Gloria Vanderbilt, the "poor little rich girl" who fascinated during a scandalous custody trial in the 1930s, became one of the most chronicled socialites of her era, and was a model, actor, poet, painter, author and jeans mass-marketer, has died at 95.

The death was announced by CNN anchor Anderson Cooper, her youngest son.

The railroad and shipping heiress was 10 when she was the subject of a sensational custody battle in 1934 — one that gave Depression-era America a window into the lives of the fabulously rich. The press dubbed her the "poor little rich girl".

She made appearances in gossip columns for romantic liaisons with Frank Sinatra, Howard Hughes and Gordon Parks, among others — and her nuptials to the composer Leopold Stokowski and director Sidney Lumet, two of her high-profile marriages. Social companions included designers Bill Blass and Diane von Fürstenberg and writer Truman Capote.

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More than 40 years after the court case that made her famous, she courted the spotlight by merchandising her celebrity. She turned "Gloria Vanderbilt" into a label on a line of jeans for women and made millions.

Her creative drive, she said, arose from a need to make order out of a chaotic childhood. A stunning beauty, she became a bewitching model captured by top photographers, and had a short career on stage and television in the 1950s. She also published books of poetry, memoirs and, at 85, an erotic novel.

CNN anchor Anderson Cooper and his socialite mother, Gloria Vanderbilt, who has just died aged 95. Photo / Mark Schafer
CNN anchor Anderson Cooper and his socialite mother, Gloria Vanderbilt, who has just died aged 95. Photo / Mark Schafer

She said her most painful moment was witnessing the suicide of son Carter Vanderbilt Cooper, 23, who in 1988 leaped from her Manhattan apartment. She wrote a book, A Mother's Story (1996), about her efforts to cope with her grief.

Gloria Laura Morgan Vanderbilt was born February 20, 1924, in New York City, the only child of Reginald Claypoole Vanderbilt and his second wife, Gloria Morgan, a teenage socialite less than half his age.

Her father was a great-grandson of Cornelius Vanderbilt, tycoon and philanthropist. Her father was a gambler who squandered much of his inheritance before dying in 1925 of liver cirrhosis and other complications from alcoholism.

"Little Gloria," as the toddler was called, became one of two heirs to a US$5 million trust fund, the equivalent of almost US$67m ($103m) today. The other was a half-sister from her father's first marriage.

Widowed at 21, the elder Gloria Vanderbilt financed her lifestyle through trust income earmarked for her daughter's upbringing.

Gloria Vanderbilt walks down a New York street. Photo / AP
Gloria Vanderbilt walks down a New York street. Photo / AP

By all accounts, the girl's mother was remarkably negligent, preferring partying in Europe to parenting. The mother and her glamorous identical twin, Thelma Furness, kept company with royalty. Furness had an affair with Edward, Prince of Wales, before introducing him to Wallis Simpson.

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Much of young Gloria's early childhood was spent in Paris with her nanny. She also stayed with her grandmother, Laura Kilpatrick Morgan.

Laura Morgan was so disdainful of her daughter's mothering skills that she plotted to permanently remove the child. Morgan and Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney — a paternal aunt — sought to have young Gloria live with Whitney permanently.

Lurid testimony riveted America during the trial. A nurse said Gloria's mother was a devotee of erotica and a German prince's mistress. A chauffeur testified the girl's mother had several lovers. A French maid raised the spectre of lesbianism, causing the judge to close the courtroom.

Gloria Vanderbilt with her family - husband Wyatt Cooper, sons Anderson Cooper (on Wyatt's lap) and Carter - in her New York City apartment in the 1970s. Photo / Jack Robinson-Conde Nast Publications
Gloria Vanderbilt with her family - husband Wyatt Cooper, sons Anderson Cooper (on Wyatt's lap) and Carter - in her New York City apartment in the 1970s. Photo / Jack Robinson-Conde Nast Publications

In chambers, young Gloria renounced her mother to the judge. When he pointed out that she had "lived a long while" with her mother, the girl responded: "Yes, but I have hardly seen her. She has never been nice to me. She never even kissed me goodnight."

Later, Gloria said she had been coached to speak against her mother.

The aunt was awarded primary custody, with her mother allowed limited visitation. At 17, Vanderbilt dropped out of school to visit her mother in Beverly Hills. She felt like a bird uncaged, she later said. She became engaged to the first actor she met, Van Heflin, and was squired around town by stars such as Errol Flynn and George Montgomery.

Vanderbilt was married four times, divorced three times, and had four sons in all.

In a sad echo of her own childhood, Vanderbilt battled Stokowski in court for custody of their two sons in the aftermath of the couple's divorce. She won.

In her later years, she remained a redoubtable presence on the New York social scene and loved to make a stir. Hence her novel Obsessions, which the New York Times declared perhaps "the steamiest book ever written by an octogenarian". Survivors include sons Anderson Cooper and Stan Stokowski, and three grandchildren. She was estranged from another son, Christopher Stokowski.