Facing What’s Left Behind – All There Is with Anderson Cooper
The door to my mom’s apartment is heavy. You have to kind of twist the top lock just the right way and the bottom lock and then kind of push with your shoulder. The apartments sold a few months ago, and so I have a couple of weeks to pack up all my mom’s things and, and move out. I came up with this idea a couple weeks ago while I’ve been going through my mom’s things to make this podcast about going through all the stuff that’s left behind, and I haven’t done a podcast before, so you’ll have to bear with me a little bit. I just learned how to use the, this recorder. The sound of the deadbolt opening and then that sound of kind of pushing the door open– those are sounds I’ve always known.
When my mom died in June 2019, she was living on about as quiet a street in Manhattan as you can find. Beekman Place is by the East River on 51st Street. It’s a cul de sac of townhouses and prewar apartment buildings. The kind with friendly doormen and fussy co-op boards. She lived in a two bedroom apartment on the second floor of a ten story building and had a separate apartment below that she used as a studio to paint. My dad bought the place a few years before he died in 1978.
I remember coming into this apartment when I was seven, eight, nine, ten years old. My dad used it as an office. He used it as a place to write. It’s really a two bedroom apartment. You enter into a small foyer and into a large room my mom had painted white with bleached white wooden floors. Actually I should probably do this while I’m walking. Next to it’s a small sitting room, which is the room that my dad used to write in. There was a small radio that would usually play opera or classical music off in the corner of the room. His desk was right where I’m standing right now. And I remember as a kid sitting at that desk looking through his drawers and just spending time with him as he was here writing. My brother Carter also lived here for a year after he graduated college. A couple of days after he died, I came to the apartment by myself to pick out a suit for him to be buried in. So I guess this is kind of a long way of saying that this place has a lot of memories for me. You know, and it’s a lot of memories of people who are no longer here. Just coming here, frankly is– just coming here is hard. But my mom, she never asked, “Why me? Why did this happen to me?” She would always say, “Why not me? Why should me be exempt from the pain of living and losing?” And, yeah. This is part of it. This is what, what happens.
I was ten when my dad died of a heart attack, and I was 21 when my brother died by suicide. His name was Carter. And on a hot summer day in July of 1988, he killed himself in front of my mom, leaping over the balcony of her penthouse apartment while she was begging him not to. He was 23 years old. Both of their deaths really changed me forever. I feel like a shadow of the person I was or was meant to be. After the shock of my dad’s death, I withdrew deep into myself. And ten years later, when my brother died, I went deeper still. I felt like I couldn’t speak the same language as other people. And I ended up heading to Somalia and then Bosnia, South Africa and Rwanda– places where the language of loss was spoken. And the pain that I was feeling inside was matched by the pain all around me. And I think that’s how I learned how to survive. But still, I find it hard to talk about my dad and my brother. It’s been 34 years since Carter’s suicide and the violence of it, the horror of it, it stuns me still. My mom’s death was different. She was 95 and had lived a full life totally on her own terms. Also, she’d been talking about dying since I was a teenager, which is probably a little odd. She’d occasionally say, “Well, I’ll never allow myself to be a burden on you.” And then she’d mention the yellow Fortuny gown that she wanted to be buried in which she made sure that I knew was kept in a box in the cedar closet. And she also like to remind me that she didn’t, she didn’t want a funeral parlor to do her makeup or hair. She recommended her makeup artist named Beeko, even if there wasn’t an open casket. Which, the whole thing kind of freaked me out initially, but then I just started rolling my eyes at her and she’d laugh and recite the lines from Ecclesiastes: “Vanity of vanity, all is vanity.” So I wasn’t really surprised by my mom’s death, but I was surprised by the loneliness I felt afterward and still feel. She was the last person from the little family that I grew up in. The last person who knew the same stories as me and had the same memories. Now I’m the only one. I feel like a lighthouse keeper on an empty island. And I feel like I need to preserve all that happened. Because if I don’t, my mom and my dad and my brother, the life that we shared and all those moments and all their friends, they’ll all just disappear. Which brings me to Peggy Lee.
Peggy Lee Announcer
Now comes time for the young lady we describe as silky. Meet Miss Peggy Lee.
I didn’t know who Peggy Lee was until my mom got sick. That was in June 2019. She hadn’t been feeling well for a few weeks, and when she finally went in for tests, they discovered she had cancer. A lot of it. Didn’t have much time left. I was sitting with her on her hospital bed when the doctor told her the news. Afterwards, we all just kind of sat there for a while and then my mom said quietly, “Well, it’s like that old song says.”
Show me the way to get out of this world, because that’s where everything is.
