Anderson Cooper has spent much of his career roaming the globe, documenting the kind of stories few others are eager to cover — disease, natural disasters, genocide, war. Comfort has never been his mainstay.
But he has his moments.
In 2008, Cooper traveled to Cameroon for the CNN docuseries Planet in Peril, looking for bush hunters hunter whom epidemiologists were following in their study of viruses that jump from animals to humans, with his longtime executive producer Charlie Moore, CNN chief medical correspondent Sanjay Gupta and Gupta’s producer.
Their temporary headquarters was a ramshackle hut deep in the jungle with no cell service. Once there, they split up to find bush hunters and made a plan to reunite at the hut. Gupta and his producer returned, but didn’t find Cooper and Moore there, and worried all night about his friends in the wild. Only the next day did he wake up and discover a note the pair left, explaining they’d finished very early and decided to go back to the hotel in the capital city of Yaoundé, three hours away.
On the drive back, Gupta and his producer couldn’t get the air conditioning to work in the car that Cooper and Moore had left them, and they couldn’t roll down the windows because of the dust. “It was sweltering,” Gupta recalls. “When we finally pull up to the hotel, Anderson was outside looking very contrite. He told us, ‘We’re so sorry but we left you a note.’ Then he gets in the car to drive to our next appointment, flips on a switch and the air conditioning comes on. It was like adding insult to injury at that point.”
To this day, Gupta still brings up being marooned. “Every time Sanjay is somewhere, in the hallway or doing a story on location for [Anderson Cooper] 360, he’ll joke, ‘I’m still looking for the note,’ ” Cooper says. “But I don’t know that I would’ve done anything differently. If you had been in my shoes, I think you would’ve left the place we were in as well.”
Cooper, 56, caught the international-news bug early on. “After my dad died, my mom and brother and I would eat dinner on TV trays watching the news. I grew up watching CBS Evening News and a lot of folks on ABC,” Cooper recalls during a Zoom interview. He was particularly captivated by foreign correspondents, he says. “I’m probably the only kid in high school who knew who Bob Simon was. He was based in Israel for a long time. I thought that would be the most incredible thing.” (By the time he was in fourth grade, the future CNN anchor was creating grids of TV shows he’d watch after school, from Magilla Gorilla to a 4:30 p.m. movie carried on WNBC to the nightly news and primetime lineup — and later the late night shows, sometimes leaving him exhausted. “I would allow 15 minutes for dinner and 15 minutes for homework,” he says.)
For Cooper, it was an escape from a home life that at that point — and still later — was defined by tragedy. He was the son of Gloria Vanderbilt, who hailed from one of the most famous families of America’s Gilded Age and herself was known for being at the center of an infamous custody battle dubbed the Trial of the Century when she was a child. When he was 10, his father, screenwriter Wyatt Cooper, a stabilizing figure with whom he was close, died during open-heart surgery in 1978. A decade later, Anderson’s older brother, Carter, jumped to his death from a balcony at their mother’s New York City penthouse. Anderson wasn’t there, but his mother witnessed the suicide.
He was also close to his mother, but never considered himself a Vanderbilt. “My dad grew up very poor on a farm in Mississippi. His family seemed like hardy stock who knew how to till the land.” I looked at both of my parents and thought, ‘I’m following the Cooper model.’ My last name is Cooper and I’m incredibly happy it wasn’t Vanderbilt. I think the baggage that comes with that is almost insurmountable. And I don’t think I could have had the career I had if my my last name was Vanderbilt.” But for years he stayed quiet about the reality of his upbringing and never corrected people — from Oprah to this publication — when they’d assume he never needed to work. His parents had told him that there was no pot of gold waiting for him, a point reiterated by his dad in front of the famous 1869 statue of Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt in New York’s Grand Central Station. College would be paid for, but not much more. To chip in, Cooper modeled as a boy and waited tables at Mortimer’s on the Upper East Side as a teenager. After graduating from Yale, he began traveling the world with little more than a backpack and a camera. On his quest to tell urgent far-flung stories, he helped usher in a new era of more humanistic reporting by television anchors.
