Sam Sanchez: This episode has a brief mention of a sensitive topic.
Anderson Cooper: I love to go for walks, especially in New York, because it’s meditative for me. I’ve spent a lot of my life just kind of rushing from one place to another and trying to get to a story, trying to get to a country where something is happening. And when I’m there, I’m focused on working and crafting a story and, and writing something that does justice to, to the events that are unfolding all around me. But often I don’t really feel like I’m really all that present.
Sam Sanchez: It’s Time to Walk, where some of the world’s most interesting and inspiring people share stories, photos, and songs that have influenced their lives. CNN Anchor Anderson Cooper has won numerous awards for his journalism and traveled the world to report breaking news. On this walk, Anderson talks about his unconventional upbringing, and how the lessons he learned from his parents are now influencing his own approach to being a dad.
[SOUND OF CITY TRAFFIC]
Anderson Cooper: I thought we’d walk on the High Line because the High Line is this stretch of old elevated rail track in New York on the Lower West Side, and it got made into this really unique park about 15 years ago. And you can still see the, the train tracks are still on, on part of it. This is the route I take to work sometimes. It goes from, like, 14th Street on the Lower West Side in New York up to about 34th Street, and that’s where my office is. So I can walk on this old elevated rail track the whole way.
[SOUND OF WALKING]
There’s a paved pathway that we’re walking on, and you can see the railroad tracks at times. But they’ve also planted trees and shrubs and flowers in a way that makes it look totally unique and totally like it’s… as if it’s all natural. It’s not as if it’s this… a park like you would imagine a park. And, and we’re like two or three stories above the street. You’re above the hustle and bustle. You can hear somebody’s dog because we’re literally walking by somebody’s window.
[SOUND OF DOG BARKING]
There’s a guy who let his dog out in the morning, and I’m waving to him right now. And so you’re looking into people’s bedrooms and people’s living rooms. And I think what’s so cool about it is it… it changes your point of reference. It’s like… I’ve lived in New York City all my life. You know, I’m used to being on the streets, and there’s the hustle and bustle and… And yet, we’re elevated above it. And it’s a great way to kind of go to work because it’s a really different perspective of the city.
[SOUND OF HELICOPTER]
I had a very remarkable upbringing. My mom was Gloria Vanderbilt. My dad, Wyatt Cooper, was a writer, and there were always, you know, really interesting people coming in our house. Charlie Chaplin came for dinner, I remember, when I was like five. Truman Capote was there all the time. Gordon Parks, the famous… the first African-American photographer for Life magazine was there all the time. And, you know, we weren’t, like, shunted off to, like, a children’s table at dinner. We were expected to sit at the main table next to Truman Capote or Charlie Chaplin or Gordon Parks and make conversation.
And that was really my dad. That was my dad’s sense of wanting us to… to kind of grow up with this confidence that, “Oh, what we have to say is of interest. It doesn’t matter how old we are. It’s interesting.”
When I was a kid, probably like six or seven, after dinner, I would say to my dad, “Let’s go to the pizza place.” And it wasn’t that I was hungry or that, like, my dad was hungry because we’d just had dinner. But going to the pizza place for me was the thing that my dad and I could do without my older brother, Carter, who was two years older than me, you know, without my mom. It was just something that I could do with my dad.
And I always think about that because I remember that feeling of, you know, walking down the street with him, heading toward the pizza place with, you know, my little hand in his and literally looking up to him. And he was just so attentive and so present and so… He would listen to what I had to say. And, you know, to this day, I mean, it sounds silly to say, but, like, any time I’m in a pizza place, I smell pizza, it just brings me back to, you know, sitting in this dingy pizza parlor around the corner from our house and just that feeling of safety, of being with your dad and him listening to you and being present. And I… Yeah, for me, every time I go for a walk, I think about… I just… That is my first memory of walking and being with my dad and not, not caught up in all the, you know, whatever drama there was with my brother, or whatever the concerns of a six- or seven-year-old are, but just being with my father, safe and confident and surrounded by love and by his presence.
