No trust fund for the TV news icon raises inevitable responses that he's successful now and doesn't need the money. But did the safety cushion do the real work early on? And with Gloria now dead, where did the money that's left actually go?
Anderson Cooper has claimed for years that he isn't getting a dime of his mother Gloria Vanderbilt's money, which could add up to $200 million depending on how it's been invested and how much is left.
As he puts it, his branch of the Vanderbilt dynasty no longer considers inherited money anything but a “curse" that drags kids down and wastes adult lives.
His eagerness to earn his own millions is a testament to his personal brand. For all practical purposes, he's the face of CNN now.
As one of the highest-paid people on television -- $11 million a year -- he effectively writes his own ticket. If the channel interferes with that brand, he'll take the show elsewhere.
But he grew up with enough of a financial cushion to concentrate on the career instead of simply taking whichever job would pay the rent. He spent his 20s on passion projects with little or no payday. Then he came to TV late and worked his way up the ladder, which starts at an intern-level salary.
Until he was a bona fide star, he never had to cash in. He could always rely on family money to cover the bills. That's a great thing. As a result, he was able to build something on his own, keeping the Vanderbilt legacy behind the scenes until it really didn't matter any more.
The money had already done its job. He's wealthy on his own terms now, which is everything a high-net-worth parent could ask for. But in the meantime, his career success means that he hasn't managed to spend all of Gloria's money either.
And Gloria definitely inherited a lot of money and then achieved a remarkable feat of her own by building on it through her fashion house. If she’s not leaving it to Anderson, where will it go? And if we can’t figure out where that much wealth is headed, how sure are we that it exists at all?
Once the kids are independent and settled in their own careers, these are the questions wealthy families need to answer. Sooner or later, Gloria was going to die and the money left behind had to go somewhere. Anderson may be responsible for it, he may be cut out of the loop entirely. Based on the facts we have, a few scenarios present themselves for the Vanderbilts.
Scenario 1: All in the Family. Anderson Cooper is by far the highest-profile of the Vanderbilt heirs but despite the media’s somewhat lazy tendency to focus on the famous one, Gloria had other sons. Stan Stokowski is now in his late 60s and running a Long Island landscaping company. He only makes headlines when a family wedding runs in the society pages, and that seems to be the way he likes it. Chris Stokowski famously stays off the radar entirely after a big fight with mom close to four decades ago. Gloria apparently tracked him down in Massachusetts, but even that reference is now pushing 35 years old. While both seem well out of the Vanderbilt loop, they may still be in the will because Gloria wanted to make sure they get their share of the legacy – or because they never got rich on their own. Anderson Cooper is raking in $11 million a year from CNN and routinely donates book and appearance fees to charity. He doesn’t really need a massive trust fund to set him up for the rest of his life. If anything, rumors of nepotism have been enough of a drag on his professional reputation that it’s probably worth a lot more to him to refuse the Vanderbilt wealth he might have otherwise had coming to him. In that event, Gloria might not have needed to disinherit Cooper at all. All he would have needed to do is refuse the money when her executors hand it over. Stan and Chris, of course, are under no such obligation.
Scenario 2: Everything Goes to Charity. If Gloria didn't have a trust fund set up for any of the boys, her assets eventually had to go somewhere. She might have had friends or staff members she’d like to reward with a monetary bequest. And of course, she might follow the family tradition of philanthropy. If almost all the money went to charity, she dies with something like a clean slate as far as the IRS and public opinion are concerned. One red flag here, however, is that Gloria was not known for her passionate support of any particular cause. Like Anderson Cooper, her advocacy was a lot more diffuse, so it’s anybody’s guess what charity or charities she would favor in her estate plan. We know, however, that she didn't sign Warren Buffett’s “giving pledge” and so is not under any public commitment to give her money away instead of leaving the bulk of it to relatives or other people she may like. Not all philanthropically minded rich people have joined Buffett – most of the 175 people on the list are bona fide billionaires and quite a few are self made – but if Gloria feels so strongly about making a difference, she could give the movement added cachet. After all, previous Vanderbilts managed to amass vast multi-generational wealth as well as fund universities, churches and artistic institutions. Gloria inherited some of that money and parlayed it into a high-fashion empire in the 1970s. Leaving that augmented fortune to charity would be in line with Buffett’s creed as well as Cooper’s own view of the Vanderbilt family as “believing in working.” But again, in the absence of known philanthropic passions, what organizations end up with the money, and why isn’t she lending them her celebrity now?
Scenario 3: The Money’s Not There. Gloria inherited the equivalent of $33 million in 1925 and family wrangling over the trust eventually accelerated her control of a bigger share. A lifetime of artistic and business pursuits presumably helped her independent cash flow, but unless she stopped taking distributions long ago, nine decades is a long time for a traditional trust to run. People have muttered that the trust was actually empty by the 1950s. And it’s unclear how much money the designer jeans and perfume actually made her. Like a lot of fashion people more interested in the creative end than the business, she sold the licensing rights to her name early on. In her late ‘70s heyday, Gloria was only earning $1.2 million or so a year on the clothes.
By the time the perfume came out, she was already fighting her partners over a relatively insignificant $1.3 million. A few years later, a Manhattan court ruled that her lawyer and psychiatrist had colluded to misappropriate a whopping $1.4 million from her accounts. In the meantime, the IRS seized and liquidated her assets to pay a $2.5 million tax bill. While the patterns should be familiar to all Wealth Advisor readers, the figures are tough to reconcile with Gloria’s image as someone worth hundreds of times the amount of money in dispute in either case.
Maybe she lived quite nicely on $1 million a year plus the occasional check from a family trust. Maybe she had other investments that panned out extremely well over time. But I have yet to see detailed evidence that she was ever worth $200 million beyond vague references to her grandfather leaving that much wealth behind when he died in 1899, a quarter century before she was born.
Unless anyone can come forward and document Gloria Vanderbilt’s final net worth, it’s quite possible that Anderson Cooper is not in line for a vast trust fund because the money itself is just not there.
There’s no shame in that, of course. She may have eaten peanut butter every day, but it seemed to be a matter of choice and not financial necessity.
And she looked great until the end. However, “disinheriting” Anderson and the other boys may really have been less about matter of family principle and more about economic realities.
A famous name only buys so much, even if it’s embroidered across millions of jean pockets. Like Gloria before him, Anderson Cooper turned that name into something even bigger. And he didn't even use the name.