It took Anderson Cooper more than a year after his mother’s death to begin clearing out her apartment. It was an emotionally draining task, one that he put off — something his mother may have anticipated, because she left him a road map.
He began finding notes she had left him, tucked away in drawers and sealed containers. Written in her hand on heavy stationery, they acted as a kind of treasure hunt to their shared grief.
Mr. Cooper’s mother, the heiress and fashion designer Gloria Vanderbilt, was one of the most famous women in the world, courted by Frank Sinatra and Marlon Brando, photographed by Richard Avedon, and a muse to Truman Capote, who is believed to have based the character of Holly Golightly in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” partly on her.
Just sorting through her personal papers would have been challenging for her son after her death at the age of 95 in 2019.
But the apartment was also the final resting place of objects that belonged to Mr. Cooper’s father, Wyatt Emory Cooper, an author and screenwriter who died in 1978 when Anderson was 10, and his older brother, Carter Cooper, who died in 1988, when they were both in their 20s, after jumping from his mother’s balcony.
Next to a pair of satin trousers, Mr. Cooper came across a piece of paper: “These are Daddy’s pyjamas.”
“Daddy’s glasses,” read another, left on top of a stack of spectacles tied with a ribbon.
And then, tucked away in a plastic container, he found a white silk shirt next to a knitted skirt. “Blouse and skirt I was wearing when Carter died,” read the sheet of paper lying on top.
Anderson Cooper, 56
Occupation: CNN anchor, author and podcast host
On processing the past: “I’m the last one left from this sort of interesting family that existed,” he said. “I just find it sort of haunting this idea that everyone just disappears.”
When a person you love dies, you are left with memories, a mental film reel of the experiences you shared, the lessons they taught you and the refracted light of their love. And at the most basic level, you are also left with their stuff — often more stuff than you can keep.
Mr. Cooper, 56, began keeping voice memos on his phone as he was sorting through his mother’s belongings in 2021. They grew into a podcast on grief, “All There Is With Anderson Cooper,” which began its second season in November.
For decades, the longtime anchor of CNN’s “Anderson Cooper 360°” has chronicled other people’s suffering. Now, he has become a correspondent from the land of his own grief.
He recently invited a reporter to his Manhattan home, in Greenwich Village, where he has displayed some of the objects he retrieved from his mother’s apartment on the Upper East Side.
Ms. Vanderbilt, whose fashion designs were the subject of numerous magazine features, was fond of saying that “decorating is autobiography.” For her son, decorating has also been an exercise in choosing what to remember.
The doors of his home — a historic firehouse he bought for $4.3 million in 2009 — open onto the space where the fire truck once stood. When he bought the building, there was one way to get upstairs — a steel spiral staircase — and two ways to get back down: that narrow staircase or a fireman’s pole.
Mr. Cooper worked with an architect to subdivide the four-story, warehouselike space into rooms. Both the spiral staircase and the fireman’s pole were preserved. But now, a wide staircase zigzags upstairs. The wall next to the main staircase serves as a gallery of his mother’s paintings, as well as portraits of her signed by well-known photographers.
It’s a celebration of Ms. Vanderbilt’s much-publicized life: At the age of 10, she became a tabloid sensation after a custody battle pitted her wealthy mother against her wealthy aunt. As the heiress to the Vanderbilt fortune, she inherited millions. But she was also a self-made woman, creating a line of jeans and a fashion empire that generated $100 million a year in revenue. She was married four times and had affairs with some of Hollywood’s leading men, including Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra, who sent her adoring telegrams signed “The Feller on the White Horse.” She also wrote numerous books and painted prolifically, in a faux-naïf style.
To the casual observer, there are only happy memories of her in Mr. Cooper’s home — of her legendary beauty, her talent and her connections to the famous people of her day.
But laced throughout are also hints of grief: On a side table is a Victorian calendar, made of intricately fashioned bronze, with three little windows for a day, date and month. “Friday,” says the first window. “22,” says the second. “July,” says the third.
