Anderson Cooper: The Secret Superhero of New Year’s Eve

News anchors tend to be reserved, composed and careful, which can sometimes lend them a cold or dispassionate air. Anderson Cooper is a little different, something which is in part due to the unusual route he took to journalism, and the remarkable personal story of his life, and that of his extraordinary mother. With such a varied history, it’s no surprise that he’s also a tremendous host of CNN’s New Year’s Eve celebrations, and a vital part of America’s holiday programme.   

Gloria Vanderbilt with her two sons, Anderson (left) and Carter (right)

A Privileged Upbringing

Anderson was born in 1967 in New York into an extremely famous family. His mother was Gloria Vanderbilt, not just an internationally known socialite and heiress, but also a prominent actor, author, fashion designer and model. The Vanederbilts were at one time the wealthiest family in the United States, with an enormous fortune fashioned from the railroad networks built by Cornelius Vanderbilt in the mid 19th century. At the time of Cornelius’s death in 1877 he had a fortune of $100m, more than the value of the US treasury at that point, but the family’s fortunes dwindled as railroads became less important in America’s infrastructure. Anderson’s grandfather, Reginald Claypoole Vanderbilt, was a notorious gambler and playboy who had spent the majority of his own inheritance by the time of his death. The remaining fortune that he passed down to his daughters was hotly contested. Gloria’s mother led what was considered to be a scandalous lifestyle, and concerned members of the Vanderbilt family launched a custody battle for Gloria in 1934 which culminated in what became known as a “Trial of the Century”. This sensational courtroom drama was packed with titillating gossip about the sex life of Gloria’s aunt Thelma, who was having an affair with the future English King Edward VII, and also Gloria’s mother, who was alleged by a maid in the Royal Household to be having a lesbian affair with an unnamed member of the British Royal Family. Gloria’s central role in this trial made her an international celebrity as a ten year old, a distressing position for any child to find themselves in. 

Anderson Cooper: The Secret Superhero of New Year’s Eve

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News anchors tend to be reserved, composed and careful, which can sometimes lend them a cold or dispassionate air. Anderson Cooper is a little different, something which is in part due to the unusual route he took to journalism, and the remarkable personal story of his life, and that of his extraordinary mother. With such a varied history, it’s no surprise that he’s also a tremendous host of CNN’s New Year’s Eve celebrations, and a vital part of America’s holiday programme.   

Gloria Vanderbilt with her two sons, Anderson (left) and Carter (right)

A Privileged Upbringing

Anderson was born in 1967 in New York into an extremely famous family. His mother was Gloria Vanderbilt, not just an internationally known socialite and heiress, but also a prominent actor, author, fashion designer and model. The Vanederbilts were at one time the wealthiest family in the United States, with an enormous fortune fashioned from the railroad networks built by Cornelius Vanderbilt in the mid 19th century. At the time of Cornelius’s death in 1877 he had a fortune of $100m, more than the value of the US treasury at that point, but the family’s fortunes dwindled as railroads became less important in America’s infrastructure. Anderson’s grandfather, Reginald Claypoole Vanderbilt, was a notorious gambler and playboy who had spent the majority of his own inheritance by the time of his death. The remaining fortune that he passed down to his daughters was hotly contested. Gloria’s mother led what was considered to be a scandalous lifestyle, and concerned members of the Vanderbilt family launched a custody battle for Gloria in 1934 which culminated in what became known as a “Trial of the Century”. This sensational courtroom drama was packed with titillating gossip about the sex life of Gloria’s aunt Thelma, who was having an affair with the future English King Edward VII, and also Gloria’s mother, who was alleged by a maid in the Royal Household to be having a lesbian affair with an unnamed member of the British Royal Family. Gloria’s central role in this trial made her an international celebrity as a ten year old, a distressing position for any child to find themselves in. 

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If Gloria was affected by this, she didn’t let it show. By the time Anderson was born, Gloria was just as famous as when she was ten years old, thanks to her own accomplishments rather than those of her family, but she did not seek to keep her own children out of the limelight. Anderson’s first exposure to the glare of the media came when he was just three, as he accompanied his mother on an interview with Johnny Carson on the Tonight Show. Gloria had gone on to become a highly accomplished author and actress, and she was on the verge of becoming one of the world’s most successful fashion designers. She had not forgotten her own upbringing, though and was determined to protect her two sons from the bitter and recriminatory scenes she had experienced. Her two boys, Anderson and his elder brother, Carter, were treated as equals in the family, and doted on by their parents, until tragedy struck in 1978 when Anderson’s father, Wyatt, died suddenly of a heart attack.  