Decades later, Cooper has fully come into his own, professionally and personally, as the veil of grief that has pursued him almost his entire life finally begins to lift — the result of becoming a father of Wyatt, 3, and 1-year-old Sebastian, and processing the deaths of his father and brother, in no small part through his heart-wrenchingly personal podcast exploring loss and grief, All There Is With Anderson Cooper. As the 18-time Emmy winner celebrates the 20th anniversary of Anderson Cooper 360, he is also plotting his podcast’s second season, premiering Nov. 1; producing an estimated 10 segments a year as a 60 Minutes correspondent; hosting the Sunday CNN show The Whole Story With Anderson Cooper; and launching his latest book, Astors: The Rise and Fall of an American Fortune, which he co-wrote with Katherine Howe. His empire, so to speak, is in full bloom. His CNN salary alone is said to be $12 million a year — and he remains the most watched CNN primetime anchor.
“I think reporting is forever different because of Anderson,” says Gupta, who has (mostly) gotten over the Cameroon episode. “He has a desire to shine a light on places that quite frankly would not get any attention were it not for him and a few others.” Adds Cooper’s co-host of CNN’s New Year’s Eve Live and friend Andy Cohen: “I think he is the most trusted person on television, which is an impossible feat, especially in this day and age. He’s steady, he’s reliable and he’s smart. He’s also a centrist. I think there’s something both relatable and aspirational about him.”
There wasn’t a big celebration for AC360’s 20th, as the introverted and introspective journalist — Moore says he often snaps his fingers close to Cooper’s face to bring him back to the present — preferred a low-key, informal toast on the Hudson Yards set after the Sept. 7 broadcast. Those attending included Mark Thompson, whose hire as the new chairman and CEO of CNN Worldwide was announced while Cooper was on vacation with his two sons in Colombia. Thompson succeeds Chris Licht, who was ousted in June by Warner Bros. Discovery CEO David Zaslav after a tumultuous year at the helm of the company.
Cooper is effusive when asked about Thompson, who formerly served as CEO of The New York Times Company and, before that, as director general of the BBC. The two first met when Cooper was co-moderating a 2019 presidential debate with CNN colleague Erin Burnett and New York Times then-national editor Marc Lacey. “I was impressed by him then,” says Cooper of Thompson, “so I’m thrilled and excited about his involvement. I talked to him while I was on vacation, and then met with him a couple of days after I returned.”
Cooper has tried to ignore the drama and headlines surrounding Licht’s leadership and departure, and when asked about it, he gives a diplomatic response — don’t expect any dish here. “Nobody likes the place they’re working at to be a place where stories are being leaked. It was depressing. I didn’t really read much about it, but just to see the morale and the layoffs, all of that was concerning,” he says. “I’m not somebody who has a lot of meetings with management. I certainly had a couple of meetings with Chris. If he asked me something, I would give him an honest opinion. I also don’t think it’s responsible to go into details of what I said to somebody who’s no longer here. And look, I wish him and his family well. It’s sad the way the whole thing happened. But morale here has really bounced back, and we’re really focused. No one’s looking backward, no one’s wringing their hands, and we’re plunging ahead.”
Looking back, Cooper recalls his post-college attempts to get a journalism gig — he remembers being particularly desperate to work as a news assistant at ABC News to no avail. He signed on instead as fact-checker for Channel One, a now-defunct network that beamed into schools across the United States, but they wouldn’t hire him, either, even after he moved to Vietnam for a year and shot five freelance stories the network aired. In 1992, he declared he was going to Africa for three months and would shoot 10 stories if they let him take him a Hi8 camera. Channel One hired him as its chief international correspondent time after his first piece on the famine and civil war in Somalia. Cooper also did a piece on the genocide in Rwanda, where he filmed mutilated bodies and body parts strewn in roads and ditches. Someone wrote a story about his pieces that made its way to Amy Entelis at ABC (now an executive vp for talent and content development at CNN whose duties include overseeing AC360). She hired Cooper as an ABC News correspondent in 1995 after viewing a tape of his work. Says Cooper, “I thought it was a friend of mine pranking me because the idea that someone from ABC News would reach out to me after I couldn’t get a desk assistant job two years earlier was just incomprehensible.”
