Never mind the steely eyes and blue blood, the CNN star’s life has been a disaster zone
Anderson Cooper feels your pain
Never mind the steely eyes and blue blood, the CNN star’s life has been a disaster zone
Last August, amid the impending violence and chaos, Anderson Cooper arrived. There he stood in the streets of Baton Rouge, a bright red CNN slicker plastered to his torso, his white knuckles clenched around a microphone, eyes squinting, brow furrowing, his body bracing against torrential rains. He shouted out to his TV viewers in their safe, dry living rooms: “It’s really blowing now!” For days after hurricane Katrina hit, Cooper delivered front-line reports on the subsequent anarchy: families missing children, elderly people trapped in attics, corpses bobbing in the streets—and the thousands, now homeless, spilling out of the Louisiana Superdome in dire need of food, medical attention and hard answers. New Orleans was waiting to be saved. Four days in, when Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu appeared on his show, Anderson Cooper 360°, and began to thank President George W. Bush and FEMA and a litany of others for their support, Cooper did something TV news anchors rarely do: he emoted. “Excuse me, senator, I’m sorry for interrupting,” he said, almost trembling with disbelief. “I haven’t heard that, because for the last four days I’ve been seeing dead bodies in the streets.... And to listen to politicians thanking each other and congratulating each other—you know, I’ve got to tell you, there are a lot of people here who are very upset, and very angry, and very frustrated.” Hurricane Katrina devastated a region. But it made Anderson Cooper a star.
Cooper’s Katrina coverage has had a rare, enduring resonance. People trust him. Online, a growing army of fans moons over his steely blue eyes, his dapper dress, his impeccably manicured silver hair, and, mostly, his refreshingly unguarded style. In November,
CNN announced that Cooper would take over as the network’s prime-time anchor, replacing Aaron Brown. His show landed the coveted 10 p.m. slot and was expanded to two hours. Last week, keeping the momentum going, Cooper released his first book, Dispatches from the Edge. Partly a recounting of his experiences covering large-scale tragedies, the book is also a startlingly candid memoir of personal loss.
Cooper, now 38, was born into a life of privilege, raised among Manhattan’s social and cultural elite. His mother is the fashion designer and railroad heiress Gloria Vanderbilt. His father, Wyatt Cooper, who came from a poor farming family in Quitman, Miss., was an actor and screenwriter. When Cooper was a little boy, his parents would throw lavish dinner parties, with guests that included Andy Warhol, Truman Capote, and Charlie Chaplin. He and his older brother, Carter, were always encouraged to attend. Then everything changed. When Cooper was 10, his father died of a heart attack. When he was 21, a student at Yale, his brother, then 23, dangled himself over the balcony of the family’s Upper East Side penthouse, while his mother pleaded with him to come inside. “Will I ever feel again?” Carter asked her before letting go of the railing and plummeting to his death.
Loss, sudden and cruel, was the dominant theme of Cooper’s early life, and he now believes it’s the force that drove him to the frenetic life of a foreign correspondent. “For me,” he says from his office in New York, “I wanted to figure out how to survive. My brother hadn’t survived. I wanted to go places where people were surviving and there had been tragedies and people were getting through them.”
After college, Cooper applied for an entrylevel job at ABC News, but he couldn’t even get an interview. Surely, one might think, someone with his family connections could have called in a favour? But he insists the idea never crossed his mind. “It just wasn’t something I would’ve been comfortable with,” he says. “To this day, I have a really hard time asking people for things. I tend to just sort of do it myself.”
So, in 1991, with no employer and no experience, Cooper borrowed a Hi-8 camera, asked a friend to design him a phony press pass, and took off to Thailand to document Burmese refugees struggling to overthrow their country’s military dictatorship. He sold his stories to Channel One, a daily closedcircuit news program broadcast to high schools across the U.S. “I started to try to force myself to feel in these places,” he says. “When my dad died, I think I cauterized all of my feelings. I became very withdrawn and internal.” In places like Burma, “the emotions were very palpable. Here, in polite
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’ That feeling seems buried.
Overseas, I found the feeling was overwhelming. It overwhelmed my own defences.”
