorite constitutional amendment?"
"Anything to do with taxes!" laughed Cooper.
The 16th Amendment to the Constitution ushered in the federal income tax in 1913. Estate and inheritance taxes soon followed. But the Vanderbilt spending habits continued unabated.
Cooper said, "I view the money as kind of a pathology that infected subsequent generations, because I think they all grew up with this idea that there would always be money there, and there was no need for them to actually work."
When Cooper's mother, Gloria, was born in 1924, her inheritance was much diminished, and she was given little guidance on how to maintain it: "This book helped me understand my Mom in ways I never really even imagined, because, once you see the world she was born into and the life her father led and the life her mother dreamed of leading and the life that her grandfather led, you see why it was that she, you know, grew up just spending money and thinking nothing of it."
In 1978 Cooper's father, Wyatt, died. "From the time I was a kid, I viewed myself as my Mom's protector after my Dad died when I was 10. My Mom was a remarkable lady, but I knew she did not have a plan. And she had never had a plan."
When it came to money matters, Cooper assumed an almost parental role with his own mother: "I would talk to her at 13 about, you know, 'You know, you can get a bank account and you should put money in savings. Saving money is making money.' Just stupid things I had read about."
"You would say that at 13 years old?" asked Rocca.
"Yeah. She just never had a plan. She just felt like – I once heard, I think I was, like, 14 or 15, I remember I was going upstairs in the house and I heard her on the phone saying to a friend of hers, 'Well, I'll always be able to make money.' And I remember stopping and freezing when I heard that and thinking, 'We are doomed.'
"And that for me was a huge factor in, I started working as much as I could. I got a job as a child model, 'cause when you're 13, 14, there's not a lot you can actually do."
Gloria Vanderbilt did make her own fortune with those jeans. But Anderson Cooper never stopped working. "Work for me has been the thing which has gotten me through everything. Work has always been the one constant in my life from the time I was, you know, working as a child model as a kid. It was something that was reliable, that helped me calm myself, and, you know, know that I was building a foundation 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 wanna write a book for my son that kind of explains part of his past or his family's past.' And it's an honest view, I think, at this remarkable family – remarkable in good ways, and also bad."
For more info:
- "Vanderbilt: The Rise and Fall of an American Dynasty" by Anderson Cooper and Katherine Howe (HarperCollins), in Hardcover, Large Print Trade Paperback, eBook and Audio formats, available September 21 via Amazon and Indiebound
- Newport Mansions: The Preservation Society of Newport County
Story produced by Kay Lim. Editor: Joseph Frandino.
- ("Sunday Morning," 4/3/16)
- ("Sunday Morning," 11/5/04)
for more features.