Gloria Vanderbilt was the ultimate master of reinvention


NEW YORK – OCTOBER 13: Fashion designer Gloria Vanderbilt speaks during a store appearance for her new book “It Seemed Important At The Time” October 13, 2004 at Barnes and Noble bookstore in New York City. (Photo by Stephen Chernin/Getty Images)

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Editor’s note: Peggy Drexler is a research psychologist and the author of “Our Fathers, Ourselves: Daughters, Fathers, and the Changing American Family” and “Raising Boys Without Men.” She is at work on a book about how women are conditioned to compete with one another and what to do about it. The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers. View more opinion on CNN.

Gloria Vanderbilt has died of cancer at the age of 95, her youngest son, the journalist Anderson Cooper, announced today. It marks the end of a life — or, rather, of lives — very well lived.

First famous for being born very rich — she was the great-great-granddaughter of railroad tycoon Cornelius Vanderbilt — and later for being at the center of a bitter custody battle between her mother and a paternal aunt, Vanderbilt made headlines practically from birth. In the 1950s, after a career as a model, she reinvented herself as an actress, artist, and writer; in the 1970s, she began designing clothes, making a name in her own right by embroidering it on denim.

Vanderbilt was the ultimate master of reinvention. In the late 1960s, Life magazine called her “a feminine version of the Renaissance Man.” One might consider her the original celebrity “influencer,” bold enough to think women would want to wear her name on their backsides and compelling enough that they actually did.

She would go on to sell millions of pairs over the course of her lifetime, eventually building a fashion empire worth more than $100 million.

But life wasn’t always easy for Vanderbilt — not even close, by her own admission. In fact, what’s perhaps most iconic about Vanderbilt was how open she was about her struggles at a time when that sort of thing was relatively unheard of from women, if they were heard from at all. She was, she wrote in her memoirs, a sad child of an alcoholic dad and negligent teen mom. She was a high school dropout and a frequently-failed romantic who divorced three times; her first husband allegedly beat her, and she lost her fourth, Wyatt, after 15 years. In 1988, she witnessed her 23-year-old son, Carter, commit suicide when he jumped from the 14th floor terrace of their Manhattan apartment. Later, she had tax issues, legal issues, and crushing debt that threatened her business and forced her to sell her homes.

She did not let her hardships define her, however, or keep her down. She was, of course, very beautiful, and she loved to love, carrying on romances (as she described in her 2004 memoir) with Marlon Brando, Frank Sinatra, and Howard Hughes, even as she also admitted that part of her fascination with sex stemmed from her difficult relationship with her mother. She maintained a very strong relationship with her son Anderson. She eventually became a prolific artist, holding well-received showings of her drawings, paintings, and fabric art at prominent galleries in New York and around the country.

And yet, while she lived an extraordinary life, what’s perhaps most remarkable is how universal the lessons to be gleaned from that life are. She proved that failure often accompanies success, or at least that one does not preclude the other. She proved that money does not buy happiness. She proved that who you are is a choice, and that it can change several times over the course of a lifetime — if, of course, you let it. As her son said a few years back, “My mom’s an eternal optimist. Even at 92, she believes the next great love, the next great adventure, is around the corner.” And as he said today in a moving on-air eulogy, “She loved life and lived it on her own terms.”

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