It turns out that’s a song Peggy Lee sang in 1950, though her delivery was understandably more upbeat.
Show me the way to get out of this world, because that’s where everything is.
I Googled the song as we were bringing my mom home from the hospital and then came across a clip of Peggy Lee singing another song on YouTube called, Is That All There Is?
Is that all there is? Is that all there is?
Peggy Lee is on a dark stage with an orchestra behind her, and the colors are all washed out. But she has this kind of bemused, world weary expression on her face. I knew my mom would love it and showed it to her when we got home. “That’s so marvelous,” she said. And it was. She died 12 days later. But we ended up listening to that song every one of those days.
If that’s all there is, my friends, then let’s keep dancing.
Sometimes I’d hold my mom’s hands as she lay in bed and we’d sing along and pretend we were dancing. We don’t talk about loss and grief very much, which is odd because they’re among the most universal of human experiences. All of us will lose people we love. And yet, when you’re the one grieving, it often feels like you’re all alone. At least it does for me.
I’m sitting now in her apartment, full of journals and notes, letters and postcards or thousands of books, every one of which she’d read and often scribbled her thoughts in. It’s not just stuff. It’s, it’s memories. Her memories and mine. It’s evidence of my brother’s life and my dad’s– of their existence. That they were here. That they mattered. It’s all the people they knew, whom I knew. They’re alive in these things and holding them and going through them. I feel their presence again. And I love that. But what do I do with all these things? I need to learn something from all this. I mean, this can’t be it. This can’t be all there is. Somewhere in these notes and these boxes that I got to go through, I hope to find something that helps me to, to make sense of all this, that eases the pain of their absence. And I want to talk to other people who have experienced loss as well to hear what they’ve learned and how they survived. I hope this podcast will help you as well, even if you aren’t going through something like this right now. You will. We all will. So this is my podcast, All There Is with me, Anderson Cooper.
I guess I should start by filling in some of the backstory here. My mom was Gloria Vanderbilt.
We have some news just now into CNN. Sad news. Gloria Vanderbilt, a legendary fashion idol, has just passed away at the age of 95.
I didn’t watch the news coverage of her death, but I’d given a heads up to CNN when she died, and they kindly allowed me to write and record her obituary a few days before.
Anderson’s obituary for Gloria Vanderbilt
She spent a lot of time alone in her head during her life, but when the end came, she was not alone. She was surrounded by beauty and by family and by friends.
Most people probably know my mom from the wildly successful designer jeans that she popularized in the late 1970’s and eighties. But she was really an artist and a writer, and for better or worse, she’d spent her whole life in the public eye. She was born in 1924 into a world of unimaginable wealth and privilege. And early on, she discovered its limits. She was the great, great granddaughter of Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt, who built two enormous fortunes in the 1800s, first in shipping, then in railroads. When he died in 1877, he left behind $100 million dollars. More money than was in the U.S. Treasury. In just eight years, his son, William, doubled that fortune. But then his children and grandchildren seemed intent on spending it in ever more lavish ways. They built huge enormous palaces in New York and Newport, gave opulent balls. My grandfather, Reginald Vanderbilt, he drank and gambled his inheritance away. He died when my mom was just 15 months old. She then spent the next nine years of her life living with a nanny in hotel rooms and rented apartments in Europe while her widowed mom, who was also named Gloria, traveled around partying.
The dazzling pageant of color, is studded with celebrities. The famous Mrs. Gloria Vanderbilt arrives in her chariot as the sun goddess, and they dance till dawn.
In 1934, when my mom was ten, her wealthy aunt, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, whom she barely knew, went to court in New York to get custody of Little Gloria, as the tabloids nicknamed my mom. The ensuing court battle was front page news for months, and it was at the height of the Depression. And people around the world were transfixed watching this wealthy family battle over this little girl whom no one really seemed to want.
And here’s the first movie of little Gloria herself. Frightened by the curious crowd, she flees into her aunt’s car.
In the end, my mom was taken away from her mother and her beloved nanny and sent to live with her aunt to be raised by other nannies. It’s a long and awful story, but basically early on, my mom lost the people she cared about most, and those feelings of loss and grief, they remained with her for the rest of her life. And yet she survived. And no matter what happened to her over the years, no matter what tragedies befell her, she remained the most open and optimistic person I’ve ever met. She didn’t avoid the waves of pain of life, but she didn’t allow herself to drown in their undertow. I talked to her about it in a documentary we made together called, Nothing Left Unsaid.
You know, I felt like I was an imposter, and kind of a changeling. I have inside of me an image of a shining rock hard diamond that no matter what happens to me, nothing can crack.
