The Current

Why Anderson Cooper once posed as 'Monica,' his mother's imaginary assistant

In her 90s, Gloria Vanderbilt began to post paintings on an Instagram account set up by her son, CNN anchor Anderson Cooper. Soon, people wanted to buy them

In her 90s, Gloria Vanderbilt began to post paintings on an Instagram account

Gloria Vanderbilt and her son, CNN anchor Anderson Cooper, at an event in New York City in 2010. She died in 2019. (Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images)

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When Anderson Cooper's 93-year-old mother Gloria Vanderbilt started to post her paintings on Instagram in 2017, he realized some people might want to buy them. 

"She was like, no one would be interested,'" said Cooper, host of CNN's Anderson Cooper 360.

"[But] we put some paintings on and people wanted to buy them, like, within minutes," he told The Current's Matt Galloway.

Vanderbilt had been a painter since her youth, and Cooper saw the new venture as a way to keep her active in her 90s. She posted pictures of her paintings, people would send messages to place orders, and the transactions were handled by Monica, a "long-time, beloved assistant," Cooper said.

There was just one wrinkle: Monica didn't exist. 

The people corresponding with her on Instagram were actually receiving replies from Cooper himself. 

When the first orders had come in, Cooper realized his mother couldn't manage all the packing and shipping herself, or keep track of the payment details. He wanted to help her manage it all, but didn't want his own name attached to the process.

"For about two years, every time somebody would direct-message my mom's art studio, they would get a return message from me, but … officially it was from Monica," he said.

"I would be like in Iraq, you know, covering a story. And then in my downtime, I'd be on Instagram DMing [direct messaging] with somebody in Topeka, Kan., who was buying one of my mom's paintings."

Adopting a persona was his mother's idea.

"She was like … 'Everyone will assume I have a staff, so why don't you be just one of my staff? Why don't you be like a lady of a certain age? We'll call her Monica!'" Cooper recalled.

"It was just this bizarre situation I found myself in, one of many that I did with my mom, or for my mom."

Vanderbilt and Cooper when he was 17, finishing high school. (Courtesy of Anderson Cooper)

Vanderbilt, who died in 2019, was an artist, actress and author. She was also a member of the New York Vanderbilts, once the wealthiest family in America.

Cooper and Vanderbilt worked on several projects together in her later years, including a 2016 book of their correspondence, The Rainbow Comes and Goes. That same year, they featured in a two-hour documentary Nothing Left Unsaid, exploring her family history life and in the public eye.

He returns to that family history in his new book Vanderbilt: The Rise and Fall of An American Dynasty. The book looks at the family's troubled history, and explains why for most of his life he did everything possible to distance himself from the name. The book is published this week, co-written with historian and novelist Katherine Howe.

Wealth 'infected' Vanderbilt family: Cooper

Cornelius "Commodore" Vanderbilt started the family business in shipping and railroads, and died in 1877 leaving more than $100 million US (equivalent to more than $2 billion US today) behind for his family. His son doubled that fortune, and the family built mansions across New York, making their mark on high society. 

But industry changes ate away at the family business, and an increasing number of Vanderbilts spent lavishly as they vied for shrinking inheritances. After generations of decline, surviving descendants are longer born into the extreme wealth of their predecessors.

Cooper said the Vanderbilts he learned about while writing the book were fascinating, but "a lot of them are irredeemable, a lot of them are awful."

The Commodore cared little for his daughters, Cooper said, because they would be married off to other families and their children would not carry the Vanderbilt name. He also despised one of his sons, who had epilepsy and was secretly gay, Cooper said. And the son who eventually inherited everything did so by cheating his father in a business transaction, which impressed him.

"The pathology that allowed the Commodore to amass all that money, in my view, infected every subsequent generation and not in a good way. It corrupted," Cooper said.

Growing up, he didn't have much contact with his mother's extended family. But he said from what little he knew, they didn't seem happy, despite their wealth. Meanwhile his father, who had been raised on a Mississippi farm in the Great Depression, seemed to offer a better role model.

"If I want an origin story that I carry with me in my secret heart, that's the origin story that will help me live a better life," Cooper said.

From a young age, his own parents told him he would have to make his own way in the world.

"There was no pot of gold waiting for me when I turned 21, as most people probably thought there was," he said.

"And I'm very happy about that. I think I wouldn't have been able to do the things I've done if, I think, I had that kind of a cushion."

Cooper said he decided to write this book for his one-year-old son, Wyatt, and explore the family he's distanced himself from for so long. 

He wants the book to help Wyatt understand his family and his past, and make up his own mind, "knowing all the information, good and bad."

He also wants Wyatt to "realize that this is in a very long-ago past, in another world. And his future is his to write."

Written by Padraig Moran. Produced by Howard Goldenthal.

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