Saturday, January 20, 2007

Once Upon a Time by Gloria Vanderbilt

In our tweed skirts and buttoned-down-the-back Brooks Brothers cardigans, we stood around and sniffed at each other in an offhand way, as yet no alliances formed, no sides taken, no scapegoat selected. All had equal chance--or so it seemed as warily we waited, each in her own way, fat or thin, for the other to make a first move.

This is an older book, published in 1987, and one that I just happened across at our library sale. I picked it up after reading Anderson Cooper's book, thinking it would be fun to read more about his family history, and then set it aside for Christmas reads and recently returned to it.

The story of Gloria Vanderbilt’s childhood--focusing particularly upon the desperate wish to get her mother’s attention--the tale of Gloria Vanderbilt's childhood is one of decadent extravagance, inflated self-importance, confusion and loneliness. One could almost feel sorry for her; but it's difficult to sympathize, much less empathize with a girl whose inheritance was valued at $4.5 million in the 1930's.

As memoirs go, Once Upon a Time is unusual in that Gloria Vanderbilt tells it through the eyes of a child. It’s almost like she’s channeling “young Gloria”. The result could be either fascinating or annoying, depending on who is reading; I found it fascinating, for the most part. The reader not only glimpses the lifestyle of a Vanderbilt - pampered virtually beyond comprehension, constantly in the public eye, friends with celebrities and royalty - but also gains an understanding of her feelings as a child who lost her father at a very early age, was neglected by her mother and then endured a confusing custody battle that resulted in the dismissal of the one person she felt she could completely trust.

By the end of the book, I got the sense that it would be awfully difficult to grow up being shuttled from one enormous estate or ritzy location to another--surrounded by the wealthy and famous--and turn out the slightest bit normal. And, it was almost as if Gloria was trying to prove that to be the case. Vanderbilt's mother (also named Gloria) was an erratic nomad: beautiful, vain, constantly craving attention, possibly even mentally unbalanced. In many ways, the elder Gloria reminded me of a well-known, jet-setting heiress whose name I'm not even willing to type--in part because of the dearth of character she exhibited. While young Gloria seldom asked about her father, those few times she got up the nerve, she didn’t succeed at obtaining much information. Her mother, on the other hand, was seldom present and utterly baffling. Obviously bent on trying to find a similarly wealthy second husband, she spent all her time traveling, partying, buying clothes and moving from one exotic location to another, always surrounded by friends and relatives and never showing any interest at all in the rearing of her only child.

Overall, a very interesting read that occasionally wasn’t quite descriptive enough but still kept me turning the pages. I thought the book was very readable, but I have mixed feelings about it and, therefore, am giving it a "very good" rating but not putting it in the "recommended" category.


Now reading: The Rest Falls Away by Colleen Gleason - loving it, so far.

Weekend doings: Having a combination read-in and clean-in weekend, as I'm on my own for two whole days and free to do whatever I please. How cool is that?

Chunkster progress: None since Wednesday. I'll get back to it soon, I'm certain.

Happy Weekend!!!


  1. A weekend to yourself is very nice sometimes! Enjoy!!

  2. A buttoned-down-the-back cardigan sounds like something a rich girl would'd need help to do the buttons, especially those in the middle of your back.

    It's so difficult to wrap my mind around the concept that GV is Anderson Cooper's mother. They seem so different from each other.

  3. I've always been interested in reading about strong independent women. I've just added Dorothy Parker's bio to my list of books to buy. I've read and loved Liz Tibleris' No Time to Die, bios of Helene Hannf and Enid Bagnold (wife of the first president of Reuters), and Ruth Reichl, to name a few. I know this will be another one to buy.

    Have a good weekend!

  4. Nat,

    Quiet time is rare. I'm enjoying it immensely. I don't even mind cleaning in between chapters. :)


    Yes, those cardigans were for wealthy boarding-school students. I wonder if that was their intent, to get the girls to help each other and bond a little. Interesting thought.

    What's surprising to me about Cooper's relationship to GV is the fact that he seems so down-to-earth, whereas Gloria seems to be more wrapped up in her world of wealth and privilege. He's nomadic, like his grandmother, but only because he's following what's important to him, telling whatever story needs exposure. That's cool.


    This particular book doesn't portray Gloria V. as strong and independent, but I think she was just entering a new phase of self-confidence and self-sufficiency as the book came to a close. I recall she was about 18 or 19 at the end. If you can't find the book, hunt me down. I've got to find the dust jacket (it's a mess), but I'll be glad to pass it on to you.

  5. Just curious...Are these the same Vanderbilts that own the Vanderbilt Estates in NC?

  6. Wow this book sounds really good.Yeah she tells it the way she does so I am sure it is a little skewed. lol Yeah not sure anyone with that kind of wealth can be normal. :)Enjoy your weekend to yourself! :)

  7. Joy,

    Yep, that's the family. At the time this book takes place, they had estates all over the country but apparently they squandered the family fortunes. There's another book I'd really like to read about that topic. Here's a link that tells you a bit about the family:

    Gertrude Whitney, the founder of the Whitney museum, was the aunt she refers to in the book as "Aunt Ger".


    It was a strange viewpoint but still interesting. As hard as I try, I just can't imagine living the kind of life GV had as a child. My brain tried to get around it by thinking, "Okay, imagine you're having a vacation at Biltmore for a week and you have the run of the house." Nope, couldn't do it. I'm too used to being claustrophobic in my own home, I guess. LOL

    I'm having a great time, thanks. Gotta get a little more housework done before the guys come home to ruin everything. :)

  8. I got lots of reading done this weekend too. Very happy.

  9. I remember reading this book years ago! Don't remember anything about it, however. I had no idea that GV is Cooper's mother. Didn't know that until you mentioned it in the review for his book (which I just bought for my dad for his birthday - thanks for the idea!).

    Hope your weekend was relaxing!

  10. Anonymous12:52 PM

    I've been meaning to read that book for.....jeez, decades, evidently. Biographies used to really fascinate me (they still do, but I've branched out a bit) and she had a pretty interesting life.

    Told from her viewpoint as a child? Huh. That sounds a bit twee.

  11. Angela,

    I didn't get a lot of reading done, but I felt like I caught up a little bit, finishing two books I've lingered over. That's always fun. :)


    I had no idea Anderson Cooper was GV's son until I read his book. I was stunned. Apart from that sense of adventure that often puts him in harm's way, he seems frankly too normal to have grown up the child of a Vanderbilt. I have a feeling the fact that his father was from Mississippi has something to do with the fact that he's more balanced.

    I had a great weekend, thanks. Hope you did, too, and that your dad enjoys the book!!


    Twee is a good way to describe that particular POV. But, it was still interesting. I don't know that I have any interest in reading her second bio - about her many affairs and marriages - or the book about losing her eldest son, but I would like to read more about the Vanderbilts. There's a book about how they frittered away their fortune that I'm hoping to acquire, some day. :)


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