What’s Wealth Got To Do With It?

Photo of Gloria Vanderbilt from a 1959 acting role on  The United States Steel Hour

Photo of Gloria Vanderbilt from a 1959 acting role on The United States Steel Hour

Paraphrasing Tina Turner’s hit song, what’s wealth go to do with it? Is it no more than circumstance or coincidence that doesn’t touch on anything deeper than the brands one buys or avoids? It is luck of the draw, good or bad for us all.

We don’t get to pick our parents. “Have her send over a resume and I’ll get back to her.” By the time we begin to figure things out, say in middle school, it’s too late to get parents back on track.

How deep does wealth go into influencing a person? Motivate her? Freeze her in place, or cripple a latent ambition? Can you pluck a woman from her circumstance, drop her into a foreign situation and watch her continue on as before? The lottery winner who lives in a trailer, how does that turn out for him?

Last week’s short story, Saint-Tropez Sketch is about to go back into edits. Had a hunch I wasn’t done with it, and after receiving feedback from a couple of readers, I can see that I’m not. Maybe a second draft will do it.

Summers, as a bored kid I sometimes would redirect an ant onto a piece of paper and put it down somewhere else to see where it picked up again. The ants rarely returned to where they’d been, but did that prove they were only insects or just better at accepting fate? Had a faint interest in entomology.

A few weeks ago, flipping channels we ran across a rebroadcast of HBO’s Nothing Left Unsaid: Gloria Vanderbilt & Anderson Cooper [i] A remarkable piece of TV journalism about the life of an American royal family’s best known heiress. Vanderbilt is a name out of the dusty past when ships and railroads were the future and the Western world hadn’t gone bat-shit crazy in two world wars and all that’s followed. But if your parents stuck you with a name like Cornelius, you’d better do something with it, like bequeath enough to name a college in Tennessee.

Always knew he had it in him, Anderson Cooper, that is. Cooper has a gravitas in his work that stands out in the vacuous news (aka entertainment) industry, though I had no idea that his mother was Gloria Vanderbilt. One might say snidely, ‘well of course he’s dignified with all that money.’ But following a serious path through journalism isn’t anything to sneer about. Probably I should subscribe to online gossip–you know, to stay abreast.

It would be another piece of Hollywood trivia if Cooper hadn’t produced (in the real sense) the HBO story, and if his mother wasn’t a study in perseverance. Vanderbilt could have told her story to any number of breathless show biz interviewers, but what she reveals to her son while the cameras roll (digitally) is the main reason the documentary is worth watching. And I didn’t know she was a beautiful woman into her senior living days. Say amen!

Other than Gloria Vanderbilt’s status as a fashion doyen who lived her entire life in the public eye and was one of the railroad tycoon’s many descendants, I knew nada about her before seeing the documentary. Even the name ‘Gloria’ put me off, like angels singing in the choir loft. Jeans, yeah, so what? Ah, nicely fitting ones, well maybe, but designer jeans. Had the world gone that crazy?

So in last week’s short story as I was working on my fictional heiress, Giselle, I was drawn into Gloria Vanderbilt’s story–particularly her acting/modeling days of her youth when the good times never stop rolling. Married at seventeen because there was no one in her life to tell her how bad it was to marry an abusive man, remarried weeks later to Leopold Stokowski, then a third time and finally seemed to get it right with Wyatt Cooper, Anderson Cooper’s father.

If one were writing romance fiction, the height of Gloria’s story arch would have been the time with Stokowski, the great conductor, and fade to credits with thundering applause. But what was it like to have lived within that marriage with more than forty years’ distance between them?

The height of the arc in her life was the one she’d lived with Wyatt Cooper.

Gloria Vanderbilt was exposed at a young age to how poorly wealth protects a person from the blows that life throws. Wealth is the flimsiest of shields, like a sugar wrapping in the rain. She lost her husband, Wyatt when both were still in their 50s. She saw her son, Carter jump to his death at 23. Open heart surgery had risks; still does. But to witness your son’s suicide doesn’t leave much to life on.

