Anderson Cooper Reports on the Homefront: Growing up With Gloria

The award-winning journalist shares what he's learned from candid conversations with his mom - from the more intimate details of her relationships, to nights out at Studio 54 with Michael Jackson. Then, he fulfills his lifelong ambition of answering etiquette questions.

Photo Credit: CNN

Each week our listeners send in their questions about how to behave, and this week, Anderson Cooper stopped by to answer a few of them. As a reporter and anchor for CNN for 15 years, he’s covered everything from the wars in the Middle East to Hurricane Katrina. His reporting about the latter earned him a Peabody award.

Anderson also happens to be the son of one of the most interesting news subjects in the world — designer Gloria Vanderbilt. Who, as an heiress to the Vanderbilt fortune, has been famous from the day she was born. Together they’ve written a new book called “The Rainbow Comes And Goes: A Mother And Son On Life, Love, And Loss.” It’s out this month along with a companion documentary, currently airing on HBO and coming to CNN, April 29th.

Below, Anderson shares the insight on what he learned from the frank conversations he had with his mother, how the loss of loved ones motivated him, and more. Click here to find out how Anderson expertly handled our listeners’ etiquette questions.

Interview Highlights:

On how emails with his mom unexpectedly became the basis of “The Rainbow Comes And Goes.”

RainbowComesGoes cover

Anderson Cooper: We actually weren’t really planning this as a book. I mean, this started as an attempt to kind of change the conversation between my mom and I. Like any good WASP household, there was a lot I didn’t know about my mom that she never mentioned and that I never asked her about.

And so, I used to have this fantasy about my dad — he died when I was 10 — that maybe he had written me a letter, and the letter would show up when I turned 18 or 21 or something. It would tell me all the things I didn’t know, and I didn’t want to have that fantasy about my mom when she dies.

So, on her 91st birthday, we decided we’re going to have a year-long conversation about her life, and for the first four months or so, it was just between us, and then I started mentioning it to some friends, and they all said, “God, I wish I was doing that with my parent,” or, “I wish I had done that with my parent. It’s too late.”

We thought, you know what, people might respond to this, and this might encourage other people to do it.

On how he’s able to separate his work process from his public perception

Anderson Cooper: …Nothing I do has any reality that anybody sees it. I don’t watch myself on television. It has no reality — like, even doing this radio show — that anybody’s listening.

And, actually, what’s funny is I discovered my mom is the exact same way. My mom decided early on never to read anything about herself. And she decided this when she was 10, at the height of this custody battle she was involved with.

So, she has no idea of herself as a public person. And I realized I do the exact same thing. And it’s actually nice. It’s like my life is… people say “Hi” to me on the street, you know, 50 times a day and I just think I live in a small town, and everybody knows me.

And I just think — especially as a reporter — no good can come of viewing yourself as a public entity. You know, to me, celebrity is like gangrene. You know, you have to watch it or it’s going to spread.

On learning the intimate details of his mother dates with Hollywood legends

Frank Sinatra walks next to Gloria Vanderbilt in the late 1950s. (Photo by Getty Images)
Frank Sinatra walks next to Gloria Vanderbilt in the late 1950s. (Photo by Getty Images)

Brendan Francis Newnam: It sounds like you weren’t concerned about the publication part of this book because you have this way you deal with your celebrity. But there are some really intimate details you’re learning about your mother.

Anderson Cooper: Oh, yeah. That’s why it was done over email, which made it much easier because there wasn’t any awkward face-to-face thing. Which of course, makes it — for WASPs, it’s perfect.

So, it was like putting a message in a bottle, and you’d send out this question, like, “What was Frank Sinatra like?” And then, you get this response. I mean, I remember as a kid, we’d be watching an old movie — I remember watching “Robin Hood” with her, with Errol Flynn. I said, “Did you ever know Errol Flynn?” She said, “Oh, yes.” And her voice sort of trailed off. She got all misty-eyed. I was like, “Oh, there’s more there.” But now I know, like, what the deal was.

Rico Gagliano: Something about this, actually, that occurred to us when we were talking about this is some of the gents that she had relationships with — Marlon Brando, folks like that — some of them not having the best romantic reputations.

Anderson Cooper: Oh, not at all! No, these were wolves.

And my mom says this in the book. I mean, she was 17 years old. She went out to Hollywood, and she was dating older movie stars: Errol Flynn, some guy named Bruce Cabot, who I didn’t know who it was, who was apparently married at the time. She was dating, like, the wolves of Hollywood.

And she ended up involved with Howard Hughes in a very serious relationship. You know, like, hot Howard Hughes, not crazy, Desert Inn, germaphobe Howard Hughes.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Leonardo DiCaprio in the first part of the “The Aviator.”

Anderson Cooper: Yeah. In fact, I said to my mom, “Oh, so you’re talking about Leonardo DiCaprio Howard Hughes.” And she was like, “Oh, much better!” Yeah. In the book, she’s like, “Oh, it was the first time I had had an orgasm without faking it.” I was like, “Uh what?!? I don’t need to know that!”

