A Mother and Son on Life, Love, and Loss
Anderson Cooper & Gloria Vanderbilt (Harper, 2016)
If Gloria Vanderbilt seems the most “gilded” survivor of iconic Gilded Age American families, perhaps it is because virtually her entire life has been lived in the media spotlight. She has accomplished much in her long and varied career as artist, actor, author and entrepreneur, but her infamous celebrity as the “Poor Little Rich Girl” lives on in the public perception of her history. Anderson Cooper is the youngest of her four sons, and a celebrity in his own right as a CNN news anchor, journalist, media personality and author.
Together, in The Rainbow Comes And Goes, they have created a shared memoir that spans most of the last hundred years. A biographical narrative initiated by Cooper outlines the early life story of one of America’s most fascinating and resilient cultural personalities, enhanced by an ongoing exchange of email letters in which Anderson questions and Gloria answers about events as they unfold. The journalist Cooper focuses on exploring themes and details that draw out the most compelling human-interest story. The artist Vanderbilt reflects philosophically on memory, security, happiness and betrayal. Her singular journey from childhood through three marriages and early steps in her professional life are recounted in this back-and-forth manner. If you are not familiar with the story of Gloria Vanderbilt, rest assured it is, indeed, a compelling human-interest story. If you already know the details, this particular telling offers fresh perspectives that make it worth revisiting.
Eventually, as the timeline passes through Vanderbilt’s fourth and final marriage, Cooper becomes a character in the story and a more active participant in its telling. The narrative of the book becomes as much dialogue as biography from this point onward, as mother and son revisit the events of the life they shared as a family, and continue to share alone together.
There is a simplicity to the story befitting an open, honest conversation between parent and child. There seems to be no subterfuge, no posturing, no emotional game-playing. Just a willingness to talk and listen, to question and answer, to examine together experiences they share but see from different points of view. Beauty and ugliness emerge from the story in roughly equal measure. Tragedy and serendipity ebb and flow in waves that sometimes submerge and sometimes raise up.
This very personal, very private exchange is a positive example of the “reality” media that defines our contemporary culture. We see Cooper and Vanderbilt exposed and vulnerable as they try to make their own peace with a lifetime of shared events. We see them reconcile and forgive, themselves and each other. We see them reach for the future with hope and faith in the possibility of redemption. We also see the fears and self-doubts that render these two famous celebrities mere humans after all. It shows how separate and insular we are, even when connected by the strongest of familial bonds. And it shows the power of those bonds to hold us up and hold us together, if we reach out with compassion and love.
“I know her. She knows me.
She is my mother. I am her son.
The rainbow comes and goes.”
*Full disclosure: I am a son, and I have a dear old mother.