Gloria Vanderbilt lived the kind of momentous, fascinating life that recalls Miss Blankenship, the longtime secretary from Mad Men: “She was born in 1898 in a barn. She died on the 37th floor of a skyscraper. She was an astronaut,” as Bert Cooper memorably put it. Vanderbilt, too, was an astronaut. When she was born in 1924, maternity wards still went by an antiquated term from centuries before, “lying-in hospitals”; her birthplace, the Manhattan Lying-In Hospital, was later rechristened the more modern Obstetrics and Gynecology Department of New York Hospital. And by the time Vanderbilt died, she was a star on a digital platform that didn’t exist until 8½ decades into her life: Instagram.
Vanderbilt, who died on Monday at 95, was heiress of the Vanderbilt railroad fortune, and she filled her 95 years with so many improbably distinct chapters that it’s hard to believe a real woman and not a character in a novel experienced them all: She went from “poor little rich girl” to society “it” girl to wife (times four) and mother to multimillion-dollar jeans mogul to artist, and more. And in the last few years, she began sharing mementos from all these periods on Instagram. Vanderbilt told her story elsewhere, too—in her writing, her art, and even a recent documentary—but her Instagram page provides a wonderfully accessible and unfiltered glimpse into her spirit, still elegant and eloquent in her 90s, and her incredible life.
Vanderbilt originally joined Instagram in mid-2017 at the urging of her son Anderson Cooper and to the delight of publications like Architectural Digest, which declared her account a “treasure trove,” and Town & Country, which dubbed her “Instagram’s Newest ‘It’ Girl.” She had 75,000 followers by that June, and at present her account has more than 200,000. Vanderbilt was originally unsure whether her refined taste would be a good fit for Instagram. “Anderson would show me people’s accounts and it often seemed like a lot of pictures of plates of food. I mean, there is nothing wrong with loving your food, but it just didn’t grab me,” she told W magazine in 2017. “But then I realized that Anderson works so much and travels so much, that this would be a way to see more of him and what he is up to, so I downloaded the app, and then I discovered it made me feel more connected not only to his life, but the lives of some of my friends.” Some of those friends Vanderbilt followed included Cher, Mia Farrow, Diane von Furstenberg, and Andy Cohen. Nice mutuals if you can get them!
Vanderbilt posted a well-curated—Cooper warned her not to post more than twice a day—mix of vintage family photos and shots from photo shoots, pictures of her art (with more to be found on her separate studio account), and photos of the inside of her living space, with each post accompanied by a rich, detail-filled caption. Of a photo of her fireplace, she wrote, “I did the painting over the mantle almost 60 years ago. #RichardAvedon bought it. After he passed away, I bought it back at auction. I miss him so, and it reminds me of him.” She also, naturally, enjoyed the dopamine rush the app provided; she told Town & Country that the feeling of racking up likes on her posts was “delicious.”
Instagram is known as the social app of choice for young people, and the source of not a small amount of envy, agita, loneliness, and depression among that cohort, but Vanderbilt’s account was (and is) a welcome reminder of its capacity to be more than that, too. It gave a nonagenarian a genuine way to share wisdom and memories from a long, eventful life, and now it’s an essential complement to any obituary. It seems possible that Vanderbilt herself understood the account as a way to reflect on her life and shape her legacy. On Feb. 20, she wrote, “Today I turn 95. It feels like yesterday i was 16 and posing for my first picture for Harper’s Bazaar. There is so much i wish I had known then. I do believe that it is only once you accept that life is a tragedy that you can truly start to live…. and, oh, how i have lived! So many lives, so much work, so much love. It is incalculable.”