Growing up, I often thought of her as a visitor from a distant star who’d crash landed here and needed help navigating life on earth, like E.T. only more glamorous and definitely more beautiful. I thought it was my job to protect her, which may not be the healthiest perspective for a child to have of their parent, but I wanted to be there for her. And I was. All the way to the end. The last two weeks of my mom’s life were probably the best days we ever had together. We spent hours listening to music, watching old movies.
Last Horizon Movie Clip
Well you don’t seem concerned at all.
Last Horizon Movie Clip
Oh, I’m feeling far too peaceful to be concerned about anything. I think I’m going to like it here.
Sometimes just holding hands in silence. Whatever frustrations or disappointments or resentments there might have been, all of that was gone. She knew me and I knew her. I’d asked her if it was okay for me to sometimes leave my phone on recording some of the hours that we spent together. And she said yes.
Are you scared?
Are you scared?
I’m not either.
After a while, she wasn’t really able to eat much and couldn’t really drink much either. She agreed to get fluids through an I.V., but her voice was becoming just a whisper.
It’s the greatest gift.
Getting to spend time with you has been the greatest gift.
Yes. The kind of time that we have now is–
It’s really special.
We were a good team.
That’s for sure.
I love you.
I love you sweetheart, you know that.
Always and forever.
Maybe you think it’s strange that I recorded my mom’s voice, but there’s some history here that I should tell you. When my dad was in the hospital after having a heart attack, we were only able to visit him just once before Christmas. My dad knew he probably wasn’t going to survive, and he asked my mom to get my brother and I tape recorders. He wanted us to have those recordings so we could hear his voice when he was gone. We got the tape recorders on Christmas morning, but my dad was rushed to the ICU that same day, and they didn’t let children visit people in intensive care. He died ten days later. With my mom, I wanted to always remember the extraordinary experience of those days together, and I wanted my kids to one day hear her as well. Besides, she was the first to admit that she was a big ham. In fact, a couple of years ago, when we were writing a book together, we were talking on the phone and she said, “I love talking to you, especially when it’s about me.” I burst out laughing. I said, “Mom, that is the most honest thing you’ve ever said to me.” Even in her final days. We laughed so much.
You’re so funny. This will be great for our cabaret act,.
What should we call it? “Gloria and Co.” That way, if you fire me, you can get somebody else and not have to change the title…if I can’t keep up.
And listening back to the recordings, I discovered something I never knew. We both had the same strange giggle. My laugh was her laugh all along.
Is that all there is?
I kept her apartments as they were for about two years after she died. Work was busy with the elections and then the pandemic, and I couldn’t deal with figuring out what to do with the stuff she left behind. Besides, I liked to occasionally visit the apartments. She was still so present in them. Made me feel close to her. But this past December, I decided it was time.
The closing is in 12 days, so everything is still in both apartments and I still am going to be spending this whole coming week just kind of collating things into groups of, like, papers to go through, objects just to box up and store. All right. We’ll keep that. This is what always happens. I end up coming over here. I spend like hours going through stuff, thinking I can throw stuff out and I end up not throwing anything out. I mean, a mug of Princeton University from 1987 that my brother had. What do I do with that?
She saved everything. Notes I left her. Not even notes that were special. Just, “Mom, I’m going out, I’ll be back at six,” kind of notes. And I left a lot of those notes because I was always– there were no rules, there was no curfew, there was no kind of parental supervision. My brother and I could kind of come and go, and we did. And I would just leave a note saying, you know, “I’ll be back at one or whenever,” and that was it. But my mom saved all those notes, so she saved Christmas cards, thousands of them, photographs, tens, tens of thousands of photographs. And I feel like I can’t just Marie Kondo the whole bunch because mixed in with all those kind of meaningless Christmas cards and letters from people thanking her for having them over for dinner or whatever, are notes from Marilyn Monroe or the photographs by Diane Arbus or Richard Avedon.
This is cool. I just found this file. It’s marked F.S. F.S. Is Frank Sinatra. I almost don’t want to remove the paperclip because it’s like an archeological dig. My mom had an affair with Frank Sinatra. I don’t know if it was an affair. My mom was married to her second husband, Leopold Stokowski, and she had just separated from him. So here’s the telegram from Frank Sinatra, San Francisco International Airport to Miss Gloria Vanderbilt, the Gladstone Hotel, East 52nd Street, January 14, 1955. He writes, “I’m on my way, darling. I miss you and wish you were sharing the seat with me. Will cable along the way. Stay well, it’s a bright, new, shiny day. Love the feller on the white horse.” The feller on the white horse. Wow, that’s kind of perfect. That’s kind of exactly what you would want a telegram from Francis Albert Sinatra to be.
