Saturday, April 24, 2010

Living with Loss

Back in 1996 People Magazine interviewed Gloria about living with loss after the death of Carter. Below is the article. (click pics for larger version). Thanks Tedi B for the find.

ASK ANDERSON COOPER TO TALK about his mother, Gloria Vanderbilt, and sooner or later he'll tell you the story of his great-great-great-grandfather, New York shipping magnate Cornelius Vanderbilt. He had a rowboat, says Cooper, 28, that he used to ferry people from Staten Island to Manhattan, "and he built that rowboat into a steamship line. I think that if push came to shove, my mother would get back in that boat and start rowing."

Gloria Vanderbilt—author, onetime jeans designer and socialite—has indeed spent much of her life crossing troubled waters. She became known to the world as the poor little rich girl when, at 10, she was the prize in a bitter custody battle between her widowed mother and an aunt, who eventually won. She married and divorced three times before losing her fourth and best-loved husband, writer Wyatt Cooper, who died in 1978 at 50 after a series of heart attacks. Then, in July 1988, as she watched helplessly, her son Carter, 23, committed suicide from the terrace of her 14th-floor Manhattan penthouse. "At first you think you will never, ever recover—you want to die," says Vanderbilt, 72. "But you realize you have responsibilities to people."

In A Mother's Story, her soon-to-be-published memoir, she tells how she learned to cope with Carter's death. "I have one friend, who meant well, who said to me, 'It happened, it's past.' It is never past. The more you go over it, the more it helps." Even now, she says, "When I'm walking down a street, I'll look up at a building and count 14 stories. This helps me. It's facing it instead of running away."

On the day that was to be his last, Carter, a Princeton graduate working as an editor at American Heritage magazine, showed up at his mother's opulent penthouse and said he was moving in. Delighted, she didn't question his motives. She had his favorite lunch—spaghetti with her homemade sauce—prepared for two and then, since he said he hadn't slept in several nights, left him to nap on the library sofa. Carter was acting oddly: The day was sweltering, but he wanted the air-conditioning off, and at one point, Vanderbilt writes, he said, "Mom, am I blinking?" Though she had never known him to take illegal drugs, she asked if he were on anything. He answered no.

At about 7 that evening, Carter appeared suddenly in her room, looking dazed. "What's going on?" he kept repeating. Then he dashed out onto the terrace and sat on its wall. Keeping his terrified mother at bay with a rigidly outstretched arm, he asked, "Will I ever feel again?" Desperate, Vanderbilt offered to call the therapist he had begun seeing recently. "Do you know his number?" Carter asked. When she said no, he recited the number and then shouted, "F—k you!"

"He reached out to me at the end," Vanderbilt remembers. "Then he went over, hanging there on the wall, like on a bar in a gymnasium. I said, 'Carter, come back,' and for a minute I thought he'd swing back up. But he let go." A nightmare no parent dares contemplate had, for her, come true.

In replaying the incident during the blur of days that followed, Vanderbilt tried to deny what she had seen. "I thought each person I saw would be the one to bring the message that it hadn't happened," she says. As the reality sank in, she coped by talking to friends, a strategy that went against everything she had learned in childhood. "Rich people don't communicate," she says. "They rise above things."

She also set about looking for answers. The second-youngest of her four sons (she had two by her second husband, conductor Leopold Stokowski), Carter was a precocious child who grew up to be "a perfectionist," she says. "Unseemly behavior horrified him—he would be horrified to think he'd done this." He had broken up with a girlfriend some months before his death and had been under a cognitive therapist's care "for stress, but I don't know many people who haven't been in therapy," Vanderbilt says. "He wasn't being treated for depression."

The culprit, she came to believe, was an inhalant that had been prescribed for Carter's asthma. Vanderbilt says she learned that some asthma medications can cause agitation, insomnia and other central nervous system disturbances. "I was there when he did it, and Carter wasn't himself," she says. "It was as if the medication had snapped him into another dimension."

