Talking Dirty With Gloria Vanderbilt

If there was ever an appropriate person to write an erotic novel, it is Gloria Vanderbilt. At 85, the railroad heiress has been married four times, with a collection of lovers that include the likes of Marlon Brando, Frank Sinatra, Howard Hughes, and Gene Kelly. Her last book, a memoir, revealed intimate details of her many famous lovers, while her son, CNN anchor Anderson Cooper, has been a media heartthrob since his days at Channel 1.

Vanderbilt's latest work, called Obsession, is more fantasy than reality—but you can't help but make the obvious associations. She tells the story of Priscilla Bingham, a frigid socialite who, after the death of her rich architect husband, discovers a secret stash of letters from his mistress, Bee. She sits down to read them, and learns of her husband's undercover life of sex and kink, complete with orgies, S&M, and steamy bedroom play that uses whips, dildos, hot oil and golden nipple clamps—along with a string of beads—as props, leaving Priscilla mysteriously turned on. Complete with a back-cover blurb from Joyce Carol Oates—who declares the book "a remarkable tapestry of human passion"—Obsession, says Vanderbilt, is a summer "pleasure." (You can hear Vanderbilt read an excerpt from the book here; though be warned, it contains graphic language and content.) Vanderbilt spoke about the novel with NEWSWEEK's Jessica Bennett. Excerpts:

You're 85. Why write an erotic novel now?
I don't categorize myself as an 85-year-old woman who has written an erotic novel. I categorize myself as a writer who's written an erotic novel.

Is it autobiographical?
Well you know, a work of fiction is conceived very much the same way as a dream occurs in the mind of a sleeper. But a lot of it is imagination. It's not based on real people.

Were you ever nervous about what people might think?
The only thing that I was concerned about, of course, is my children. And Anderson, well, he did say in one interview, which is true, "The six most surprising words a mother can say to her son are: 'Honey, I'm writing an erotic novel.' " But all my children have been very supportive, so that's all I cared about.

You asked Anderson to proofread it. Did it make him blush?
Well, he knew that I was working on an erotic book, and he's very cool. But I don't know whether he's listened to the [audio CD of me reading it]. I mean, after all, I am his mother. But he's been really absolutely great about it.

You've had a lot of famous lovers. Who was the most impressive?
Oh, well, you know, it's like the cliché answer to which child do you love the most. You love them all in different ways. I've been really very fortunate with the men I've been involved with. They've always really treated me very, very wonderfully. And whenever anything broke up, I was always the one to leave. So I think I've been really very, very lucky.

Are you dating anyone now?
Yes I am. Somebody I've been dating for quite a while.

What's his response to the book?
Well, I think he's kind of fascinated by it.

Do you see yourself in any of the characters?
Well, I really put a lot of myself into Bee. She was an orphan and didn't have a mother or a father, and really kind of got out of a terrible situation and had the guts to make her own life. I mean, I have never had threesomes, and there's a lot of that in the book. But maybe I should try it. It might be fun! But the freedom that Bee has sexually, I have always had.

What about Priscilla? Do you relate to her at all?
The thing I find fascinating about Priscilla is that she faked that she enjoyed sex even though it was abhorrent to her. And this is something I think many women do, for fear of losing the person they love. And I don't know what the answer is for women like that. Maybe it's really that they would like women more—and be able to fulfill themselves sexually that way—but just haven't discovered that yet.

Have you always been this open about sexuality?
I have. And actually, it's one of the things that saved me. Coming from the background that I did, and the complicated situation with my family, it gave me a sense of my identity and a sense of myself that I never would have gotten from my family.

How would you describe how sexual mores have changed from your youth to today?
Well they've certainly changed enormously—I mean, people can live together now without it being called moral turpitude, which is a big step. But in this book we're dealing with fantasy, and I don't think fantasies have changed at all because it's something that's very secretive and private. And everybody has always had fantasies, which they have not had to edit, because you don't need to expose them.

Do you think people should explore their fantasies?
Well, I think if they find a partner and there's nothing destructive about it, then yes, I think it's terrific.

What do you think about the movement for seniors to embrace sexuality?
I think it's great. Why not?

Do you consider yourself part of it?
No, I don't consider myself part of any movement. There was a magazine in England who wanted to do a story about how the book was promoting sex among old people—and I said, "Nooo, that's not what this is about." This book is meant to be enjoyed, it's supposed to be fun to read, it's not promoting anything other than that.

Who do you hope your audience will be?
Anyone who will enjoy it!

You look much younger than your age. What's your secret?
Yes. I do take very good care of myself, and I'm always in love. And by that I mean I have an appetite for life. I'm in love with beauty and things and people and love and being in love, and those things I think, on the inside, show on the outside.