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Gloria Vanderbilt, heiress, socialite and fashion entrepreneur, dies at 95

Elaine Woo, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Entertainment News

Gloria Vanderbilt, the heiress and "poor little rich girl" in a sensational 1930s custody trial who survived a famously disjointed childhood to become an actress, artist, designer and author, has died. She was 95.

Her death was announced Monday via a CNN report voiced by anchor Anderson Cooper, her son. CNN reported that she died at her home and was suffering from advanced stomach cancer. Cooper said that his mother only learned that her cancer was terminal earlier this month.

The direct descendant of 19th century shipping and railroad baron Cornelius Vanderbilt experienced loss and triumph on a grand scale: Her multimillionaire father died when she was barely 2, her socialite mother abandoned her for the high life on two continents, and the beloved nurse who raised her from birth was fired after the notorious 1934 custody battle. She was raised by paternal aunt Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, who founded the Whitney Museum of American Art.

Vanderbilt conducted the rest of her life as, in her words, "a restless search for love." She married four times (her second and third husbands were conductor Leopold Stokowski and film director Sidney Lumet) and had affairs with other legendary men, including Howard Hughes, Marlon Brando and Frank Sinatra.

She finally found happiness in her last marriage -- to writer Wyatt Emory Cooper -- but it ended with his premature death at 50 of a heart attack. That loss was compounded a decade later when she witnessed the suicide of one of their sons.

Her life fed the imagination of writer Truman Capote, who used Vanderbilt as a model for Holly Golightly, the hedonistic heroine of his 1958 novel, "Breakfast at Tiffany's."

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Vanderbilt ended her friendship with Capote after he portrayed her as a vacuous socialite who fails to recognize a former husband in "La Cote Basque," a 1975 short story later published as a chapter of his unfinished novel, "Answered Prayers."

To later generations, Vanderbilt was best known for putting her name on a slew of mass-marketed merchandise -- linens, stemware, perfumes and, most notably, a line of tight-fitting designer jeans -- that launched celebrity branding in fashion and other everyday wares. She was fond of noting that she earned far more making jeans than her great-great-grandfather and founder of the family fortune had left behind.

She later lost millions in a swindle masterminded by two trusted advisers -- her psychiatrist and her lawyer. But her name remained a potent marketing ploy, revived in the early 2000s by companies that hoped the glamorous Vanderbilt brand would sell everything from bath towels to watches.

In 2009, when she was 85, Vanderbilt raised eyebrows with the release of an erotic novel, "Obsession," about a woman who discovers her dead husband's kinky affair with a dominatrix. The New York Times described it as "the steamiest book ever written by an octogenarian."

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