Gloria moved with her two boys into a smaller apartment, and tried to instill the importance of financial independence into her children. This resulted in Anderson starting out on his own modeling career as a teenager, but he knew his future career lay elsewhere. He began studying political science at Yale, and during summer recess he took a job interning with the CIA. He found the reality of desk work at Langley to be a lot less fun than he had imagined. As he later explained, “I know the CIA may sound more exotic and mysterious, but it was actually pretty bureaucratic and mundane, at least the little bit that I saw of it. By the end of the second summer, I realized it was not a place I wanted to work after college.”

His eventual decision to become a journalist was sparked by another tragic incident. His elder brother, Carter, committed suicide when he was 23, jumping from the 14th floor balcony of the family’s penthouse apartment. There had been no prior indication that he was unhappy, and Gloria attributed his death to a psychotic reaction caused by the asthma medication Carter had been taking. Anderson was less sure, but the tragic loss of his father and brother affected him greatly. As he would later say:  “Loss is a theme that I think a lot about, and it’s something in my work that I dwell on. I think when you experience any kind of loss, especially the kind I did, you have questions about survival: Why do some people thrive in situations that others can’t tolerate? Would I be able to survive and get on in the world on my own?”  

His quest for answers took him to some far flung locations. After graduating from Yale, and with no formal journalistic training, he set out with a camcorder and a fake press pass to compile news reports from wartorn countries including Burma and Somalia. He sold the reports to Channel One News, the classroom news network, and began to build a reputation for himself as a reporter. By 1995 he had landed a correspondent role with ABC News, eventually becoming a news anchor in 1999, before taking a surprising decision to abandon the newsroom and become the host of the reality TV series The Mole. He cites 9/11 as the reason that he chose to return to the newsrooms, this time with CNN, where he became a primetime anchor in 2002. This was also the year that he hosted his first New Years Eve celebration from Times Square.

Anderson and co-host Andy Cohen making an early start on the shots in 2022

Ringing out the old

Cooper credits his enduring popularity as both a news anchor and New Year’s Eve host to his unusual career path. Having never been trained in the arts of news anchor diction, he has a natural approach that can make him seem more humane than some of his more stilted colleagues. This has manifested itself at many points during his journalistic career, most notably when visibly showing his frustration with politicians during the Hurricane Katrina disaster, but it is also highly apparent when he’s hosting more festive content. Over the last twenty years he’s presided over some extremely raucous and entertaining evenings, initially as a solo presenter, and then later with his co-hosts. Kathy Griffin joined Anderson on hosting duties from 2007 to 2017, and was frequently controversial before eventually being dismissed following a public attack on President Trump that was deemed over the line by producers. She was replaced by Anderson’s longtime friend, comedian Andy Cohen, and the pair have become notorious for their anarchic, alcohol fuelled hosting style, and celebrated across social media as one of the most entertaining fixtures on the holiday calendar. 

Another way Anderson has distinguished himself from his colleagues is by coming out as gay, something he did in 2012 after many years of speculation about his sexuality. By doing so, he immediately became “the most prominent openly gay journalist on American television”, according to the New York Times, and this is a responsibility that he has taken seriously. He hasn’t been afraid to call out celebrities and colleagues who he believes have engaged in casual homophobia, famously putting Alec Baldwin in his place for the use of homophobic slurs in 2015. Meanwhile, fans love to speculate about the possibility of a relationship between Cooper and his co-host Andy Cohen, but Anderson claims there’s no possibility of this happening; it may have been on the cards when they first met, but Andy broke Anderson’s cardinal rule, “never ask about my mother.”

Gloria finally passed away in 2019, aged 95, having recorded a remarkable documentary with her son, Nothing Left Unsaid, in which they talked frankly about their lives and the events that shaped them. Although always keenly aware of the privilege their background afforded them, the tragic undercurrents that shaped both of their lives make for a compelling story, and in Anderson’s case they also make a compelling figure who’s highly qualified to preside over a New Year’s Eve celebration. There are few people better placed to ring out another old year, and ring in the new, and hopefully Anderson - and Andy - will continue to fulfill that vital role on American screens for many years to come.

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