But when I was 10, my dad died, and I hadn’t known he was sick. I, I… He had had a heart attack two years before, which I didn’t know at the time. And when somebody dies, you think that you’re always going to remember them. You think that you’re always going to remember the way they smelled or all the encounters you had. And I wish that was the case with my dad, but there’s so much I just don’t remember and I don’t know.
The things I remember are like little fragments. I remember watching TV with him. He would lay on the floor on his back, and I would lay with my head on his chest and watch TV. And I just remember the rise and fall of his chest, the rise and fall of his stomach and being able to hear his heart beating while watching TV and the warmth of his chest. And that, to me, is such a… it’s such an ingrained memory of… and a feeling of closeness that we had.
And that’s one of the terrible things about loss, is that over the years, you can feel, kind of, memories slipping away and little… the losing of those intimate moments, the sound he made when he put the key in the door and came in, you know, after work or this… what his laugh was like or what his voice sounded like. And a couple of years ago, a, a nonprofit organization, I think it’s called Clocktower Radio, and they restore old public radio interviews, and my dad had done a radio interview for the book he had… He wrote a book about growing up in Mississippi called “Families”, and this organization restored it, put it online. And they sent me an email and said, “You know, you can listen to this radio interview.”
I… I’d never heard it before. I knew nothing about it, but I was in my office at work, and I clicked on the link, and all of a sudden, my dad’s voice filled the room of my office. It was the first time I heard my dad’s voice since I was 10 years old.
[CLOCKTOWER RADIO CLIP]
WYATT COOPER: My relationships with my sons, which are both quite extraordinary, I mean my relationship with each son is quite extraordinary and, and, and I think extraordinarily close. And we understand each other in, in the most extraordinary kind of way. I mean, this isn’t just my judgment. It’s what people say who are around us, you know. And I think that that… that that comes because I, all my life, wanted very much to have children, and quite specifically I wanted to have sons. So I think I could reverse the roles, and, and, and they become the recipients of the kind of fathering that I had wanted.
[END CLOCKTOWER RADIO CLIP]
I realize now how much of my life has been sort of a desire to kind of recapture those feelings of safety and security that I had with my dad walking to that grungy pizza place at night. And, and I… I realize it’s, it’s one of the things that I’m so happy about having a, a, a son of my own to be able to kind of suddenly feel that, that sense of connection and security and love, and to be on the other side of it, to be the kind of dad my father was to me to my son. I named my son Wyatt after my dad. My dad’s name was Wyatt Emory Cooper, and my son’s name is Wyatt Morgan Cooper. I like that idea of connection. My, my dad had said that he, he hoped the best part of him remained in my brother and I. And I wanted that piece of him living on in… and I wanted my son to know of my dad and be able to transmute not just the name but that feeling of confidence that you get from knowing how loved you are and from knowing that you have stable, loving parents around you and people around you.
And, you know, people, with their children, often want to kind of correct the mistakes that their parents made. I don’t feel that about my dad. I… I’m not looking to correct something that he didn’t do. I’m, I’m looking to, to recreate all the things he, he did right and pass them on so that my son grows up the way my dad hoped I would grow up, to be an honorable person and to have a sense of morality and dignity and compassion about other people, and empathy.
[SOUND OF CITY TRAFFIC]
My mom was a… this remarkable woman, I mean, who lived this extraordinary, epic life of great love and loss and tragedy, and she was a… She was a survivor. But usually when people talk about survivors, you know, it’s like a boozy lounge singer who’s, like, tough as nails and, you know, been knocked down and getting back up and singing some torch song about it. She had none of that. There was nothing tough about her. She was the most open and sensitive person I know. And to me, her greatest strength was her ability to remain vulnerable and optimistic and hopeful in the face of terrible tragedy.
You know, my brother died by suicide in front of her, jumped off the balcony of our apartment building in front of my mom. And to be able to survive that is… You know, it’s… It’s unthinkable. And, and yet, to be able to also not just survive that but, you know, be hopeful still and still believe in love and still believe in possibilities, you know, that… My mom would always say, “The phone can ring, and your whole life can change.”
