Living with Loss

updated 05/06/1996 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/06/1996 AT 01:00 AM EDT

ASK ANDERSON COOPER TO TALK about his mother, Gloria Vanderbilt, and sooner or later he'll tell you the story of his great-great-great-grandfather, New York shipping magnate Cornelius Vanderbilt. He had a rowboat, says Cooper, 28, that he used to ferry people from Staten Island to Manhattan, "and he built that rowboat into a steamship line. I think that if push came to shove, my mother would get back in that boat and start rowing."

Gloria Vanderbilt—author, onetime jeans designer and socialite—has indeed spent much of her life crossing troubled waters. She became known to the world as the poor little rich girl when, at 10, she was the prize in a bitter custody battle between her widowed mother and an aunt, who eventually won. She married and divorced three times before losing her fourth and best-loved husband, writer Wyatt Cooper, who died in 1978 at 50 after a series of heart attacks. Then, in July 1988, as she watched helplessly, her son Carter, 23, committed suicide from the terrace of her 14th-floor Manhattan penthouse. "At first you think you will never, ever recover—you want to die," says Vanderbilt, 72. "But you realize you have responsibilities to people."

In A Mother's Story, her soon-to-be-published memoir, she tells how she learned to cope with Carter's death. "I have one friend, who meant well, who said to me, 'It happened, it's past.' It is never past. The more you go over it, the more it helps." Even now, she says, "When I'm walking down a street, I'll look up at a building and count 14 stories. This helps me. It's facing it instead of running away."

On the day that was to be his last, Carter, a Princeton graduate working as an editor at American Heritage magazine, showed up at his mother's opulent penthouse and said he was moving in. Delighted, she didn't question his motives. She had his favorite lunch—spaghetti with her homemade sauce—prepared for two and then, since he said he hadn't slept in several nights, left him to nap on the library sofa. Carter was acting oddly: The day was sweltering, but he wanted the air-conditioning off, and at one point, Vanderbilt writes, he said, "Mom, am I blinking?" Though she had never known him to take illegal drugs, she asked if he were on anything. He answered no.

At about 7 that evening, Carter appeared suddenly in her room, looking dazed. "What's going on?" he kept repeating. Then he dashed out onto the terrace and sat on its wall. Keeping his terrified mother at bay with a rigidly outstretched arm, he asked, "Will I ever feel again?" Desperate, Vanderbilt offered to call the therapist he had begun seeing recently. "Do you know his number?" Carter asked. When she said no, he recited the number and then shouted, "F—k you!"

"He reached out to me at the end," Vanderbilt remembers. "Then he went over, hanging there on the wall, like on a bar in a gymnasium. I said, 'Carter, come back,' and for a minute I thought he'd swing back up. But he let go." A nightmare no parent dares contemplate had, for her, come true.

In replaying the incident during the blur of days that followed, Vanderbilt tried to deny what she had seen. "I thought each person I saw would be the one to bring the message that it hadn't happened," she says. As the reality sank in, she coped by talking to friends, a strategy that went against everything she had learned in childhood. "Rich people don't communicate," she says. "They rise above things."

She also set about looking for answers. The second-youngest of her four sons (she had two by her second husband, conductor Leopold Stokowski), Carter was a precocious child who grew up to be "a perfectionist," she says. "Unseemly behavior horrified him—he would be horrified to think he'd done this." He had broken up with a girlfriend some months before his death and had been under a cognitive therapist's care "for stress, but I don't know many people who haven't been in therapy," Vanderbilt says. "He wasn't being treated for depression."

The culprit, she came to believe, was an inhalant that had been prescribed for Carter's asthma. Vanderbilt says she learned that some asthma medications can cause agitation, insomnia and other central nervous system disturbances. "I was there when he did it, and Carter wasn't himself," she says. "It was as if the medication had snapped him into another dimension."

It was, if nothing else, an explanation she could live with. Three years after Carter's suicide, she began believing she would survive her grief. "I remember sitting in a restaurant one night and drinking a glass of water and feeling like a person," she says. "Until then, you feel you have no skin."

Now at work on another book, about Newport, R.I., Vanderbilt has plenty of reasons to carry on. There is "a man I'm in love with," she says, although she won't divulge more. She and Anderson, a correspondent for ABC News, are "very close," she says, and she delights in her two grandchildren, Abra, 10, and Aurora, 12, the daughters of landscaper Stan Stokowski, 42. (Of son Chris Stokowski, 40, she says only, "He keeps a very low profile.")

Vanderbilt also has new problems to cope with. She sued her former lawyer, who she says formed an illegal company with her former psychiatrist that defrauded her of some $2 million. (Though a court has awarded her the money, she says, legal loopholes have so far prevented her from collecting.) To pay the IRS back taxes she says the same lawyer, also her business manager, never paid, she was recently forced to sell her Southampton, N.Y., summer home as well as her Manhattan town-house and now lives in a smaller, though still comfortable, apartment. "I am not broke," she says.

And it's clear financial woes won't break her spirit. If losing Carter had a positive effect, it was to help her feel less alone when trouble strikes. "His death shattered the glass bubble I've always felt I lived in," she says. "Tragedy happens and people say, 'Why me?' I say, 'Why should I be exempt?' Tragedy connects everyone in the world."

KIM HUBBARD
ANNE LONGLEY in New York City

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