Gloria Vanderbilt—Part Two—Portraits
"One breath at a time..."
Edited and arranged by Robert Friedman
Some of us are born with a sense of loss. It is not acquired
as we grow. It is already there from the beginning, and it
pervades us throughout our lives.
—Gloria Vanderbilt (A Mother’s Story)
When my husband of forty-six years Raymond Smith passed away unexpectedly in February 2008, my dear friend Gloria Vanderbilt came to see me in Princeton. What Gloria offered me was both emotional solace and the most incisive wisdom: “One breath at a time, Joyce. One breath at a time.” (Though Gloria was baptized Episcopal, her widowed mother brought her up as a Catholic, but in more recent years Gloria had been drawn to the stoic simplicity of Zen Buddhism.) Our friendship was forged as fellow artists: sister-artists, one might say. And so of course the artist is one who concentrates. “One breath at a time.”
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In a gesture of generosity and commiseration Gloria brought me the small painted statue of St. Teresa which had been given to her as a girl by her beloved nanny “Dodo” decades before. I was astonished at this gift—it was truly priceless in Gloria’s life, one of her most precious mementos. “Are you sure you want to give this to me?”—I asked Gloria, deeply moved; and Gloria insisted, “Yes! I can’t think of anyone I would most want to leave it with.”
And so, fourteen years later the little statue remains on a shelf in my bedroom where when I see it, which is literally every day, I think of Gloria and her emotional support in a time of collapse. I think of Gloria’s example, the astonishing beauty, dignity, and creative richness of her life.
Gloria Vanderbilt and I first met in 2000, shortly after the publication of my novel Blonde. In subsequent years we exchanged hundreds of letters and notes—originally via fax, more recently via email; initially, Gloria wrote in longhand, dashing off letters of considerable nuance and length with the spontaneity of one for whom language comes fluently and feelings lie close beneath the surface of the skin. In that time Gloria painted and sketched a number of portraits of me, of which I own four; I dedicated a novel to her titled I’ll Take You There. (People who knew both Gloria and me were puzzled that this novel, whose protagonist is a motherless, desperately lonely and romantic-minded girl from a working-class family in upstate New York, so undefined to herself that she has no name through the novel, is dedicated to the renowned Gloria Vanderbilt, who would have seemed in the world’s eyes the very antithesis of the novel’s heroine.)
In that time Gloria gave me the most exquisite jewelry (often designed by artist-friends of hers) and articles of clothing by her favorite designer (Issey Miyake); I brought Gloria numerous copies of my books. Over a period of years, Gloria came to parties at my Princeton house, and I was a guest at her beautifully furnished apartment in Beekman Place, just upstairs from her studio. Gloria attended literary events of mine in New York City; I attended gallery openings of her work, elegant social as well as artistic occasions.
Our first meeting came about when Gloria sent me a card after having read and admired a novel of mine—I think it was “Blonde.” On the back of the message in Gloria’s distinctive, slanted handwriting, in black ink, was a photograph of an extraordinary art-work—I remember staring at it, not realizing it was a photograph of one of Gloria Vanderbilt’s early Dream Boxes; I might have thought it a collage by Man Ray or a subdued Max Ernst. “Untitled #1” is a stark, unnerving, biology-text-like representation of twin miniature dolls or manikins flanking a frog-skeleton. Female nudes with disarticulated limbs and small heads posed with a skinless, eviscerated frog easily their size, or larger. The display suggests a radical kinship between girl-dolls and frog-skeleton: is each the result of vivisection? And who has perpetrated this cruelty upon them? Executed in minimalist shades of gray, black, and faded beige this pioneering Dream Box lacks the lavish excesses of Gloria Vanderbilt’s subsequent, more boldly imagined Dream Boxes, but it remains a favorite of mine for the very austerity of its feminist rage.
Of course, I had known of Gloria Vanderbilt’s stylish commercial designs—jeans, eyeglasses, household goods, accessories—but had no idea that she was an artist of such visionary depth.
Soon then, I wrote to Gloria and asked if I might see more of her work. The literary magazine edited by Raymond Smith and me, Ontario Review, featured an artist in each issue, and we were eager to present Gloria Vanderbilt’s Dream Boxes in our Fall/Winter 2001-2002 issue, for which I wrote an essay of appreciation. What brilliant, beautiful, disturbing works of art! The “Dream Boxes of Gloria Vanderbilt” would be the most talked-of feature to ever appear in Ontario Review.
Prefatory to the color plates, Gloria provided a brief explanation:
The first inspiration for the Dream Boxes probably started when, as a child, I became fascinated by those glass balls which, when shaken, cause snow to swirl, drawing me into a world that had order, one that wouldn’t change or disappoint, shutting out and obliterating the world around me, the world I was in.
Shutting out and obliterating the world I was in. Has any artist or writer ever more succinctly named the impulse for art?
The secret is to be always in love.
Gloria Vanderbilt had a gift for friendship, as crucial to her, or nearly, as her gift for romantic love. Though I am not aware of portraits Gloria may have painted of her four husbands and numerous lovers (including, among many others, Frank Sinatra, Marlon Brando, Howard Hughes, William Paley) she painted many portraits of women. Some of these are writers and artists; most are unnamed, anonymous.
Included here are portraits of Gloria’s “muses” (as she called us affectionately): the American writer Amy Hempel, the French actress and dancer Aurélia Thierrée, and me. (I am sorry not to have access to more portraits of Gloria’s; these are the only ones I can post but others may be accessible online.)
When Gloria passed away on June 17, 2019 in her home in New York City, in the company of her family, she was ninety-five years old; she had been in the public eye for more than eight decades, often unwillingly. (As a young child Gloria had been the object of a luridly publicized custody suit between her mother Gloria Morgan Vanderbilt, widowed at nineteen, and her wealthy, socially prominent aunt Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney. For Gloria’s account of this unhappy childhood see Once Upon a Time: A True Story by Gloria Vanderbilt.) That she bore a famous name and was herself a “celebrity”—indeed, doubly renowned as the mother of CNN’s popular Anderson Cooper—was at odds with her proclivity for isolation as an artist: “taking the veil” was Gloria’s phrase for the deep immersion in work that preceded a gallery opening.
Yet, Gloria also said the secret to a long and happy life is simple: always be in love.
Somewhere between the chaste celibacy of taking the veil and the bold adventure of being always in love—that is the magical place of habitation of one of the most extraordinary Americans of our time.
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