Anderson Cooper broke the news that his mother Gloria Vanderbilt has died at age 95 of stomach cancer. He's already said he isn't looking forward to a trust fund. The question, then, is where her legacy ends up.
Vanderbilt was already a vestige of another era, reminiscent of Brooke Astor in her longevity and tangible connection to the Gilded Age of railroad and oil barons who left their mark on New York society.
Unlike Brooke Astor, however, Gloria Vanderbilt was born in the spotlight and her long life started in the center of dynastic politics that got both messy and public. She and her trust fund became commodities in her parents' divorce. After that, the made-for-TV movies tell the tale that spans decades: marriages, fashion, art.
Supposedly she had to sell off a few houses to pay the tax bills. Anything left behind is undoubtedly hidden well in some of the most byzantine estate planning documents ever devised.
Either way, someone can start life with the biggest trust in history and still manage to spend down the family fortune over a long enough period of time. Vanderbilt lived nearly a century. Her fashion empire came and went but the distributions kept coming to fill the gaps.
The Vanderbilt money may be gone. In the past, we've speculated that it kept multiplying in secret, but after enough generations of inheritance, it's more likely that the real wealth has reached its end.
That's all right. The famous name of Vanderbilt had a good run and if the patriarch wanted to ensure a truly invulnerable posterity, he could have taken draconian steps to keep kids, grandkids and future generations on his chosen dynastic course.
He didn't. Gloria and other Vanderbilts lived their own lives and the family paid the bills. Some married for love and when those relationships hit the rocks, the assets were secure, walled off with prenuptial agreements and interlocking trusts.
The kids and grandkids built the careers they wanted, investing their time (and again, family money) in passion projects with little or no immediate payday. Some are novelists, filmmakers, TV journalists. Gloria herself signed her name to jeans and paintings alike.
That's probably the biggest legacy she has left now to pass on to her surviving kids. The antiques, memorabilia and relics can easily bring in a few million dollars purely on the family name. One way or another, any intrinsic value in the art and furniture is secondary -- either it simply isn't as big a factor as the family aura or its sentimental value to the kids will be the most important thing.
Hearts often trump dollar signs. As the baby, Anderson was closest to his mother so that's probably the biggest inheritance that matters to him here. He's also arguably accumulated the most personal wealth after years on CNN, so he doesn't need the dollars.
Gloria's oldest son Stan probably doesn't need the dollars either, but he's got a dynasty of his own to think about. Kids and grandkids seem to multiply to fit the money available. Sooner or later, they'd welcome even an extra $100,000 apiece.
His landscaping business in Long Island is successful and lucrative. Any Vanderbilt money he inherited along the way is probably well invested in that venture or elsewhere. I suspect he doesn't live lavishly.
Maybe there's no trust fund for Anderson but there might be a bequest or two for Stan's side of the family. They aren't "Vanderbilts" any more than Anderson is, of course. They're Stokowskis, from her marriage to the legendary conductor.
There's also a third son, Stan's brother. He famously walked out decades ago and never really came back, at least publicly.
From all assumptions, he was disinherited at the time. Now, it's an open question whether Gloria wrote him out of the will after all.
Of course, she could always have written him back in. Rumor has it there was a bit of a thaw in the last few years. On the other hand, she wasn't in terrific health and the thaw may have been too tentative to get her to call the lawyers.
We don't know much about what he's been doing or what he's like. It's a mystery.
Unlike a lot of families, at least there aren't a lot of people fighting over the furniture. Anderson doesn't want or need more than a few keepsakes. Stan's family might welcome a little more cash. The third brother, Chris, made his choice long ago and probably isn't expecting anything.
I'm thinking the landscaping family will be the biggest beneficiaries among Gloria's living relatives. It might not be a lot of cash but the impact will be significant.
For them, being a Vanderbilt (at least by increasingly diluted blood) means college tuition, internships, seed capital for entrepreneurial careers. It's like a lot of legacies: not enormous, definitely not endless, a finite pool of cash.
When it's gone, they'll be on their way into the future. And the Vanderbilt name itself recedes into the institutional landscape, becoming a property of schools and streets and towns.
That's the real immortality. And Gloria herself remains "Gloria," that little girl born with so much money she became a legend. Is that what the patriarch wanted? It doesn't matter now.