Anderson Cooper, 50, is a familiar face on U.S. television screens, working as a respected broadcast journalist for satellite news channel CNN. But, if you knew of his family’s wealth, you might be surprised he decided to work at all. The eponymous host of Anderson Cooper 360° is descended from the fabulously wealthy Vanderbilt family. In fact, Cornelius Vanderbilt, who made a vast fortune in the rail and shipping industries during the 19th century, is his great-great-great-grandfather. His mother, Gloira Vanderbilt, was an heiress who later added to her riches by becoming a fashion designer. Millions upon millions of dollars are in play in Cooper’s family. But, as it turns out, he won’t see a dime of it.
Anderson Cooper was born on June 3, 1967, in New York, to Gloria Vanderbilt and the author Wyatt Emory Cooper. Vanderbilt, who is now a stately 93 years old, has led the most amazing life. The socialite was a model from age 17, before finding a lucrative and creative role in the fashion industry. She helped popularize blue jeans as a trend, and designer jeans bearing her name are still sold today.
Naturally, Vanderbilt moved in some pretty exclusive circles. She was friends with – and it was whispered also a lover to – some very famous men. Author Roald Dahl, eccentric millionaire film producer Howard Hughes, photo-journalist Gordon Parks, acting legend Marlon Brando and singer Frank Sinatra were among them. Rumor has it that she was Truman Capote’s inspiration for the larger-than-life Holly Golightly in his novella Breakfast at Tiffany’s. It was later turned into an iconic film starring Audrey Hepburn as the Golightly gal.
And, needless to say, Vanderbilt was eye-wateringly rich. As a child, her wealth played a part in a famous court case, which the media at the time dubbed “the trial of the century.” In 1934, her paternal aunt, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, sued her mother, Gloria Morgan Vanderbilt, for custody of Gloria Jr. Whitney also wanted financial control over the child’s considerable monies. The child had been left a fortune following the death of her father from cirrhosis when she was just 18 months old. The aunt’s claim was that her young niece’s mother was an unfit parent and was spending the child’s inheritance on parties and frivolities for herself rather than in her daughter’s interests.
And what’s more, the aunt actually won custody of young Gloria. But the trial was such a notorious and scandalous news sensation that it left psychological marks on the little girl. Among the outrageous things Gloria’s mother was accused of was a lesbian affair with British aristocrat Lady Milford Haven, who was married to a cousin of the King of England. In those days, such a thing was seen as immensely shocking.
Following the trial, Vanderbilt grew up and after three marriages she wed and had two sons with Wyatt Emory Cooper. Sadly, the eldest, Carter Vanderbilt Cooper, born in 1965, committed suicide at the age of 23 by jumping from the balcony of his mother’s 14th-floor apartment. The other son, Anderson Cooper, we already know about. But questioning the loss of his older brother played a part in Anderson’s decision to become an enquiring journalist. His parents had instilled in him a desire to work, so this, coupled with the need for distraction from his grief, made Cooper throw himself into his chosen career.
Despite his impressive family connections and graduating from Yale, it actually was no easy task for Cooper to get a foot in the door of news journalism. Enterprisingly, the young man used his own money to travel to war zones, where he gained legitimacy with a fake press pass he had made himself. In so doing, Cooper was able to send back footage from the frontline with him as war correspondent. Eventually, in 1995, he was given a job at ABC. From there, after a two-year-break to host reality TV show The Mole, Cooper began to helm CNN’s American Morning news show.
By 2002, he had become head presenter in the channel’s prestigious weekend prime-time slots. That responsibility led to his own show, Anderson Cooper 360°. At the age of 35, Cooper was on top of his game. But it was his very raw, very human approach to the stories he covered that really made him a star. When he reported on Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Cooper’s emotional reactions to the aftermath marked, in some people’s eyes, a turning point for American news journalism.
Cooper came out as gay in 2012, although his sexuality had been an open secret at CNN for a long time. Unlike the scandalized reaction his grandmother’s same-sex dalliances had provoked in the 1930s, response to Cooper’s announcement was largely positive. However, Cooper revealed in an interview with People magazine in 2016 that his mother’s reaction to the news had been one of caution. She was mindful of the things leveled at her own mother during the custody battle in her childhood.