Says Entelis, “To this day, that tape sticks out in my mind. He was doing international news in one-man-band style — shooting, reporting and presenting it. But it wasn’t so much that he did everything himself, it’s that it got you very close to the story. The traditional international reporters were more at arm’s length and big-picture, and he really brought you into the story in a very different way. You felt much more of a connection to the story.”
At the recent AC360 toast, Cooper learned from Entelis that his unorthodox style caught some at ABC by surprise. Some of his stories on Weekend News were five minutes long, including several he shot with his own camera. “There were apparently lots of calls to Amy, like, ‘Who is this person? And why is he allowed to wear a plaid shirt?’ I feel very blessed that I’ve been able to be myself.”
After Cooper rose to anchor ABC’s overnight show World News Now before taking a brief hiatus from journalism to host a new reality game show, The Mole, CNN lured him into its fold in the aftermath of 9/11. First, he co-anchored the morning show with Paula Zahn, then hosted Anderson Cooper 360 in the 7 p.m. ET slot. In 2005, his extended coverage of Hurricane Katrina catapulted him to prominence and boosted ratings across primetime, leading CNN to move AC360 to 8 p.m. He continued to travel the world, earning additional acclaim in particular for his work during the 2010 Haiti earthquake. “I’ve been able to do a week of stories in eastern Congo for CNN,” Cooper says. “CNN is the only place left, and 60 Minutes, that will send you to places that may not be at the top of people’s lists of interest. But they are great stories.”
Politics started to dominate coverage with the arrival of Donald Trump in the White House as CNN and its rivals tried to feed their respective audiences. Cooper refused to play the partisan card. “I know there’s been a movement toward opinion-based anchoring, especially in primetime,” says Moore, “but we’ve been at this for 20 years, and he doesn’t traffic in opinions and never has.” Despite Cooper’s stance, he came under fierce scrutiny in May when he defended CNN’s decision to air a town hall with Donald Trump hosted by Kaitlan Collins, telling his AC360 viewers that Trump is a presidential candidate, like it or not. The blowback from his peers in the media was swift because the event had a campaign rally vibe and Trump insulted host Collins, calling her a “nasty person.”
Until now, Cooper hasn’t spoken publicly about being criticized or whether he would do anything differently. “I would have probably ridden it out,” he says of the attack on CNN, versus saying anything on his show. At the same time, he said there were merits to the message he was trying to relay. “I understood why people were upset. I wasn’t saying the town hall was a great idea, but I don’t think one can pretend that this person is not the leading candidate for the Republican nomination.” He also disabuses the notion that anyone, such as Licht, asked him to speak out on AC360. “That is certainly not the case.”
Moore likewise has conflicting feelings. “The backlash and all the conversation around Anderson’s comments were unfortunate. It was a shitstorm,” he says. “But I do believe the contents of the message were sound..” Moore pauses, however, when asked if he’d do anything differently were he able to go back in time: “I don’t know the answer to that.”
When Cooper was cleaning out his mother’s apartment, he decided to record his thoughts and emotions. He cared for his mother deeply, and was her protector (their tender bond was documented in Liz Garbus’ 2016 documentary Nothing Left Unsaid: Gloria Vanderbilt & Anderson Cooper). He’d never thought of doing a podcast before, but an idea took shape as he sorted through pictures, letters and other memorabilia bridging him to his complicated past, particularly the deaths of his father and brother. (His mother died at age 95, so her passing was less complicated.) He checked in with Moore, and All There Is With Anderson Cooper was born. Guests during the first season included Stephen Colbert, whose father and two brothers were killed in a commercial airline crash, and Molly Shannon, who was 4 years old when her mother, sister and cousin were killed in a car crash. Her father was at the wheel. “For me, doing the podcast feels very much like I’m a foreign correspondent,” Cooper says. “I’m in this foreign world of grief and I’m trying to find my way and understand it and ask questions about it. I’m proud of a couple of things in my career, and this is certainly one of the things I’m very proud of. We’re all walking with these losses, but you’re not allowed to talk about it.”
Anderson’s first podcast guest was Wendy Goodman, the design editor of New York Magazine who had known Gloria Vanderbilt since she was a child. He asked her to come to his mother’s apartment. “He announced to me that he was going to do this podcast, and asked if could he record me. And then we were in Gloria’s bedroom and he burst into tears. I think it’s remarkable that he’s become so open and vulnerable. The podcast frees him to express himself. And Anderson has just done an incredible service to people by sharing his own story, and letting them share theirs with him.”
