Nothing Left Unsaid: Gloria Vanderbilt & Anderson Cooper premieres Sunday, April 9, at 9/8CT on HBO. The documentary will encore on CNN April 29.
Famed fashion icon Gloria Vanderbilt — looking decades younger than her 92 years in a bright coral tunic, slim pants and oversize gold earrings — smiles at rapt reporters from a Pasadena hotel ballroom stage. On either side, giant screens beam her beloved youngest son, CNN newsman Anderson Cooper, into the room from Fairfax, VA., where, later, Cooper will host a town hall at President Obama’s request. Though he was supposed to be here beside her, his mother’s face shines with pride.
This month, viewers can witness the pair’s tender, honest and warmly witty relationship in the HBO documentary Nothing Left Unsaid: Gloria Vanderbilt & Anderson Cooper. Executive produced by Cooper and Emmy-winning filmmaker Liz Garbus (Ghosts of Abu Ghraib) — and drawn, in part, from Vanderbilt’s own letters, home movies, photos and artwork — the film is a revealing look, through the lens of a son’s deep love, at a spirited woman who expresses her joy and exorcises her demons via her artistic endeavors and never invested in her family’s fame.
“My mom has been in the public eye really longer than anybody else alive,” says Cooper. “Her birth made headlines. When she was 10, she was the subject of a really extraordinary custody battle called ‘the trial of the century’ long before the O.J. Simpson trial was called ‘the trial of the century.’ Her entire life has played out on a very brightly lit stage, and the idea really behind this film is, you may know her name, but you really don’t know who she is or what her story is.”
And what a story it is. Vanderbilt’s railroad-scion father died when she was a toddler. Raised primarily by a beloved nanny until her aunt Gertrude won custody from Vanderbilt’s wayward mother, the stunning teen became a fixture in magazines and on the Hollywood social scene. Romanced by Errol Flynn, Frank Sinatra, Howard Hughes, Vanderbilt also endured a string of high-profile failed marriages she would later attribute to her fear of abandonment — until she met Cooper’s father, actor/playwright Wyatt Cooper. The marriage thrived until Cooper died in surgery at age 50; ten years later, the pair’s older son Carter committed suicide in front of his mother at age 23.
Tragedy, says Cooper, bound the pair especially tight.
“My dad died when I was 10,” he explains. “My mom’s father died when she was 15 months old. We both grew up with this fantasy that there was a letter out there somewhere — an idle letter from my dad somewhere out there, and that she had a letter from her father out there. And both of us still kind of secretly believe that letter will someday show up.”
But Vanderbilt also passed a sense of fearlessness and resilience to her son that has served him well. “Out of college, I made a fake press pass,” Cooper recalls. “I borrowed a home video camera. I started going to wars by myself. I was a one‑man band for years. And I was conducting interviews with my mom — the open of the film is some stuff that I shot on a beach with my mom in 1989 or 1990, the year I graduated college and probably the year after my brother killed himself. I had totally forgotten about all this footage that I’d shot.”
A decade prior, Vanderbilt and Cooper began excavating a storage unit Vanderbilt kept for as long as her son could remember. When the idea for the documentary took hold, they began sharing its contents with Garbus.
“I kept saying to her, ‘Is there anything in these boxes?’ … And she was like, ‘You will not believe what’s in these boxes,’” Cooper smiles. “One box you would open up and it would be a box of amazing letters from Howard Hughes, who my mom dated when he was hot Howard Hughes — when he was, like, 35 and my mom was 17 — before he was Desert Inn Howard Hughes with the tissues. But then you’d open up another box, and it would be a box of corn flakes from 1953.”
The process, combined with advancing technology, drew the pair even closer.
“I’ve always felt very close and connected to you, but I now do not feel that the heart of another is a dark forest,” says Vanderbilt, gazing up at her son. “I feel that I understand you more and love you more, if that’s possible. And it really all happened because we started, just by computer, communicating with each other. And it turned into this.”
The duo hopes the film inspires adult parents and children to consider the power in how — and how often — they communicate with one another. “That’s one of the messages of the film,” Cooper reflects. “This idea of leaving nothing left unsaid is something that I feel really strongly about. … I’m a different person than I was when I started this film. And I realize how much like my mom I am — which I never, ever would have believed.”
Nothing Left Unsaid: Gloria Vanderbilt & Anderson Cooper > HBO > April 9