And she once… She… I, I once said to her, like… She was like 85, and I said, “You, like, you still think there’s a guy on a boat off the coast of France, like who’s going to… you’re going to meet and fall in love, and he’s going to whisk you away.” And she looked at me, and she said, “A boat? A yacht,” which I just thought was like, “Oh, yeah, of course. Yeah, silly me.”
I always viewed myself as a catastrophist. I don’t like to say pessimist because pessimist sounds so negative, but catastrophist sounds kind of new and exciting. I always expect some catastrophe is going to occur, that nothing is safe, and I want to prepare for it. I want to know, “What’s my plan if X, Y, or Z happens?” My mom had no plan, and it used to drive me nuts as a kid because you… you kind of think, oh, your parents have some sort of a plan. There’s some sort of, you know, outline here of… You know, I think we all wish our parents… You know, we all think we wish our parents were different in some ways. My mom was not the traditional mom. She wasn’t baking cookies, and she didn’t know my friends’ names, often.
And when… Like, at report day at school, you know, when parents come to get the reports and meet the teachers and stuff, I would plan it like a military operation to get my mom in and out of the school with as few people seeing her and interacting. I just wanted it all to go fast and, and smooth not because there was anything wrong with her, but she would show up in, like, a purple beaver skin Zandra Rhodes coat. And, you know, I mean, I don’t know how they get purple beavers, but it can’t be a pretty process. And I was just… I once said to her, finally, like, “Mom, can’t you just wear something like the other parents?” And so the next time, she came in this very, like, Peck & Peck tweed suit. She was like, “Is this more appropriate for you?” And, and of course, then I felt bad, and I was like, “You know what? Just be yourself, and whatever.”
But it’s interesting when you start to shift in life, and you see your parent through a different lens. And after my dad died, I saw my mom at my dad’s wake. I saw her at the funeral, and I saw the pain she was going through, and I realized everything had shifted and that I was no longer a kid. And I came to view my mom as this remarkable creature from, like, another galaxy who… whose ship had landed, crash-landed on Earth. And it was my job to kind of teach her how to breathe oxygen and find an apartment, which is not a great thing for an 11-year-old. But after my dad died, I realized, “You know what? Okay. This is not the traditional family structure, and I need to step up and start to do as much as I can.” But, but it’s interesting how later in life, as you age with a parent, you discover things about them and about you that you never realized.
When my mom turned 91, she had a health scare for the first time in her life. And she got better from it, but it was a reminder to me of, “Oh, wait a minute. You know what? There is actually a clock ticking, and my mom is 91, and she’s not going to be around forever. And I need to get to know her in ways that most people don’t ever really get the chance to get to know their parent. I, I don’t want there to be anything between us that’s been left unsaid. I don’t want there to be stuff I don’t remember about her, like I do with my dad.”
And so we started having this conversation. I, I, intentionally, I… you know, I said to her, “You know what? I have this idea. Why don’t we just, you and I, have this conversation, and you and I have this email dialogue back and forth for the next year.” And we had this amazing conversation that, suddenly, I discovered not only all these things about her life, but I suddenly saw myself in a new way. I, I realized how much like her I actually am.
It was a fascinating revelation to me, not necessarily… We’re, we’re similar in ways that I don’t necessarily love at times. Like, there’s drives and, and lack of contentment and striving that I wish I was calmer about, but it’s a, it’s a… It’s a wonderful thing to be able to kind of change your dynamic with somebody in your life. And it’s never too late. It’s never too late to, to change the way you have a conversation, to actually try to sit down and have a conversation.
But I think that, that learning to kind of walk in somebody else’s shoes, I just think is so important. We don’t do it anymore. We’re not encouraged to do it by, like, you know, folks in the media. Everybody sees things through a particular lens, and I just think there’s such value in asking yourself every now and then, “What if I’m wrong? What if the way I see something is actually wrong?” And I’m entirely open to that possibility in my life at all times. Like, “Maybe I need to step outside myself, walk in this person’s shoes a little bit and see things through their eyes.” And I think that’s absolutely what helped me become or, or led me to become a reporter. It’s not natural for me to ask questions. I’m really painfully shy. But to understand somebody else, to understand how somebody else survives, to understand how somebody makes choices, I think it’s incredibly valuable.
