The Rainbow Comes and Goes Book Review - Do It Now

Memoir is perhaps the most frequently attempted book genre but – unless there’s a celebrity photo on the cover – these manuscripts rarely find a mainstream publisher, much less become bestsellers. But in this case, there are two smiling portraits and two famous brands – television journalist Anderson Cooper and his fashion-designer mother, Gloria Vanderbilt. However, until recently anyway, the general public may not have been aware of the family relationship. For his part, Cooper has assiduously avoided the association. He explains:

Vanderbilt is a big name to carry, and I’ve been glad I didn’t have to. I like being a Cooper. It’s less cumbersome, less likely to produce an awkward pause in the conversation when I’m introduced. Let’s face it, the name Vanderbilt has history, baggage. Even if you don’t know the details of my mom’s extraordinary story, her name comes with a whole set of expectations and assumptions about what she must be like. The reality of her life, however, is not what you’d imagine.

A timely exchange of intimate emails (Harper)

His mother, for her part, has been anything but shy about using – and exploiting – the name. Her signature jeans and fragrances have been her single most commercially successful venture. And other than lending cachet to the brand, this was a self-made fortune among several she has attained and lost. And, without trading on the name, Cooper has made his reputation on his own as media phenomenon. He is today one of the most credible names in broadcasting, and not because he carried a famous name.

The Rainbow Comes and Goes: A Mother and Son on Life, Love, and Loss is an exchange of intimate personal correspondence – conducted via email while the now-ninety-two-year-old Vanderbilt stayed mostly in her luxury apartment in Manhattan while Cooper jetted around the globe covering news assignments, mostly in locales ravaged by war or natural disaster. Cooper says he took the initiative to get closer to her, and the lessons learned in the book prove the wisdom of his intentions.

One trait these two share is a dogged ability to withstand profound loss and – not just survive – but become the stronger for it. They share two huge, untimely wounds. First, her third husband and Cooper’s father Wyatt Emory Cooper died of open-heart surgery at age 50. He left two young sons, Carter and Anderson. The second blow came when Carter committed suicide at age 23.

Cooper confides to his mother:

If my dad hadn’t died and Carter had not killed himself right before my senior year of college, if I hadn’t been left reeling by those losses, would I have taken the risks I did early on in my life and my career? I don’t think so.

Vanderbilt is open about the intimate and sometimes sensational details of her life story. Cooper relates these to his own personal struggles, but details of his personal relationships are not included. Vanderbilt could have owned to four surnames from a succession of celebrity husbands – Pat DiCicco, presumed mobster and former husband, as well as rumored murderer, of actress Thelma Todd; brilliant orchestra conductor and then-crusty older man Leopold Stokowski; Cooper’s father Wyatt, a small-town boy from a poor rural family who became a Hollywood screenwriter; and legendary movie director Sidney Lumet. And, we also learn in this book, had she been so inclined she could have added other names to the list – including Howard Hughes and Frank Sinatra.

Cooper's early career as a war correspondent (Harper Perennial)

Cooper says he set out on a career as a war correspondent because he wanted to see how people who had no advantages coped with sudden and profound loss. (He’s told the story of his early career in another book, Dispatches from the Edge: A Memoir of War, Disasters, and Survival.)

Gloria Morgan Vanderbilt with her daughter (Unknown: PD)

A significant portion of Vanderbilt’s confessions center on her difficult and mostly estranged relationship with her mother, the glamourous widow Gloria Morgan Vanderbilt. Cooper’s mother summarizes the humiliating custody battle and trial as her aunt Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney sued to make the child a ward of the court on the grounds her mother was unfit. (This story was widely publicized at the time and is a major episode in the daughter’s autobiography Once Upon a Time: A True Story and in Barbara Goldsmith’s biography, Little Gloria, Happy at Last, which was made into a TV miniseries.) Perhaps surprisingly, the staid “Aunt Ger” comes across in this account as the girl’s well-meaning benefactor and ardent protector, but never one who was demonstrative with her affections. Little Gloria was cherished by her nanny and her maternal grandmother, but she never really knew her father, Reginald Claypoole Vanderbilt, who died from his alcoholism just a year after she was born.

Goldsmith's book became a miniseries in 1982 (Knopf)

The main takeaway from Rainbow is clear from its stated intention, to have an intimate exchange with a loved one. As a generation of Boomers must face the challenges of caring for parents whose faculties may be diminishing, here is an example that it may not too late to talk frankly. As Cooper explains:

I know now that it’s never too late to change the relationships you have with someone important in your life: a parent, a child, a lover, a friend. All it takes is a willingness to be honest and shed your old skin, let go of the longstanding assumptions and slights you still cling to.

Vanderbilt tells her version in this 1985 book (Knopf)

But between the lines of The Rainbow Comes and Goes is another powerful truth, one so fundamental to the national debate in this election year. The Vanderbilts were the One Percenters of yesteryear. When Cooper’s great-grandfather Cornelius Vanderbilt II split the family inheritance with his brother William in the mid-nineteenth century, between them they controlled the largest personal fortune in the world. But by the standards of today’s multibillionaires, that money and its power have all but dissipated. As a society, we may fear the overweening influence of the rich and powerful. But, in America at least, their personal empires often don’t survive more than a few generations.

Anderson Cooper and Gloria Vanderbilt both learned how to reinvent themselves. It didn’t hurt that they were born in comfort. But their achievements and any happiness they’ve gained have come, not from their presumed advantages, but from personal resilience in the face of anguish.

Gerald Everett Jones is the author of Bonfire of the Vanderbilts, a historical novel about an art scandal in 1892 Paris. He is the host of the GetPublished! Radio show and a frequent contributor to Splash Magazines Worldwide.

 

 

 

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