For Cooper, the need to feel that rush of emotion, the sensation of being undeniably alive, became an addiction. At 25, on the strength of his Channel One stories, he landed a reporting job with ABC News. He spent the next decade travelling the globe, seemingly following an endless trail of blood: massacres in Rwanda, bullets in Baghdad, tsunami devastation in Sri Lanka, children starving to death in Niger. In his book, he compares himself to a shark: “I’d become a predator, endlessly gliding in saltwater seas, searching for the scent of blood.”
Coming home to high-society New York between assignments became increasingly difficult. “Out at night, weaving through traffic, looking for trouble, I’d lose myself in crowds,” he writes. “Gaggles of girls with fruit-coloured drinks talked about face products and film production. I’d see their lips move, look at their snapshot smiles and highlighted hair. I didn’t know what to say. I’d look down at my boots and see bloodstains.”
In 2001, he decided he needed a break from all the tragedy. After a brief stint hosting The Mole—an ABC reality adventure show that he took on when his news career appeared to be stalling—Cooper was offered a cushy job at CNN, co-hosting the morning show with Paula Zahn. In late 2003, he was given his own evening news show. But it wasn’t until hurricane Katrina that the network began to fully exploit his appeal.
On Aug. 27,2005, Cooper was vacationing in Croatia when he received a call from his producer telling him to come home. By then he had witnessed devastation and cruelty of all types. He’d seen hundreds, maybe thousands, of dead bodies. But Katrina was different, he says. “I was surrounded by memories of times that I had been down there with my father. And memories of other places I had been kept surfacing. I got to Gulfport, Miss., the night after the storm and it looked like Galle, Sri Lanka, after the tsunami. I was in New Orleans and saw a body on top of a car and it reminded me so much of a man I’d seen on top of a car in Rwanda in the genocide. I think the memories did add a layer of horror to the story.”
In the first days after the hurricane, New Orleans was electric with disorder, and for many viewers, Cooper’s reports helped bring humanity, perspective and some genuine outrage to the event. “The way I covered it is the way I cover most things,” he says. “It’s
the way I’ve been working for the last 15 years—and I guess the difference was that more people were watching. I’ve always believed in a certain amount of intimacy in storytelling. Dispassion can be as false as false passion. If you’re forcing yourself to be removed, I don’t believe that, as much as I don’t believe someone who is always outraged and shaking with self-righteous indignation, which we see a lot of on cable news in the United States.”
Dispatches From the Edge, which maps out Cooper’s personal and often graphic insights on Katrina and what he saw, is partially an attempt to overcome the polite limitations of prime time television. “When I was in New Orleans,” he says, “I worried that as the flood waters receded and as the convention centre and the Superdome got cleaned up, people would somehow forget what happened there and the slate would somehow be wiped clean. It seemed to me that would compound the tragedy.”
The book, now being heavily promoted on his show, feels at once like a worthy cultural document and a self-indulgent screed. The latter seems surprising from someone who says he strives to keep himself out of the story. One topic that is glaringly absent from Dispatches is that of his private life. In particular, Cooper’s sexuality has been a source of broad speculation for some time. But it’s a subject he refuses to address publicly. “I do my job and that’s really what I’m about,” he says. “The rest I have no interest in talking about and people can make up their own minds and think what they want.”
BACK HOME, ‘I’D SEE GIRLS TALK OF FACE PRODUCTS AND FILM PRODUCTION. I’D LOOK DOWN AT MY BOOTS AND SEE BLOODSTAINS.1
Yet what could be more intimate than discussing the suicide of his brother? On the day of Carter’s funeral, a small party of photographers snapped away as Cooper helped his grieving mother out of the car. “I hated them: circling like vultures over our barely breathing bodies,” he writes in his book. “I’d forgotten that moment, that feeling, until this past year, when I found myself reporting outside Terri Schiavo’s hospice.” Perhaps there’s a special insight that comes from having been on the harsh side of the camera, something few journalists ever experience. “It certainly makes me more sensitive now about how I cover tragedies,” he says. “I’ve never asked somebody how they feel after they’ve lost a member of their family. I would never use that word. How do you feel} You see that a lot on TV. It’s a terrible question. The response is ‘How do you think I feel?’ ” M
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