Next Act for Gloria Vanderbilt: Racy Romance Novel

With a life worthy of a novel behind her, Gloria Vanderbilt writes bodice-ripper

July 21, 2009, 1:49 PM

July 21, 2009 -- She is, perhaps, best known for the iconic jeans bearing her name that were hugely popular in the 1980s.

Gloria Vanderbilt: fashion designer, railroad heiress, artist and socialite. And today, at 85 years old, Vanderbilt is still adding to her resume, most recently by publishing an erotic novel called "Obsession."

Vanderbilt said she didn't start out to write an erotic novel. "It just turned out this way," she said.

The novel is, to put it mildly, racy:

"Talbot goes to where the agitated Priscilla languishes on the grass and, brushing the aphrodisiac on his lips, leans toward her ...

"Turning my back, I'll bend myself forward over a chair, resting my arms on a seat cushion, as your hand slaps my ..."

Well you get the idea.

At recent book signing on New York's Upper East Side, the material had readers gasping.

"Have you started reading?!" exclaimed one reader. "I can't stop! It's wonderful. Very powerful. It's a very erotic, this book. I have discovered that on just the first three pages!

Vanderbilt, who recoreded the book for its audio release, seems to take delight in the blush-inducing passages. The book includes scenes involving whips and chains, spankings with hairbrushes.

"But everything's so elegantly done," said another reader. "It wasn't just any hair brush -- it was a Mason Pearson hair brush!"

That's a $150 brush, for the uninitiated.

Vanderbilt has no shortage of material to draw from. She was the only child of railroad heir Reginald Vanderbilt. She came into a fortune when he died from alcohol poisoning when Vanderbilt was just 15 months old.

Reginald Vanderbilt's death set off of one of the most scandalous custody trials of the time.

Gloria Vanderbilt's mother was discovered to have a female lover. As a result, she was deemed an "unfit parent."

In the end, young Vanderbilt was raised by her "icy" Aunt Gertrude and an overly protective nanny.

Gloria Vanderbilt: 'And Then Sinatra Came Along'

Vanderbilt said she flirted with the idea of becoming a nun but liked boys too much. At age 17 she went to Hollywood, where she dated some of the most of famous men of the time, Howard Hughes among them.

"I thought of him as, you know, some sort of godlike figure, and it was very romantic, and we had a lot of fun," said Vanderbilt. "He used to take me riding over on Catalina. He was really terrific."

At 17, Vanderbilt married power agent Pat DeCicco. Four years later she was divorced and married conductor Leopold Stokowski.

"Leopold told me he would never give me a divorce, ever, and I felt sort of paralyzed, and I didn't feel I would ever be able to move, because I thought of him as some sort of godlike creature," said Vanderbilt. "And then Sinatra came along -- and wild horses couldn't have stopped me, off I went!

Frank Sinatra and Vanderbilt would remain friends for decades.

"In a way he was very important, because he enabled me to move, and of course if that happened now I would rescue myself, I wouldn't need anybody," said Vanderbilt. "But that takes time I think."

Later, she dated actors Errol Flynn and Marlon Brando.

"Marlon was of course just the man of the moment, such a great actor and so handsome and so mysterious, but so boring," said Vanderbilt. "You know, what you imagine with people on the screen ... you think they're like that, and then you meet them and they're not like that at all. Because he projected such sensitivity and all that, but I don't really think he was that sensitive."

Vanderbilt says Brando kept a framed picture of himself next to his bed.

She would marry a third time, to director Sidney Lumet, and a fourth time, to author Wyatt Cooper, the man she calls her soulmate.

"Wyatt Cooper was a great love," she said. "We would be married today were he still alive."

The couple had two sons, Anderson and Carter. In 1988, Carter committed suicide, jumping out the family's 14th floor apartment at age 23 as Gloria watched and tried desperately to stop him.

"Had Carter lived, he possibly would have been president today," said Vanderbilt. "He was actually a romantic, he had a Fitzgerald thing, a romantic readiness, and I don't know whether he would have been tough enough for politics, I don't know, but that's what he was interested in."

Anderson would go on to become a popular CNN anchor. Ever the proud mother, Vanderbilt has filled her art studio with tapes of his broadcasts. But what does the famous anchor think of his mother's racy new novel?

"Well," she said, "of course I showed him the book before. I think he thinks, you know, at this point in my life, if I want to write a book, and if it's well written, he's not going to tell me not to. ... He's always very supportive."

Others friends weren't quite so certain of her book.

"I did have two friends who were very Waspy, even more Waspy than I am -- because I don't consider myself Waspy -- that were really concerned," said Vanderbilt, and they said this book is going to ruin your reputation -- so I refrained myself from saying, 'Oh, goody!'"

And that is Gloria Vanderbilt in a nutshell. Approaching 90 fearlessly, in a style that is still uniquely her own.