CHRISTOPHER STEVENS: Forget Harry’s latest broadside, the REAL royal scandal is the raunchy family history of his US interviewer Anderson Cooper
At the Coronation of George VI in 1937, one man in the packed pews at Westminster Abbey was seen with his head bowed and his lips moving constantly throughout the ceremony.
The foreign royals, aristocrats and politicians around him assumed he must be praying. He was not. He was Cornelius Vanderbilt IV, a son of the richest family on the planet, and also a celebrated journalist.
Hidden in his waistcoat was a pocket radio transmitter and his whispered commentary was being picked up by a receiver in a trailer parked outside the Abbey and beamed across the Atlantic to millions of U.S. listeners. It was a completely unauthorised broadcast — and a phenomenal scoop. Writer Robert Graves gleefully noted the story in his history of the interwar era, The Long Week-End
Cornelius (known as ‘Neily’) had been able to wangle a seat in the Abbey because his parents, Cornelius III and Grace, were friends of the Royal Family. At one of their famous parties held at Claridge’s in 1921, Grace had introduced Lord Louis Mountbatten to his future wife, Edwina Ashley, the richest heiress in England.
Forget Prince Harry’s latest broadside, the real royal scandal is the raunchy family history of his US interviewer, Anderson Cooper (pictured with the Duke above), writes Christopher Stevens
Cooper’s great-aunt Thelma had an affair with the future King Edward VIII (pictured together in 1932)
What was less well-known to the public – and a fact not shared with his American audience on that momentous Coronation Day – was that the secret commentator was also a relative of the socialite Thelma Furness, a former mistress of the previous Prince of Wales, George’s brother Edward VIII.
Now, nearly a century later, another journalist from the Vanderbilt clan has landed a royal scoop that threatens seismic repercussions. Step forward, Anderson Cooper, the 55-year-old CNN anchor, whose interview with Prince Harry will be aired to a global audience this Sunday on 60 Minutes, the venerable current affairs show on the American channel CBS.
The interview, billed as ‘revealing and explosive’, is the main event in a publicity drive for Harry’s ghost-written memoir, Spare.
Revealed: How Prince Harry interviewer Anderson Cooper’s great-aunt had an affair with the Duke’s great-great uncle Edward VIII when he was Prince of Wales
And so a scion of the Vanderbilt family is continuing in the family tradition. Anderson Cooper’s great-grandfather, Cornelius II, was the grandfather of Neily Vanderbilt.
That makes the two journalists first cousins once removed, in a clan whose colossal fortune was built on the steamboat and railroad industries, but whose history is so littered with scandal, plots, betrayals, court cases and royal liaisons that it more than gives the Windsors a run for their money.
Little wonder that, when he published a family memoir in 2021, Cooper described it as ‘The Crown on steroids’.
The most dramatic and vicious Vanderbilt feud was fought over Anderson Cooper’s mother, Gloria. She became an artist and fashion designer famous for her husbands, lovers and high society connections. But as a child of ten, she had been at the centre of a court battle dubbed ‘the custody trial of the century’.
Gloria was the daughter of Reginald Claypoole Vanderbilt (Neily’s uncle), who inherited a vast fortune and squandered it all.
A gambler, alcoholic, playboy and drug addict, Reginald once declared that it was impossible to inherit great wealth and be happy. An unearned fortune, he said, was as corrosive to ambition as cocaine was to personal morals.
Divorced from his first wife in 1920, he began taking an interest in his daughter Cathleen’s teenage friends. One of them was Gloria Mercedes Morgan, aged just 15 when he met her.
Reginald proposed and three years later they were married. On the night before their engagement party, he threw a lavish costume ball, with Gloria appearing as Marie Antoinette.
Yet Reginald’s mother, Alice, was suspicious of the teenager’s virtue. She insisted that before any wedding could take place, the girl must be examined by the Vanderbilt physician to prove she was ‘virgo intacta’.
Gloria was 19 when their daughter — confusingly also named Gloria — was born in 1924. Eighteen months later, Reggie died from cirrhosis of the liver.
In his death throes, with his mother beside him, he haemorrhaged blood so violently that his young wife was not allowed to see his body.
Reginald Vanderbilt died in debt, owing a colossal sum in taxes and unpaid bills, including one for $9,000 to the jeweller Tiffany’s (about £130,000 today).
Lady Thelma Furness (pictured here in 1925) introduced Prince Edward to his future wife, Wallis Simpson
The widowed Gloria was left penniless . . . with the exception of a $2.5 million trust fund (£175 million today) for their baby daughter. The trust supplied the young widow with a monthly allowance, worth about £50,000 now, to cover her expenses, including servants’ wages.
‘Baby Gloria,’ notes Cooper in his family memoir, ‘was now the piggy bank for her entire household, and she couldn’t even talk.’
Her widowed mother Gloria had a twin sister, Thelma. Leaving the baby with a nanny in New York, the two women embarked on a liner for Europe to try their luck in its aristocratic scene.
And how Europe adored them! They became known as The Magnificent Morgans, and may have been the inspiration for Anita Loos’s 1925 novel, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, about two American girls who cut a dazzling swathe through Paris and London society (Marilyn Monroe later starred in the movie).
