The many talents of Gloria Vanderbilt

January 01, 1995|By Patti Doten | Patti Doten,Boston Globe

Gloria Vanderbilt has left her Kabuki mask at home, along with her slicked-back-behind-the-ears hairstyle and jack-o'-lantern smile -- so familiar to Americans when she was hawking her bluejeans and being photographed at social events in New York in the late '70s and early '80s.

On a recent morning, Ms. Vanderbilt is dressed casually, her makeup is almost indiscernible, and her hair falls softly around her face. Her manner is warm but reserved. She looks 20 years younger than her age -- 70.

After a highly publicized custody case in 1935, when she was 10 (she was taken from her globe-trotting mother and raised by an aunt), a stab at acting, four marriages, a multimillion-dollar career as a designer and the loss of a son, who jumped to his death before her eyes, Ms. Vanderbilt has spent the last decade in quiet repose, living the writer's life with a love interest she will not name.

She is now on tour, promoting "The Memory Book of Starr Faithfull," a fictionalized diary based on the true story of a beautiful girl seduced by her 45-year-old cousin when she was 11. The cousin was Andrew J. Peters, a wealthy aristocrat who was elected mayor of Boston in 1917.

Ms. Vanderbilt is not the first writer to use Faithfull as a muse. In 1935, John O'Hara reworked Faithfull's story into "Butterfield 8," and in 1977 Sandra Scoppetone did the same in "Some Unknown Woman."

Seeing parallels

"I've lived unconsciously with Starr Faithfull for many years," said Ms. Vanderbilt, who was a teen-ager when she first read about Faithfull. "As the years passed, I couldn't get her out of my mind and felt I knew what went on inside her head. I saw a lot of myself in her. No, I've never been sexually abused, but like me, Starr had a mother that really wasn't there for her, a missing father and no role models."

"Starr is so very real to me, she was so innocent," said Ms. Vanderbilt, who worked on the book for four years. "I want people to understand her, to understand how she got drawn into this relationship. It felt good in the beginning because she was singled out by someone famous -- the mayor of Boston, after all, who was a friend of the president and someone her mother admired."

Ms. Vanderbilt said her book is not about being victimhood but about loss, a topic she likes to explore as a writer.

In her book, the author returns to the adolescent voice that made her first book so successful. That was 1985's autobiographical "Once Upon a Time," about the first 17 years of her life. Even though the sequel, "Black Knight, White Knight," chronicled her heady days in Hollywood, her first three marriages -- to Howard Hughes employee Pasquale De Cicco, conductor Leopold Stokowski and director Sidney Lumet -- and her affair with Frank Sinatra, it was less popular.

"Maybe I was trying to get too much in [my second book]," she said. "But I do know that I can easily get into the mind of an adolescent. I can project myself into someone else. That is my talent."

Ms. Vanderbilt writes -- in longhand -- five days a week, usually for six hours, while reclining on a sofa. She takes no phone calls, allowing her to go into what she calls a "sort of trance."

Grand designs

Credited with being the first American to attach a designer label to her jeans and making a mint in the process ($300 million in 1977), Ms. Vanderbilt had a business partnership with her lawyer and her psychiatrist that ended acrimoniously -- in court.

"I made a lot of money, but am glad to be out of it now," said Ms. Vanderbilt, her large hands a contrast to the rest of her fine-boned body. "I've won back some of the money they took but not all. I've been in litigation for eight years over this."

Thomas Andrews, her former lawyer, has been disbarred and moved to Florida. "As for my former shrink, Dr. Christ [Chris] Zois, he cured me of going into any more therapy. He's up before the medical conduct board.

"But no, the whole sordid business has not left me bitter or afraid to trust anyone," she said, adding, "When you're well known and you read all the things that are written about you, you can become what you read," said Ms. Vanderbilt, whose family name PTC is one of the closest things to royalty Americans have. "It can't help but affect you. But I am very clear about myself. I don't have to read what is written about me. I feel stronger now than I ever have."

Although she's had a "very romantic" relationship for the past nine years, she said she will never marry again. Her fourth husband, Wyatt Cooper, to whom her new book is dedicated, died in 1978, after 16 years with Ms. Vanderbilt. He was "the love of my life," she said. "I still miss him so much. . . . He was the one who encouraged me to be a designer, and with him I had the family I always dreamed of having."

That family included two sons, Carter and Anderson (she has two sons by Stokowski and two grandchildren). In 1988, Carter jumped off the 14th-floor balcony of her duplex apartment while she watched.

"I will never get over my son's suicide; you don't get over something like that," said Ms. Vanderbilt. "But I believe everything happens for a reason. Someday we will know why this happened."

But she added, you never lose that which you love. "At this point in my life I am very content," Ms. Vanderbilt said. "At my age, if not now -- when?"

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