By: Donna Freydkin
The life of Gloria Vanderbilt is a case of truth being much, much more colorful than anything a fiction writer could cook up.
The artist, author and poet was the subject of one of the country's most notorious custody trials in 1934, and was raised by her aunt, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney. Little Gloria went on to marry four times: Pat DiCicco, Leopold Stokowski (with whom she had two sons), Sidney Lumet, and Wyatt Emory Cooper, with whom she had Anderson Cooper and his brother, Carter. She created a denim empire in the 1970s, and then lost the fortune she made. Today, she paints and continuously redecorates the gloriously artsy apartment she calls home in Manhattan.
And her son filmed a documentary about her, "Nothing Left Unsaid," airing on HBO. It's intimate and sweeping, sweet and funny, poignant and tragic. But above all, it portrays Cooper's mom as a plucky, eternally optimistic dreamer who made lemonade out of very sour lemons.
"There was never anything that was off the table. There was never that feeling. They knew what they were signing up for. They've been around the block," says producer and director Liz Garbus.
The film digs deep, exploring Vanderbilt's four marriages and the suicide of her son Carter, who jumped off her balcony while she watched and pleaded with him. For Anderson Cooper, the film was a joy and a revelation.
"I don't know that there was anything particularly tough (to shoot). I've worked in TV for a long time. I know generally what may be asked. You don't agree to do something like this unless you're willing to be perfectly honest and open yourself up," he says.
His mom is a dreamer, and doesn't plan anything. Cooper, meanwhile, is the antithesis of that. What surprised him the most about her? "To learn how similar we are. And that's one of the messages of the film. You can rediscover somebody in a whole new way, even someone you know really well, simply by starting to ask them questions. It changes your relationship with the person and it changes yourself. I discovered how similar I am to my mom," he says.
Today, their relationship is tighter than ever. "My mom and I have always been very close. We're closer than we've ever been. There's a comfort level that maybe wasn't there before. We've always trusted each other. It's a much deeper relationship," he says.
In "Nothing Left Unsaid," Cooper talks about how his Vanderbilt side feels distant and abstract and how he's much more in tune with the Cooper side of the family. Making the film didn't change that.
"As an adult, I'm certainly interested in it. It's a family that's had a lot of history in the United States. It doesn't feel that it's anything to do with me. It has to do with my mom. It's not something I feel particularly connected to," he says.
The film truly doesn't leave much unsaid, but people want more. Which is why, jokes Garbus, "we're doing a six-part series."
It will, however, be in an untraditional format, quips Cooper. "We're working on an ice-capades show."
Chances are, Gloria Vanderbilt would learn to figure skate, if required. She seems capable of handling just about anything. "She comes from a time and a place that doesn't exist and a world that doesn't exist. That's one of the things that's so interesting about the film, seeing her navigating this world," says Cooper.
And that includes email. Cooper wasn't the one who taught his mom to hit send. "A friend of mine did. I didn't have the patience," he says.