I attended a book discussion group at my local library last week for a class assignment. The book assigned was The Rainbow Comes and Goes, a memoir jointly written by the journalist Anderson Cooper and by his mother, the famous Gloria Vanderbilt.
The book is structured as a series of emails the two exchanged with each other for a year after Gloria Vanderbilt turned ninety-one and essentially recounts the eventful, amazing life that Vanderbilt has led since childhood. As Cooper himself said, his mother has been, not just famous as the child of the wealthy Vanderbilts, but also “an actress, an artist, a designer, and a writer; she’s made fortunes, lost them, and made them back again. She has survived abuse, the loss of her parents, the death of a spouse, the suicide of a son, and countless other traumas and betrayals that might have defeated someone without her relentless determination.”
Vanderbilt also went through what was called the Trial of the Century as a child, had an affair with Howard Hughes as a teenager, dated Frank Sinatra in her twenties, saw one of her children jump out of a balcony to kill himself, designed jeans that put her name on millions of women’s derrieres.
Cooper starts the book with an oblique reference to how unreal his mother’s life story is: “My mother comes from a vanished world, a place and a time that no longer exist. I have always thought of her as a visitor stranded here; an emissary from a distant star that burned out long ago.”
There are some genuinely painful moments in the book. In the chapter about the death of her husband, Anderson’s father, Vanderbilt says how she has always felt insufficient as a wife and mother. She writes: “It was your father who died when it should have been me. In my deepest heart I know this to be true. I knew this then and I know it now. I have known it since it happened, and I will know it till the day I die: a lifelong sentence with no reprieve.” Cooper responds movingly: “I hope you know that I do not feel this way. If things had been different and you died and Daddy lived, there is no telling what would have happened to Carter and me. Who knows the direction our lives would have taken? What I do know is that I’ve learned things from you that I never could have gotten from anyone else.”
But enough about the book. The real story here is the book discussion group I attended. The group has been meeting for quite a while, since the early 1990s, although the original founders were not in attendance anymore. The current leader has been attending for fifteen years and the others for close to a decade. It’s a small group, seven in all, not including me, and all seven were senior citizens, they were all women, they were all white. One started napping in the middle of the discussion and another one told me that she’s eighty-four years old. Another one complained about how Vanderbilt revealed too much about herself that she felt uncomfortable and that she finished the book in two days.
The discussion was a form of free association and the women talked about the book, but also about real estate prices in the area, about how the New York Times is secretly infiltrated by Clinton supporters, about how much Gloria Vanderbilt is worth now (“$200 million, I think,” one said. “That’s not a lot,” said another.), about “an Asian librarian” who mispronounced some word which led them to start commenting me on my “excellent English.”
I suppose there isn’t any story here after all. It’s just me meeting a group of new people whose worldview is vastly different from mine and the people I normally talk to. As exotic as I was to them, they were the same to me: they could very well be Fox News viewers and Trump supporters.
But they were also incredibly nice. The group leader held my hands as the meeting ended and insisted, again and again, that I come back. She even got me a library copy of the next book to be discussed, a novel by Anita Shreve. They were all so sweet they kind of broke my heart. (I wonder if that’s revealing too much.)