Friday, November 18, 2016

A dual memoir full of unexpected things

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, memoirs, mother and son

I remember hearing that Anderson Cooper's mother is Gloria Vanderbilt, but it didn't mean much to me. I knew the Vanderbilts were once immensely rich, and on a vacation, I've been to see Breakers, their 60-room "summer cottage" in Newport, Rhode Island. I've watched A.C. 360 on CNN a time or two, and mainly thought of Mr. Cooper as a well-spoken commentator with whom I seldom agree. Having switched back from cable to antenna some months ago, the rare itch to watch CNN is no longer being scratched. But I couldn't pass up the chance to see how he and his mother pull back the curtain in their joint memoir The Rainbow Comes and Goes: A Mother and Son on Life, Love, and Loss.

The book's title is from a poem by Wordsworth, with a second stanza that reads:
The Rainbow comes and goes,
And lovely is the Rose,
The Moon doth with delight
Look round her when the heavens are bare,
Waters on a starry night
Are beautiful and fair;
The sunshine is a glorious birth;
But yet I know, where'er I go,
That there hath past away a glory from the earth.
The title? "Intimations of Immortality From Recollections of Early Childhood".

Ms Vanderbilt lost her father at age 15 months, was raised mainly by a nanny and one grandmother, was the subject of a celebrated custody battle at age 10, and thereafter was a ward of the court, though she lived with an aunt. Mr. Cooper enjoyed the company of both parents for his first ten years, when his father died, and has remained close to his mother. More or less close; all children must break away at some point, but it is lovely when they return to closeness as a secure adult.

The book is in the form of a long e-mail correspondence between them, with occasional explanatory notes by Cooper. We learn that, though they are mother and son, they responded in quite different ways to the sudden insecurity that comes when a parent is lost so young. The mother was, by her admission, quite a ditz for quite a while. She reveals herself, warts and all, to her son and to us. The son sought strength in forthright toil as a foreign correspondent, beginning with a solo trek across Africa during his last year of high school. He may not have had a press pass in his sights just then, but testing himself against such a journey was great preparation once he knew he liked to write and report.

But for them both, including later in life when the mother started several fashion businesses, including Gloria Vanderbilt Jeans, their drive came from early insecurity, and the way it knocked the pins from any hope of an ordinary life.

I would not have wanted to live most of the life that has been the lot of either of them. I am reminded of a slogan that is going around these days: "Be nice to everyone. That person across from you has struggles about which you know nothing." Frequently the word is "suffering" rather than "struggles". Fair enough. I've had my sufferings, my struggles. I count myself lucky by comparison to some stories I encounter, including those in the pages of this heart-searching memoir.

Each in their own way, Vanderbilt or Cooper, the mother and son retained a certain vulnerability, and do not shy away from the consequences. It is how life is lived, if it is to be lived at all. I am glad I read it.

P.S. As I write this, Gloria Vanderbilt is 92 and in remarkably good health. Her son is 49.

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