Rico Gagliano: But I mean, that’s the point of this conversation, right? Is to know that?

Anderson Cooper: Right. Exactly, yeah. It’s out there.

On how his mother is still revealing secrets even after the book has come out

Anderson Cooper: I mean, there’s nothing my mom can say that truly would totally surprise me. I mean, she’s…a couple weeks ago, she told she had been in a lesbian relationship when she was a teenager. I was like, what?!?

Rico Gagliano: This was during a TV interview, right?

Anderson Cooper: Yes! I was like, “Hello! That might’ve been something you might’ve wanted to mention.”

Brendan Francis Newnam: Yeah. God, I feel like we should just call our mothers right now.

Anderson Cooper: God knows what they’re doing!

Rico Gagliano: I’m afraid now, to call my mother. What don’t I know?

On how the impulsive streak he inherited from his mother helped him break into journalism

Anderson Cooper: But I will say, honestly… I don’t want to sound too cheesy, but it really was life-changing for me learning about myself. I realized how much like my mom I am. The similarities, the patterns that she fell into that I am repeating.

Rico Gagliano: One of those patterns, actually, arguably led into your career. She was a very impulsive person. And you admit that it was a kind of impulsiveness that drove you into journalism.

Specifically, I’m interested in… I guess this was what kick-started you, is that you faked a press pass?

Anderson Cooper: Actually, I didn’t even fake it. I had a friend of mine fake it because I was bad with a computer. It was early days of Mac and, yeah, he made a fake press pass for me. I borrowed a camera because I was, you know, a WASP and too cheap to actually buy one. And I decided to just start going to wars by myself.

I snuck into Burma and hooked up with some students fighting the Burmese government. And I knew right then, this is what I want to do, if I can, for the rest of my life. You’re meeting people who are fighting for their lives and struggling, and you’re telling their stories.

And it helped me learn about myself. I was really concerned about my own survival. My brother had committed suicide. And so, being around people who sort of spoke the language of loss, I found very moving and powerful.

On how losing loved ones motivated him… and what going to Studio 54 with Michael Jackson was like

Anderson Cooper: You know, I lost my dad when I was 10. I mean, I didn’t lose him; he died. I know where he is. But nothing ever feels safe again. And so, you know, I set about a course of study on survival as kid. I started taking survival courses. I started earning my own money, working when I was 11.

I was fascinated, as a kid, by: how do people actually make a living? And, like, how much do I actually need to make a living? I went to… my mom took me to Studio 54 when I was 11, twice, and the second time was with Michael Jackson.

And he was dancing — and I didn’t know who Michael Jackson was because I wasn’t a big music guy — and I remember turning to somebody and saying, “Oh, you know, he’s really good at that. He should pursue that.” Like, I was concerned about how he was going to make a living.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Yeah.Then maybe he could afford two gloves, you know? He needed to be made aware of that.

Anderson Cooper: Right, yeah. Exactly.

On constantly worrying the worst is yet to come

Anderson Cooper: Even to this day, I watch old movies, and I’m concerned about the people in the background of old movies. Like, whatever happened to them? How did they support themselves? I look at the credits and think, “God, all these people thought, you know, this was going to be their big break, and they didn’t make it. How do they make a living? Are they teaching acting somewhere?” I literally, to this day, worry about that sort of thing.

Brendan Francis Newnam: That is fascinating.

Rico Gagliano: On some level, were you kind of like, “How do I not be that person?”

Anderson Cooper: Oh, absolutely. I was like, “This ship is going down.” I remember hearing my mom once on the phone, say, “Well, I can always make money.” And I remember stopping in my tracks, looking for some wood to knock on because I was like, “That is totally jinxing us. If you think you can always make money…” I was like, “I can tell you from being in Sarajevo during the war, a lot of folks, you know, who had important skills — or so they thought — they’re meaningless when war comes.”

Rico Gagliano: Do you still have that feeling?

Anderson Cooper: Oh, absolutely! I think the next catastrophe is right around the corner, and I want to prepare for it. At CNN, they asked a couple years ago, they’re like, “Does anyone want to take a chem/bio warfare training class so if there’s a chemical or biological attack, you can work during it?” I was like, “Yes! Me!”

Rico Gagliano: You were the first guy.

Anderson Cooper: So, I’ve got a Tyvek suit and a gas mask in my office, ready to go.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Wow. I know where we’re going if it goes down.

Anderson Cooper: Right, exactly. That’s the other thing. My co-workers are going to kill me for it, so I have to barricade myself in my office.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Well, you’ve got to learn some sort of Israeli martial art or something.

Anderson Cooper: Believe me, looked into it.

Anderson Cooper’s Etiquette Tips

One mother’s clutter is another daughter’s treasure

Rico Gagliano: Oh, my gosh. Well, listen, clearly you have no shortage of life experience to share with our audience. So, here is our first question.