Adds Moore. “Without a doubt, the podcast is some of the most raw, emotional work he’s ever done. And it has been legitimately cathartic.”
Toward the end of the first season of All There Is, Cooper solicited voicemails from viewers to share their own stories. The response was overwhelming: He received 46 hours’ worth of voicemails from 1,000 people, but was able to listen to only about 200 before the final episode. Cooper chokes up as he recalls listening to those messages over the course of the past year, which resulted in the decision to pursue a second season as he finally processes his brother’s suicide and father’s sudden death after all these decades. “I realized that I’m a fraud and have not grieved,” he says. “I also realized there’s been a throughline from the time I was a little kid to working at Channel One when I was just starting out. There’s a reason I wasn’t trying to work in local news that could get me a job at a network. I wanted to go places where people were suffering, and going as a reporter would allow me to do that.”
Mutual respect is palpable among the people Cooper is close with, including Moore and Cohen. A friend tried to set the latter up with Cooper in 1995, but Cohen made the mistake of invoking Gloria Vanderbilt’s name within a minute of their first phone call. Romantic flub notwithstanding, they became friends, as two young gay men in New York City who would run into each other at The Roxy and other clubs. (Cooper didn’t come out of the closet publicly until 2012, although he’d long been open with his friends and family.) Their friendship spilled into their professional lives with their live touring show AC2: Deeper Talk and More Shallow Tales in 2015, and with Cohen joining Cooper in 2017 as co-host of CNN’s New Year’s Eve Live, where they instituted the popular ritual of taking shots every hour.
The Licht regime banned alcohol this year, however, after Cohen became a bit tipsy last year and trashed Ryan Seacrest in jest. “I was kind of annoyed, but it’s their airtime and their show. I think ultimately we felt the show was just as good” without the shots, Cohen says. “The whole thing was not well handled,” says Cooper of the ban. “But again, that was one of those things that sort of seemed to be out of my control.” Cohen is hopeful the pair will be back to shot-taking when ringing out 2023.
There is a waste-no-moment vibe to Cooper, who was convinced he would die when he was 50, just like his dad and his dad’s dad, so he never made a long-range plan. He finally confessed his fear to his doctor when he was 51, who promptly told him he was nuts. A weight lifted, Cooper fulfilled his desire and became a dad. He hadn’t felt ready emotionally or financially to settle down until he was 40, but thought he’d be dead in 10 years, so he put the idea of fatherhood aside. “It’s certainly the best thing that’s ever happened to me and is healing in all sorts of ways that I never imagined,” he says of his two sons, whom he co-parents with former boyfriend Benjamin Maisani in a renovated firehouse in New York’s West Village.
After his first son was born, Cooper realized Wyatt deserved to know about his entire lineage, and not just the Cooper side. Since he knew so little about the Vanderbilts, he partnered with author Katherine Rowe and wrote the 2021 bestselling book Vanderbilts: The Rise and Fall of An American Dynasty. Rowe next wanted to write about the Astors — a rival Gilded Age family — and Cooper agreed (the book hits shelves Sept. 19.) But it doesn’t mean Cooper’s feelings have changed; he feels no more like a Vanderbilt than he did before (and never once has he watched the HBO series The Gilded Age).
Having kids has slowed Cooper down some, but he still jumps at the chance to go to hotspots, such as Ukraine. “I’ll do two-day trips here or there, but it’s got to be something that I am very passionate about or that’s really an important story,” he says. “Parenthood makes me think twice about the risk that I take.”
There’s determination in everything Cooper does. And he’s a perfectionist. He often finds himself sprinting to the set of AC360 after making sure he’s read every last page provided by the AC360 news writers each night. “I like to make sure it’s in my voice and change things. I’m doing that up until the last moment,” he says. “It worries the people in the control room all the time. There have been times when I’ve forgotten my pass and been locked in the stairwell. I desperately call Charlie to come and get me. I just like to be working up until the last minute.”
A version of this story appears in the Sept. 20 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.