Sometimes there is much to say, even when voices are hushed. Born into one of the wealthiest and best-known families in American history, Gloria Vanderbilt has lived in the public eye for more than 90 years, unapologetically pursuing love, family and career, experiencing extreme tragedy and tremendous success side by side.
In the poignant and revealing feature-length documentary “Nothing Left Unsaid: Gloria Vanderbilt & Anderson Cooper,” she and her son look back at her remarkable life. Directed by Liz Garbus, the exclusive presentation debuts on Saturday, April 9 on HBO, following its premiere at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival on January 23.
Intertwining archival footage and previously unseen home videos spanning eight decades with present-day scenes, the film paints an intimate portrait of one of America’s most fascinating families. In a series of candid conversations, Cooper and Vanderbilt tell the story of their past and present, losses and loves, and show how, in life, patterns repeat themselves in the most unexpected ways.
Drawing on Vanderbilt’s private archive of letters, home movies, photos and artwork created by her over the years, as well as vintage news footage and newspaper clippings, “Nothing Left Unsaid” is a journey through a life like no other. “She’s got this public face, but the reality of her life is so different,” Cooper explains.
Now 91, Vanderbilt still pursues her lifelong passion for art, painting every day as a means of self-expression and as a way of coping with what she calls “the grief for the lost places of your past.” The film shows her creating and discussing her art over the years, and revisits the “lost places” depicted in her work, as she is affectionately encouraged by her son to share the reality behind her public persona.
The daughter of Reginald Vanderbilt and his teenage wife, Gloria Morgan, Gloria Vanderbilt experienced her first major loss at 15 months when her father died suddenly at age 45. She was raised primarily by a beloved nurse, known as Dodo, since her mother was largely absent. “I only knew her as this beautiful, elusive creature. We just never got together, so to speak,” says Vanderbilt.
In 1934, when she was 10 years old, Vanderbilt became the object of a bitter and very public custody battle, with her mother on one side and her aunt, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, on the other. The press demonized her “absent” mother and her “gay” Paris lifestyle, and the court awarded custody of little Gloria to her aunt.
By age 15, she had been photographed for “Harper’s Bazaar.” By age 17, she was leading a largely unsupervised life in Hollywood and dating stars like Errol Flynn and Ray Milland. A marriage to 32-year-old, physically abusive agent Pasquale Di Cicco would be short-lived.
Vanderbilt married 63-year-old conductor Leopold Stokowski when she was 20. The union lasted 12 years and produced two sons: Stan, who is interviewed in “Nothing Left Unsaid,” and Chris. Following a romance with Frank Sinatra and a court battle with Stokowski for custody of the boys, which she won, Vanderbilt married prominent movie director Sidney Lumet. They divorced after seven years. Today, she reflects that a lifelong fear of abandonment would lead her to end a relationship before the other person did.
Vanderbilt found a measure of the domestic tranquility that had long eluded her when she married writer-actor Wyatt Cooper in 1963. A southerner who reveled in strong ties to his extended family, Cooper inspired her to reconcile with her long-estranged mother, although Vanderbilt now laments that they were unable to make a deeper connection. Together, they had two sons: Anderson and Carter. “For the first time, I understood what it was like to be a parent and to have a family,” she says.
That family suffered a devastating blow in 1978 when 50-year-old Wyatt Cooper died during heart bypass surgery. In a heartbreaking remembrance, Vanderbilt recalls her time beside his hospital bed. Down but never out, she rebounded with the launch of a hugely successful line of designer jeans.
Vanderbilt experienced an even greater loss in 1988 when her 23-year-old son, Carter, committed suicide, jumping from the terrace of her Manhattan penthouse as she pleaded with him not to. She still struggles daily to understand what happened and to wonder what she could have done to prevent it.
“Nothing Left Unsaid” follows mother and son as they visit the side-by-side graves of Wyatt and Carter Cooper on a snowy day. Alluding to his work in war zones, as well as the family’s losses, Anderson says, “Sometimes you have to live in a world where there isn’t any ‘why.’ I could always tell as a kid that there was this sadness to her,” but also calls his mother “the most optimistic and youthful person I know.”
Asked by her son how she has overcome the tragedies in her extraordinary life, Vanderbilt, ever resilient, says, “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.”