Mr. Cooper found the calendar on a shelf next to his mother’s bed. Then he realized what the date referred to: It was on July 22, 1988, that his brother jumped off the balcony of their mother’s 14-story apartment building, as she pleaded with him not to.
After her son died, Ms. Vanderbilt moved multiple times, and the calendar went with her. But its dial never moved again, forever marking the moment of tragedy. “I was getting rid of my mom’s apartment, and I just didn’t want to let go of everything,” said Mr. Cooper, who now displays the calendar in his living room.
It was three years after his brother’s death, in 1991, that Mr. Cooper discovered war reporting: After graduating from Yale University, he worked briefly as a fact checker for Channel One, a daily news program broadcast to schools. He lasted mere months before convincing a colleague to make him a fake press pass and loan him a Hi8 camcorder. In late 1991, he sneaked into Myanmar, where insurgents were fighting to overthrow the military dictatorship and sold his first TV story.
In 1992, he covered famine in Somalia. In 1993, Sarajevo. In 1994, he crossed a bridge into Rwanda. When he looked down, he saw bodies caught on the rocks, their arms flailing in the water. It was at the edges of the world, in places of extreme suffering, that he discovered he could feel again, he said.
When he was 10 and his mother came to tell him that his father had died of a heart attack, he remembers crying — a little, he said. And then almost never again.
He pulled inward, learning to control his emotions, he said. Among his earliest impulses was the desire to be fully independent. One of his first appearances in the pages of this newspaper was in a story about a lemonade stand he helped run. He got his own bank account, and after his father’s death, he began working as a child model for Calvin Klein and Ralph Lauren.
He retreated even further after his brother’s death, when Mr. Cooper was 21.
Tracing two lines in the air, he said: “I sort of live in this middle ground of no high highs and no low lows.”
He continued: “The only time I felt stuff is when things were so extreme that you couldn’t help but feel — where it was so overwhelming, terrifying, tragic that through, like, osmosis, it overcame all of the sort of things I had worked up to prevent myself from feeling,”
But it was a fleeting solution. “I would come back home,” he said, “and I just felt dead.”
The death of his mother and the subsequent birth of his sons — who are now 3 and almost 2 — made him take stock. (Mr. Cooper is co-parenting his children with his former partner, Benjamin Maisani, 50, an entrepreneur and nightclub owner.) He described the sadness that he used to see in his mother’s eyes. He doesn’t want his sons to see that in him.
By now, he is down to the last 70 or so boxes of his mother’s belongings. Unpacking them has meant unboxing the real estate in his mind.
A few months ago, he was in the basement of his townhouse, working his way through the containers, when he opened a box of his father’s papers and discovered an essay his father, who died of a heart attack at 50, had never published. Its title: “The importance of grieving.”
Among Mr. Cooper’s earliest memories is of falling asleep curled up like a puppy on his father’s lap, while his father typed late into the night.
Alone in the basement, Mr. Cooper began to read the essay. A few pages in was a description of what happens to a child who doesn’t grieve: “When a person is unable to complete a mourning task in childhood, he either has to surrender his emotions in order that they do not suddenly overwhelm him, or else he may be haunted constantly throughout his life with a sadness for which he cannot find an appropriate explanation.”
Mr. Cooper stopped midsentence, taking off his glasses. For several seconds, he was silent.
“I read this quote and I realized,” he said finally, his voice breaking, that “this is exactly what I’ve done.”
Last year, he invited his podcast listeners to share their stories of loss. The hotline he created filled up with more than 46 hours of voice mail messages. Listening in his basement, alone, as he unpacked his mother’s boxes, he was overwhelmed.
He has arrived at a new stage of grief, he said. He now feels “a welling,” he said, “that is underneath me at all times.”
And for once, he is feeling it in the city where he was born, mere miles from the Upper East Side, where his father and brother both died too young. He is feeling it without needing to go to a foreign country.
“Here,” he said, “just in regular conversations with people.”
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