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Gloria became briefly engaged to Gottfried, a German prince of Hohenlohe-Langenburg, who proved to be rather less wealthy than he’d appeared at first sight.
Another of her close friends was Nadejda Mikhailovna de Torby Mountbatten, wife of the Marquis of Milford Haven and daughter of a Russian Grand Duke — known to all her friends as Nada.
Thelma, meanwhile, married Marmaduke, Viscount Furness – and, the day after their wedding in June 1926, she was introduced to Edward, the Prince of Wales (later Edward VIII).
High society on both sides of the Atlantic was shamelessly promiscuous. Shortly after giving birth to a son, Thelma made a bet with her husband that he wouldn’t be able to persuade the vaudeville performer Peggy Hopkins to dance with him at a party.
It was a rash bet. Peggy once boasted that she’d sleep with anyone who bought her diamonds (by the end of her life, she reckoned she’d been through 50 fiances, although only six made it to the altar).
Soon after he claiming his dance, Marmaduke became her latest conquest, and his marriage broke up. Thelma took revenge by turning to the heir to the British throne and fell in love.
The feeling was mutual – for a time at least – and Thelma and the Prince began spending romantic weekends together at Fort Belvedere in Windsor Great Park. But, once again, she was to ruin her own love life with a hopelessly naive mistake.
This time, she introduced the future king to one of her girlfriends. Her name? Wallis Simpson. Edward quickly became besotted and, in 1936, just months after ascending to the throne, gave up his crown for ‘the woman I love’.
Thelma never recovered from the betrayal. When she died of a heart attack in 1970, aged 65, a tiny teddy bear was found in her handbag. A gift from the Prince of Wales, she had stroked and clutched it so much through her life that all the fur had rubbed off.
Thelma and her twin sister Gloria (pictured together) were members of American high society
Thelma (pictured) married Marmaduke, Viscount Furness – and, the day after their wedding in June 1926, she was introduced to Edward, the Prince of Wales
Her sister Gloria’s party lifestyle ran aground in the early 1930s. When her daughter fell ill with tonsillitis, rather than staying at her bedside, she left the child to recover with a Vanderbilt aunt, Gertrude Whitney — and sailed back to Europe.
Gertrude was disgusted and paid detectives to investigate how the little girl’s trust fund was being spent — and discovered it was largely on parties and love affairs for the mother. And so she sued for custody of the child, declaring Gloria Morgan Vanderbilt to be an unfit parent.
The details laid bare at the trial in autumn 1934, in New York’s Supreme Court, made worldwide headlines. Gloria, now 30, was charged with maternal neglect. The court heard how she and her German lover, Prince Gottfried, used to lounge in bed, drinking cocktails and reading pornographic magazines.
To the scandalised public, the idea of the couple lazing all day in silk pyjamas was as decadent as the porn — photographs said to feature nuns, flagellation and ‘naked men with women’s tongues’.
One doctor told the court that the child was suffering hysterical fits and that her health could be in danger if she was forced to return to her mother. This testimony, wrote one court reporter, ‘was a blistering tale no skin lotion could soothe’.
But the evidence that caused the greatest sensation came from a maid, a Frenchwoman named Maria Caillot, who was asked whether she had ever seen anything ‘improper’.
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‘Yes,’ she replied, ‘I remember one thing . . . Mrs Vanderbilt was in bed . . . and there was Lady Milford Haven [Gloria’s great friend Nada] beside the bed with her arm around Mrs Vanderbilt’s neck — kissing her, just like a lover.’
This revelation, that Nada and Gloria were lesbian lovers, caused such an uproar the judge had to clear the court and ban reporters and the public the following day.
Buckingham Palace was also rocked. Rumours about Nada and her sister-in-law, Edwina — now married to Lord Louis Mountbatten — had swirled for years. The two women revelled in each other’s company, travelled together and were said to be ‘enthusiastic participants’ in naked, moonlit swims.
The Supreme Court awarded custody of ten-year-old Gloria to her aunt Gertrude, with weekend visits allowed to her mother, who also received an annual allowance of $21,000 (about £390,000 today).
The young Gloria grew up to have no less lurid a life. Like her mother, she married before she was 18, to a Hollywood producer and part-time mobster called Pat DiCicco. That ended in divorce after he beat her by slamming her head against a wall.
She had two sons with her second husband, conductor Leopold Stokowski, before divorcing him in 1955 and marrying director Sidney Lumet.
By this time, she had cut off her mother’s allowance, remarking that Gloria Morgan Vanderbilt had earned a living by working in the past and could do it again.
Over the years, gossip columnists linked the younger Gloria with lovers including Roald Dahl, Frank Sinatra, Marlon Brando and Howard Hughes.
Her fourth husband was author Wyatt Emory Cooper, to whom she was married until his death in 1978. He was the father of her second two sons — Carter Vanderbilt Cooper, who killed himself aged 23, and Anderson Cooper, the news anchor who has landed the interview with Prince Harry.
Gloria Vanderbilt died in 2019, aged 95. She was the last of the Vanderbilt dynasty to be born in the era of limousines with liveried chauffeurs and to be guarded by private detectives, wrote her son Anderson Cooper — and ‘the last to be born before the Depression, when the Vanderbilt riches seemed as limitless and eternal as the stars in the sky’.
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