[SOUND OF TRAFFIC AND SIRENS]
Because I’ve always thought, like, you know, the next catastrophe is right around the corner, I don’t like being frightened of things. I don’t like having that fear in my stomach. And there was one thing I’ve always, like, avoided doing, which was dancing on television. Like, I’d think, “Nobody really wants to see a 53-year-old, like, gray-haired white guy shuffling along, you know, dancing.” But a couple years ago, I went to see Madonna at the Barclays Center. And I’m a huge Madonna fan. I, I, you know, grew up listening to her music. I don’t go to concerts a lot because I don’t like huge crowds or whatever. But Kelly Ripa was going to, to see Madonna, and Mark Consuelos. And so I went with them.
And we were, like, right in the front row. And I was having a great time. And her manager came up to me and said, “Hey, you know, Madonna brings somebody up on the stage. She’d like to have you come up and dance a little with her.” And, I mean, I’d had maybe a glass or two of wine, which I don’t really drink, but, you know, I was at a concert. I thought, “Yeah, sure.”
So, at some point, somebody comes and gets me and brings me to the side of this long, like, runway that she’s dancing on. And all of a sudden, I’m on this enormous runway in this Barclays Center auditorium with I don’t know how many, 20,000 people, 15,000 people. I have no idea. And it was like an out-of-body experience. I saw myself from above. I’m on the stage. I had no idea what was going on, no idea what I was doing. And her dancers are, like, looking at me, and I’m looking at them. They’re all being encouraging. And I was like, “Oh, this must be going well.”
And, at some point, I, I realize Madonna is sort of grinding me. I’m like, “Oh, well, I didn’t know about this.” Like, “This is not what, what… What’s going on here?” Like, “Oh, okay, that… this is happening.” And then she, like, grabs my hand, and, like, she starts skipping down this long runway. And I’m like, “Am I supposed to dance, walk, or skip? I, I haven’t skipped since I was… I don’t know, did I ever skip?” And then, all of a sudden, now we’re back on the main stage. And then Madonna’s talking.
And then she, all of a sudden, hands me a banana, of all things. And I’m like, “What am I supposed to do with this banana?” And so, at some point, I just start unpeeling the banana, and I just start eating it, like, bite by bite. And all of a sudden I realize I’m on some sort of a… like, a little, mini circle that’s got a motor underneath it or some sort of pulley, and I start to be lowered down beneath the stage while I’m eating this banana.
So I’m sitting underneath the stage for a while, and there’s somebody there, and then they bring me back to Kelly and Mark. And I’m like, “What just happened?” And they’re like, “Oh, it was great, it was great. It was great.” And I was like, “Really? Oh, okay.” And I’m feeling… So I started to feel… You know, and the rest of the show is great, and I’m totally into it, and I have a great time. And I was so excited. I was like, “Oh, my god. I can’t believe it. That was such an incredible experience. That was amazing.” And we’re in the car going back to the city, and I’m like, “Oh, people were taking pictures. I’ll take a look at the pictures.” And there’s one… The first photo I see was really nice. I want to show it to you.
It looks like, “Oh, my god. I’m totally dancing with Madonna.” It looks amazing. It looks like we’re having this great, like, sexy experience on stage together. It looks really good. And then I start to see the videos, and it was not good. I mean, it was really bad. I mean, I… I don’t know what I was doing. I wasn’t… It wasn’t dancing. I was… I mortified myself. And I got to go into the newsroom tomorrow morning and be mocked by everybody I work with. I’m going to be mocked by the internet. And I thought, “I am such an idiot. I can’t believe how awful I was and how mortifying I was.”
But then, over time, I don’t know. There was something about seeing this video of me just doing a terrible job and failing in front of thousands of people that I came to kind of view as, as a badge of something like, “You know what? Okay. I mortified myself. I’m still a decent person. I try to do good by others. I try to understand other people. And we’re all just struggling. We all have these things that we don’t like about ourselves. We all make fools of ourselves.”