“I have inside me the image of a rock-hard diamond that nothing can get at, and nothing can crack, and I’ve always known that about myself.” Gloria Vanderbilt, from Nothing Left Unsaid.

Perhaps unintended, but what I heard was a mother’s voice cracking, barely able to continue.

Nothing Left Unsaid was Anderson Cooper’s story as much as his mother’s; though he doesn’t claim that for himself. Her story says more about him than he may realize. In his scenes with his mother, Liz Garbus, the firm’s director allows us to see their mutual love and admiration. His for his mother must have given her solace after his brother’s suicide, even reassurance that her life had served a good purpose. In the documentary, he says she has, and watching, I agreed.

Wealth for some insulates them even while it wastes their minds. Gloria Vanderbilt was able to climb out of the garbage heap of her childhood, being abandoned by her mother. She built a life for herself; there’s worth in that, in spite of the media hype that pursued her for a lifetime.

Gloria Vanderbilt died earlier this month at age 95. She and her son co-authored The Rainbow Comes and Goes: A Mother and Son On Life, Love, and Loss, published by Harper Shuman in 2016. Yeah, in the documentary they traveled by limo to visit her fourth husband, his father’s and brother’s graves.. All caught on film. So what?

Researching her for this blog, I stumbled on NY Times' "At Home With Gloria Vanderbilt" by Penelope Green, following the documentary’s release. It’s a better article than I’d expected, less breathless and truthful enough. The NY Time’s article included a comment that made me smile: “You can count the Ninas in cartoons of Ms. Vanderbilt by Al Hirschfeld.” To explain, somewhere in his very long career as an illustrator for The New Yorker magazine, Hirschfeld would include thumbnail images of his daughter, Nina. It became a game to find them. Wynton & Company

I seriously digress to link in a poem I wrote after Ryan’s death, reading Hirschfeld’s obituary in the NY Times. God bless. Can’t claim I ever danced on Broadway, but Hirschfeld’s sketches enshrined New York style for many years. Hirschfeld

What do you wish to make of yourself, child? What do you want people to remember you for–and will that matter once you’re gone? What do you want to remember of yourself–seeing that’s the only thing you get to take with you?

Ernest Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea takes an old Cuban subsistence fisherman to the edge of existence, alone and failing. Hard to find a better fictional character to stand in contrast to Gloria Vanderbilt’s life story. But both tales point to indomitable will and where it took them.

It’s a bad joke to say poverty is a burden. It’s a struggle too many can’t climb out from under; the burden too heavy or too daunting, it breaks people either way. One can write true stories around the financial ruin of so many lives. And about people who chase gold to the exclusion of all else, only to learn that Don Henley was right about hearses lacking luggage racks. “Life is what happens…”

James Merrill, the brilliant American poet, was the son of the original Merrill in the Merrill Lynch brokerage house. From what I’ve read, he was an amazingly low-key persona for someone who never worked a day in his life to support himself. He worked, mind; his work was his poetry. Won a Pulitzer–not too shabby. But how many James Merrills are there in the zillionaires’ club? Motivation is a wildly erratic roulette spin. Jimmy, as his friends called him, must have been an interesting person to hang with.

In Victorian times–before Dickens–it was preached self-righteously in churches that a person’s moral standing was recognizable by their wealth. Those chained in debtors’ ships (or simply chained by debt) might have disagreed. And people today fear being perceived as poor so they pretend that they aren’t, playing today against tomorrow. A few TV minister outliers still tell their flock it’s true.

The short story, Saint-Tropez Sketch attempts questions of perceptions. What can you hide from behind your castle walls? Since the story’s point of view mainly stays with Giselle, you never much get inside her lover Edward’s head until the close. Admittedly, it was a fun story to write. Even if you can’t always get what you want–wait, that wasn’t Tina Turner, was it?


[i] “Nothing Left Unsaid: Gloria Vanderbilt & Anderson Cooper, originally broadcast in 2016, is a Moxie Firecracker Films production; a film by Liz Garbus; directed by Liz Garbus; executive producer, Anderson Cooper. For HBO: senior producer, Nancy Abraham; executive producer, Sheila Nevins.” From HBO’s website blurb.