How surreal that had it not been for the Vanderbilts, we may never have had Queen Elizabeth II on our coins, may never have heard of Diana, Princess of Wales or the Duchess of Cambridge. “I heard echoes [of these stories] all throughout my life,” says Cooper. “When you’re a kid, it doesn’t seem that unusual because you have nothing to compare it to. It’s only once I actually wrote the book that I was stunned by the details.”
Born in June 1967 to the author Wyatt Emory Cooper and Gloria, he was brought up in Manhattan, where the Vanderbilts once ruled entire avenues, buildings and stations. At home, his mother protected him from the family association. While she was known publicly by that name, “she always referred to herself as Mrs Cooper,” he says. “I knew she had this other name and I didn’t quite understand why.” Instead, Cooper looked to his father’s history, a large family from a small Mississippi farm with no great riches, as his American story. At six years old, it was not Gloria, but his father who began Cooper’s tentative Vanderbilt education, taking him to see a self-commissioned statue of The Commodore at Grand Central station. “He wanted me to understand my mom’s extraordinary history and her complicated feelings about it,” he writes.