Cooper said, “We never talked about the actual moment that I had come out to her, because we both had different perceptions and understandings of what I had said.” People reported that after her painful childhood experience, Gloria had for a while assumed that same-sex relationships were “bizarre and not normal.” Thankfully, she has come to understand that there is nothing wrong with them and that, “there’s no difference. Love is love.”
Despite Cooper finding it difficult to be truthful to his mother about his sexuality, the two maintained a close relationship down the years. Gloria seemed fully supportive of everything her son achieved in his career and personal life. But, in 2014, some jaw-dropping news broke that perhaps threw some doubt on that. Speaking to celebrity interviewer Howard Stern, Cooper announced that his mother had told her son that he would not be receiving any of her fortune when she passed away.
And what’s more, the famous journalist was completely fine with that news. “My mom’s made clear to me that there’s no trust fund. There’s none of that,” Cooper said. “I don’t believe in inheriting money… Who’s inherited a lot of money that has gone on to do things in their own life? If I felt that there was some pot of gold waiting for me, I don’t know that I would’ve been so motivated.”
Cooper also pointed out to Stern that his father, who died following a heart attack in 1978 at the age of 50, had proved this point. Wyatt Emory Cooper hadn’t come from money, but he had made a success of his life nonetheless. “My dad grew up really poor in Mississippi,” Cooper said. “I paid attention to that because I thought that’s a healthier thing to pay attention to than, like, some statue of a great-great-great grandfather who has no connection to my life.”
And perhaps it was also the actions of those forefathers that made Cooper dubious about the concept of inherited wealth. In 2014, the newsman was featured on the PBS genealogy show Finding Your Roots. And Cooper was not pleased by what he found. It turned out that his family tree had a particularly unpleasant branch – a man who owned slaves.
Wyatt Emory Cooper had grown up in poverty in the South, but a few generations back his family had been rich – very rich. Wealthy enough, in fact, to own a plantation with 12 slaves. So Cooper’s fourth paternal great-grandfather, Burwell Boykin, had made his own fortune from slavery. And the researchers at Finding Your Roots found out that Boykin had also made his own grave through slavery.
A 1860 U.S. Census Mortality Schedule revealed a highly unusual cause of death for Boykin, “Killed by Negro.” His killer, called Sandy, killed the slave-owner after being locked in a shed as punishment for trying to abscond. Sandy was then caught and summarily hanged for murder. Cooper told the Finding Your Roots cameras that he had “no doubt” that his ancestor deserved what he got. “He had 12 slaves, I don’t feel bad for him,” he said, adding, “Honestly, part of me thinks that’s awesome.”
And the Vanderbilt family also has historic links to slavery. Although none of them actually owned a slave, they did own plantations where slaves were “employed.” In a curious detail, one of these captive workers, Jim Robinson, was actually the great-great-grandfather of Michelle Obama. In 2008, Cooper’s cousin Whitney Tower invited the former First Lady to the plantation where her ancestor was buried. However, it is not known if she ever accepted the offer.
So it is not surprising, then, that Anderson Cooper has some pretty mixed feelings about his family’s wealth. Notably, he donates a lot of money to charity, including gifts to the Elton John AIDS Foundation, the American Heart Association – with, perhaps, his father in mind – and GLAAD, an organization which tracks LGBT issues in the media. In addition, Cooper has made it clear that his parents raised him to be aware of his inherent privilege. And they also taught him to understand the importance of self-sufficiency.
In 2016, Cooper explained the thinking to People magazine. He said, “I think my mom and dad both wanted to get across to me that… I obviously grew up with great privilege and was very lucky. [I was] able to afford college and not have student loans. [And] they would pay for college. But beyond that, it would be up to me to make a living.”
Currently, Anderson Cooper’s net worth is a very cool $100 million. But if he ever has children himself, he says that he will be carefully considering whether to leave them money. “If maybe I felt like they had a good sense of responsibility, maybe I would try to leave some money. I don’t know,” he admitted to Howard Stern. In the same interview, he called his mother “the coolest person I know.” Some things, it seems, are just more important than money.