Oh, my God. This is so incredible. Oh.
That’s my mom’s friend, Wendy Goodman. She’s the design editor at New York Magazine. And I read her the Sinatra telegrams when she came by my mom’s place.
“How’s my lovely star? Your boy is fine. Misses you very much. I’m in the Savoy Plaza. Melborne Hall. Phone me. Crestview 46161. Any time, day or night. Love, Francis.”
Oh, no, no, no, no, no, no. It can’t even. I mean, can you imagine receiving that telegram? I mean, Gloria, I can feel the electricity going through her, like.
And then this one is from, this is from 1959: “I think of you more than I should. Much love, Francis.”
Oh, my God. It gives me goosebumps. Total goosebumps.
Wendy knew my mom long before I was born. When she was six, her parents used to bring her to Christmas parties my mom had at her house when she was married to her third husband, Sidney Lumet.
I remember walking in and Gloria would be like, literally there was light around her. Like, I thought, she’s the most beautiful creature I’ve ever seen in my life. And then the magic of the atmosphere, the scent of the Rigaud candles, it was the most glamorous, most beautiful. All the senses were addressed. She was very conscious of what your eye would rest on as you moved through the space. And it was just like, whoa, one sort of, sort of beauty bomb after another.
Over the years, Wendy and my mom became good friends, and they ended up working together on a coffee table book about my mom’s life called, The World of Gloria Vanderbilt. Wendy was one of the people my mom would always call every time she redesigned or redecorated her apartment, which she did constantly. She would paint walls and then weeks or months later decide to wrap them in fabric and then repaint them again when something in her eyes shifted. Furniture came and went, artwork and objects would be banished to the V. Santini Moving Company’s storage unit in Queens and then reappear years later like some long lost love. Sometimes Mom would just take out her paint and brushes and inscribe friends names on the tile walls of her bathrooms, or she’d paint sayings that meant something to her on her fireplaces. To her, everything was a canvas and nothing was expected to last forever.
Every other minute Gloria would call me and she’d go, “Wendy, I just did something, and you need to come over and see it right now.”
Oh yeah, she would do it all the time.
She’d get so excited and she’d go, “No you got to come now.” I’d go, “Okay, I’m coming. I’m coming now.”
Yeah. Her enthusiasm for the change was sort of infectious. I mean, at times it was annoying to be like, “All right, I’ll come by and see it.” But it meant so much to her.
Oh, it was everything. But, you know, it was like she never lost the childlike enthusiasm for everything because that’s like a kid. It’s like, “Look what I did and look what I made and..”
I’d invited Wendy over because I thought it’d be nice for her to see my mom’s apartment and feel her presence one last time. But I was surprised at how comforting it was for me to have someone to talk to about what I’d been finding and feeling.
She also did this thing, which I didn’t know she was doing, which is she left me all these notes. So I’ll open a drawer. And this was with her sweaters upstairs. And then I found this old pajamas.
With a note, “Anderson, these are daddy’s pajamas. I love you, Mom.”
Oh, I just got like, oh, my God. Amazing.
This was another box with a note: “Anderson, blouse and skirt I was wearing when Carter died.”
Oh my God in heaven. Wow. Nothing escaped her. She could deal with grief and pain in a way that I don’t think many people can or could. Because she understood it was a life experience and that, as such, she would, she would let it go through her totally and then she would rise.
I think her greatest strength, which at times maybe seemed like a weakness to me earlier on, was her ability to remain vulnerable and open and optimistic, even after experiencing tremendous loss and betrayal and sadness and heartbreak.
But she knew– she somehow understood that, that vulnerability was sort of the sponge of her heart. It was the very sort of thing that would allow her to then experience the joy and the ongoing mystery and wonder of life. I mean, the bitterness that people can have after grief and disappointment and whatever, closes them off. That bitterness is a barrier to everything because all they do is wallow in that, in that bad place.
Or they become– you know that term survivor to me always implies like a brass balsy cabaret singer belting out, “I’m still here, dammit.” And yet that wasn’t her. I mean, she was a survivor, but that was not how she survived at all.
It didn’t morph her into something hardened.
I still don’t know how my mom did that, how she remained so open and so vulnerable in spite of her losses. I see now how much of a wall I created around myself after my dad died and after my brother. A wall so that I wouldn’t feel hurt again. And that works. But it also means you don’t really feel anything else again either, ever.