This comes from Judy in Los Angeles, and Judy writes: “My mom is in her early 90s” — like your mom — “and tends to throw away lots of things to keep her life simple. The trouble is, some of these things do have sentimental value for me and my family. So, I’ll say something like, whatever happened to that music box? And it will be long gone. How do I take some of these things off her hands before they hit the dumpster. It seems like a touchy matter, as these are her things.”

Anderson Cooper: That’s an interesting question. First of all, I can see why it’s a touchy matter, but it’s not as if you’re asking her to give you something that she’s otherwise selling and needs to make money off of, or anything like that. Or that she wants to keep.

So, I think there’s no problem in pointing out to her the things that do have sentimental value for her. At least in planting the idea in her mind because I always assume people will know what does, but nobody ever knows. That’s why people’s parents throw out their comic book collection. And they’re like, “Oh, my god! What have you done?”

Rico Gagliano: My dad actually always talks about that.

Anderson Cooper: Is that right?

Rico Gagliano: He’s like, “I had a ‘Spider-Man Issue 1.'” I’m like, “What happened to it?” He’s like, “We threw it away! It was for kids!”

Brendan Francis Newnam: Well, Obama talked about that when he nominated the Supreme Court Justice.

Anderson Cooper: Garland.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Garland. He actually talked about how Garland had to sell his comic book collection to pay for college.

Anderson Cooper: Right. I used to sell comic books at conventions because I was concerned about my financial stability.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Wow.

Rico Gagliano: Really?

Anderson Cooper: Oh, yeah.

Rico Gagliano: Do you wish you had any of them back?

Anderson Cooper: I have a lot of them back, yeah. No, no, I have all of my… I wasn’t a very good salesman. I didn’t say I was good at earning money. I just…

Brendan Francis Newnam: All right. So, there you go, Judy. Tell your loved one what has sentimental value for you.

Anderson Cooper: Absolutely.

Ma’am? Miss? Young lady?

Rico Gagliano: Indeed. Here’s one from Piri in Colorado: “When I address a woman, a grocery clerk, barista, or what-have-you, I say ‘ma’am’ as a sign of respect. I do the same thing for men by addressing the individual as ‘sir’ but many younger women have taken offense to the moniker ‘ma’am’ yet I feel ‘miss’ or ‘young lady’ is demeaning and sexist. What to do?”

Anderson Cooper: Wow, that’s a good question. You know, I would never have thought ma’am was objectionable, but I do… I had a case of this recently where I was with somebody who said “ma’am” to someone, and they were like, “Did you call me ma’am?”

You know, I guess, don’t use it. I mean, I don’t know. I’m not sure what you should use. “Sir,” to me, is a very thing that a lot of folks down in the South. Like my executive producer of my show, his kids all call me “Sir.” You know, it’s like, a polite, Southern sort of thing. And I think probably “ma’am” is the same. I definitely think “young lady” seems a little odd.

Rico Gagliano: Yeah, you’re right, Piri, about that.

Anderson Cooper: Yeah, I wouldn’t go for “young lady.”

Brendan Francis Newnam: I’m from Philadelphia. I think “yo” covers both genders. There’s nothing objectionable about that.

Anderson Cooper: Yeah, or just, “Hey, how’s it going?” or, “Nice to see you,” something like that.

The other thing I always do now is — I have the worst memory. So, when someone comes up to me in the street, I don’t know if I actually know them, they recognize me from TV, so I have to greet everybody with equal enthusiasm.

And so, I realized long ago, never say, “Hey, great to meet you” because it’s very possible I have already had dinner with this person, and I just don’t remember, and it might’ve been last night because my memory’s that bad. So now, I just say, “Great to see you! Nice to see you.”

Rico Gagliano: So, that sounds like a good one: “Great to see you, X.”

Anderson Cooper: Right, yes.

Rico Gagliano: All right, there you go, Piri. And I think we have one more.

Coming out to your co-workers

Brendan Francis Newnam: Beau from Cincinnati writes: “I’m in my late 30s, and I started a new job a few months ago. My colleagues don’t know that I’m gay. When we talk about our significant others and partners, I tend to use vague terms. How would you recommend coming out to these colleagues? Where do you draw the line between personal and professional conversation?”

Anderson Cooper: Wow, that’s a good one. I mean, look, I came out in high school to my friends and was always open in my office environment, which I found just easier. But I didn’t come out, I guess, publicly, make a public declaration until, I don’t know, a couple years ago when I felt like not saying something was like saying something.

So, I think, in a work environment, you have to be aware, you know, what the office environment is, what state you’re working in, and what the laws are in terms of any protections for you. You know, there’s states where you can be fired if they don’t like you. So, I wouldn’t make some blanket statement like, “Well, everybody should come out.” And I’m certainly not the person to be, you know, telling people when they should come out. But I will say that it’s often less of a deal — in my experience.

And if you think it’s going to be fine, making almost light of it, saying, like, “Actually…” I was on a radio program the other day, and clearly, the guest didn’t know that I was gay, and so, they were asking me about, you know, “Hey, we should go out and like, go to the Caribbean sometime, pick up girls!” And I was like, you know, “Not my general interest. That’s not my demo.”



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