It was, if nothing else, an explanation she could live with. Three years after Carter's suicide, she began believing she would survive her grief. "I remember sitting in a restaurant one night and drinking a glass of water and feeling like a person," she says. "Until then, you feel you have no skin."

Now at work on another book, about Newport, R.I., Vanderbilt has plenty of reasons to carry on. There is "a man I'm in love with," she says, although she won't divulge more. She and Anderson, a correspondent for ABC News, are "very close," she says, and she delights in her two grandchildren, Abra, 10, and Aurora, 12, the daughters of landscaper Stan Stokowski, 42. (Of son Chris Stokowski, 40, she says only, "He keeps a very low profile.")

Vanderbilt also has new problems to cope with. She sued her former lawyer, who she says formed an illegal company with her former psychiatrist that defrauded her of some $2 million. (Though a court has awarded her the money, she says, legal loopholes have so far prevented her from collecting.) To pay the IRS back taxes she says the same lawyer, also her business manager, never paid, she was recently forced to sell her Southampton, N.Y., summer home as well as her Manhattan town-house and now lives in a smaller, though still comfortable, apartment. "I am not broke," she says.

And it's clear financial woes won't break her spirit. If losing Carter had a positive effect, it was to help her feel less alone when trouble strikes. "His death shattered the glass bubble I've always felt I lived in," she says. "Tragedy happens and people say, 'Why me?' I say, 'Why should I be exempt?' Tragedy connects everyone in the world."

ANNE LONGLEY in New York City

* Contributors: Anne Longley.

All content, unless otherwise cited, is © All Things Anderson and may not be used without consent of the blog administrator.All Things Anderson is a blog dedicated to CNN's AC360 and its host Anderson Cooper.


On_Love_Street_With_Jim_Morrison said...

Good post Quitty. I had never read that article before. It was a good read. So sad what happened to Carter. Gloria is a strong woman.

The pic in the article of Anderson and Carter wearing matching suits and sitting on the steps is cute.

Anonymous said...

"We don't see things as they are, we see them as we are"

Heidi Ann Berg said...

I picture the scene in my head every time I read about
Carter and it makes me cry.You and your Son are very strong in my eyes.I amazed at people when they go through life changing situations and become strong and not have it weeken them to drugs or drinking or just frustration of life.

judy said...

Quitty and Tedi B.: Thanks for this article. Knew the story but never read the article.
"A Mother's Story," was Gloria's best book because it relates to the feelings we all feel in in so many ways.
And we'd all be delighted to see Gloria on DWTS, now that AC announced her e-mail to the world.

Lynn said...

I think I've read this article somewhere else one time but thanks for posting. It's so sad. I can't imagine what Gloria, and the whole family for that matter, went through. But watching your child die...that must just haunt you forever. He was so young so it just makes it all the more tragic.

Tedi B said...

I lost my brother recently and it's a horrible feeling. I don't wish it on anyone but it sure makes me realize how hard it must of been for Anderson and especially for his mother. Everyone's there to begin with and then you are left alone to deal with it. I hope he and his mother have both found some peace!

aries moon said...

Thank you for posting this article, I was beginning to think I'd only imagined reading it in People back in '96, but it was my first, albeit vague and brief, introduction to Anderson--I'd always wondered why I thought I recognized his name many years later when I started watching 360 and this article was the reason, but I'd forgotten. What I never forgot was how devastating the details of Carter's death were--I couldn't imagine how Gloria Vanderbilt survived it.

@Tedi B, I'm sorry to hear that you lost your brother--my condolences to you and your family.

Laurie Beth said...

Tedi, my God, I am so sorry. :(

I remember reading this article a few years ago and I found opening quote of Anderson's about the rowboat to be so very poignant. As it turns out, I still do.

I agree it's a good article. Tedi, let us know if we can do anything for you even if it's just to e-mail. <3

Tedi B said...

Thanks, that's very sweet of you all. My brother passed away suddenly of a heart attack on Feb 27 and he was only 44. He left behind a wife and 16 year old daughter. It's been so tough to deal with but I understand other's losses so much more now. :)

judy said...

Tedi B.: You have my condolences, as well, on the loss of your beloved brother.