I honestly think the tricky thing about grief is, like any thing that is so uncomfortable and so painful, you want to push it away. And I think she understood, if you do that, it will always come to try to get you again. You have to go through it. And if you don’t go through it, you won’t empty yourself to then receive the new, the new life that’s coming in. And she just always understood this whole river of life and was always intrigued by the beauty of life. She was always open to it, looking for it, able to create it for herself and for her family and friends. She just– it was as you know, it was second nature. What Gloria taught me, I think the biggest lesson, one of the biggest, is it’s about what is not what if, because Gloria was able to take everything that was her reality and transform it. And if she hadn’t had those experiences, she wouldn’t have been who she was. So that was a really sort of light bulb moment for me. It’s like, No, it’s not about you imagining the life you might have had, had you only been. It’s about embracing what did happen to you.
One of the hardest things to figure out is, you know, I was reading Marie Kondo in like desperation. And her whole thing is keep only things that bring you joy. But so much of this stuff– it’s so my mom that I feel like not keeping it is like throwing her memory away in some way.
It’s a reckoning, but it’s also liberating because Gloria would have said, I mean, I’m sure she did say to you, “Anderson, let’s go forward. Go forward.” And, you know, I think what you’ve done is the great thing because you’ve you’ve taken your time and you’ve done a job to honor her and you’ve done a job that she knew you could do and would do. That’s the thing. She knew you could do it and you’ve done it. And it’s, it’s magnificent. As are you. You’ve been through a lot Anderson. This is, this is pretty traumatic, to to be doing what you’ve been doing. And you give yourself time with it all so that once this is done, you can think in a different way about all of these things.
So don’t feel rushed that you have to make any decisions at all. Just feel that you’ve honored her, you’ve loved, and you will continue to, to kind of just be a cipher for for what you want and what she wants. But but don’t don’t feel pressured to make a decision because it isn’t maybe the time to do it.
That’s what I would have advised my mom also, actually.
Yeah, you would’ve. You would’ve said that to her. That’s exactly what you would’ve said to her. So thank you Anderson, thank you so much.
I’m really so happy you came.
[Crying]. Okay. So the crying was kind of embarrassing and yeah, it surprised me too.
I know crying is helpful and I know it’s normal and all that, but it’s not something I do very often. Ever since my dad died, my strategy, such as it is, has always been to keep stuff inside and figure out problems in my head and work through them and then just move forward without talking about it. And it’s worked. Sort of. I mean, it’s certainly helped me barrel through some pretty rough moments. But I’ve been in enough therapy to know that there are a lot healthier ways to handle feelings. And I’m definitely open to new ideas. And that’s what I’m trying to, trying to do in this podcast. I want to learn from others about. How not just to survive, but how to thrive. As cliché as that might sound.
As a new parent of these two adorable, sweet and just joy filled boys, I don’t want them to ever see in me what I sometimes saw in my mom.
Someday you’re going to be all grown up and you’re not going to let me hold your feet and kiss them like this.
I don’t want them to see shadows of, of loss and grief hiding somewhere deep behind my eyes like I did with my mom.
I love you.
I love you too, Sebastian.
When my kids look in my eyes, I want them to see my love for them reflected back. And that’s it. That’s what I want them to see. And I want them to feel that stability, to know that they’re in good hands, to know that they’re safe and that they are loved. And that’s all there is for this episode, at least. Next week, I’ll talk to Stephen Colbert. And we’re going to continue a conversation on grief and loss that we began three years ago, just weeks after my mom died. It’s had a big impact on my life.
There’s another guy. There’s another Steve. There’s a Steve Colbert. There’s that kid before my father and my brothers died. And there’s this big break in the cable of my memory at their death. You become a different person. Like, I was personally shattered. And then and then you kind of reform yourself in this quiet, grieving world that was created in the house.
All there Is with Anderson Cooper is a production of CNN audio. This episode was produced by Madeleine Thompson and Audrey Horwitz. Felicia Patinkin is the supervising producer and Megan Marcus is executive producer. Mixing and sound design by Francisco Monroy. Our technical director is Dan Dzula, artwork designed by Nichole Pesaru and Jamus Andrest. With support from Charlie Moore, Jessica Ciancimino, Chip Grabow, Steve Kiehl, Anissa Gray, Tameeka Ballance-Kolasny, Lindsey Abrams, Alex McCall and Lisa Namerow.
Sir. Sorry, this might sound weird but do you mind if I just record you saying that? I thought it was very sweet. What was it you said?
Gloria Vanderbilt Neighbor
I just want to say that we miss your mother. I would walk my two little Scottish Terriers, and she would always stop and admire them and tell me how cute they were. And I loved her and she was a great presence.
I appreciate that. Thank you.
Gloria Vanderbilt Neighbor