My mom my used to change her surroundings all the time. And one day I went to my mom’s house, and she had painted her fireplaces, not just, like, one color. She had turned them into works of art. She had writing on them, sayings on them. And on one of the… her fireplaces she had written this saying, “Be kind because everyone you meet is fighting a great battle.” And… And I think that’s so important. You know, like, we don’t know the battle somebody else is feeling. We see these people dancing on stages, and we think they got it all going on. But they’re just as sad and lonely and conflicted as everybody else.
And I’m much more sympathetic to people who are going through some sort of public, you know, cancellation or destruction. Obviously, if somebody has done something illegal or morally wrong, obviously, you know, that’s… that’s something else entirely. But people who’ve just done something stupid or said something that isn’t reflective of who they really are, I try to be much more understanding of, you know what, who hasn’t said something incredibly stupid or thoughtless or careless? And does that person really deserve, for the rest of their life, to be known as… only for that?
[SOUND OF TRAFFIC AND FOOTSTEPS]
So here we are. We’ve arrived at our destination, Hudson Yards, where my office is at, this new, big, modern glass building, and it’s kind of an extraordinary structure.
[SOUND OF SEAGULLS]
We’re still on the High Line. What’s cool is you can hear seagulls passing over right now. Even though we’re in the middle of the city with these glass towers all around us, I love that there’s seagulls because the water is only a couple of blocks off to, to our left.
I used to dread going to work, I mean, not because I didn’t like my job, but just thinking about, oh, all the stuff that lays ahead and all the stuff I got to do, and I’m interviewing this person and that person, whatever my day would hold. Now I don’t feel that way anymore. I, I, I… Walking certainly helps, but I like to just try to not think about what’s coming down the road so much and not think so much about what I have to do and plan. And every day, I’m really just trying to be more present in the moments of my life. And that’s how we live longer.
[SOUND OF WALKING]
I actually do love to dance and… when it’s not on a stage in front of thousands of people, when it’s just, like, in a club. And for a long time in the gay community, clubs and bars were one of the few places that gay people could gather and have a sense of kind of freedom and, and safety because, you know, in many cases, they couldn’t be seen publicly together. They couldn’t hold hands with their loved one on the street, but they could go to a bar. They could go to a club and be themselves, and in the gay world that’s really liberating and extraordinary to experience.
So the first song I want to play, just to me… It’s… It’s by a group, The Communards, but the, the lead singer, Jimmy Somerville, used to have a band called Bronski Beat. And I just remember listening to Bronski Beat and Jimmy Somerville when I was a teenager and, and in my 20s. And he was out and openly gay, and the song I picked is “Never Can Say Goodbye,” which is kind of classic disco anthem. Gloria Gaynor famously sang it, and I love her version of it, but his version of it is a little bit more… It gives you more the feeling of, like, being on a dance floor…
[MUSIC FADES IN]
… in a club and just kind of a sense of freedom and a sense of possibilities.
[MUSIC - “NEVER CAN SAY GOODBYE” BY THE COMMUNARDS]
This song is one I really love. It’s Nina Simone’s “Obeah Woman.” It’s remixed by DJ Logic. So the beat is more contemporary, but her vocals are just incredible, and the… the rawness and the emotion of it, I just love.
[MUSIC - “OBEAH WOMAN (DJ LOGIC REMIX)” BY NINA SIMONE]
I want to leave you with a song I run to and walk to all the time. It’s kind of an odd selection. It’s Beethoven. I’m not… I don’t really know much about classical music, but he wrote this when he was actually deaf. So he couldn’t actually hear it himself. It’s Beethoven, “Ode to Joy.” And I want you to hear part of it because it just… I find it transformative, especially the, the chorus… There’s a moment when the chorus kind of explodes with joy, and it’s… I, I… Every time, it, it gives me shivers.
[MUSIC - “ODE TO JOY” CHORUS BY LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN PERFORMED BY LONDON SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA, JOSEF KRIPS]
Sorry if I rambled a bit. I tend to do that. But I hope it was fun for you. Thank you for taking the time to walk with me today.