He admitted that he'd burned out once. It was in 1994. Cooper found himself in Rwanda, following the path of Tutsi rebels who were advancing on Kigali. It was on this assignment that he realized, after so much war reporting, he had lost his capacity to feel any shock or horror. "I would see a dozen bodies and think, you know, It's a dozen, it's not so bad." On the side of the road he came across five bodies that had been in the sun for several days. The skin of a woman's hand was peeling off like a glove. Revealing a macabre fascination, Cooper whipped out his disposable camera and took a close-up photograph for his personal album. As he did, someone took a photo of him. Later that person showed Cooper the photo, saying, "You need to take a look at what you were doing."
"And that's when I realized I've got to stop," Cooper recalled. "I've got to report on some state fairs, or a beauty pageant or something, to just, like, remind myself of some perspective." He'd stopped caring who these bodies had been, what they had lost. He left his job and returned to New York to regroup. He was 27.
So what's different today that keeps him from burning out? He's not sure. I offered the possibility that his brother's death is less haunting now, as it's been almost 19 years and Cooper's found a way to write about it. He agreed that could be a factor.
Another factor is that in 1994 Cooper was primarily working alone. Today he has a small team consisting of a cameraman and a producer; sharing the experiences helps soften their blow. Also, by 1994 he had been in the field for three solid years. In 2007 he is home in New York City more than enough. The two sides of his life work like yin and yang. A week in the field and he looks forward to seeing his apartment. After a couple of days in New York being chased by the gossip pages, he longs to get back in the field.
Even though Cooper, in contrast to his mother, has spent his career trying to stay out of the gossip columns, the two are extremely close, even best friends. She lived with him in the mid-'90s, after she sold off both of her houses to pay the IRS $2.5 million in back taxes. But in vowing to keep his private life private, Cooper knows he may be making things worse for himself; by holding back personal details, those details become the source of speculation. For example, gawker.com, a New York media blog, occasionally suggests that Cooper is gay. Because he refuses to discuss his sexual orientation, that speculation whets the appetite of gossip hounds. When he relaxes on Long Island he doesn't leave his house for days. To lie on a beach and read without being hounded, he jets south to Itacaré, in Brazil.
And none of this – not the death of his brother and father, or the demands of his career, or the tragedies he's reported on – have diminished his desire for family. "I'd like to have kids at some point," he said. "I think I'll have a family someday."
When that time comes, he's likely to look more to his father's family than his mother's as a template. Cooper's a Vanderbilt by blood, but he has never been to a Vanderbilt family reunion. Once he visited the Breakers, one of the family's robber baron mansions in Newport, Rhode Island. He was about 11. A relative lived on the top floor; Cooper stayed with her. He'd look down the banister and see tours swarming the bottom floors. Dinner always started with a boiled egg buried in aspic. He found the whole scene absurd.
By contrast, his father's family has a reunion in Mississippi every June. Cooper attends often, including this past year. His father was born in the small town of Quitmar, Mississippi. Though he had made it to New York as a screenwriter when he met Gloria Vanderbilt, Wyatt Cooper was emotionally close to his kin. Anderson remembers his father talking to his siblings for hours on the phone. Wyatt wrote a memoir, and when Anderson was eight his father toured the South to promote the book, with his sons tagging along. Anderson rereads it every year.
In his memoir Cooper proclaims his fascination with how people survive and rebuild their lives. But getting to know him, I now believe that for all his fascination, he couldn't tell you how it's done. My first clue was that in his memoir he completely held back from making any specific conclusions about what distinguishes those who rebuild from those who can't.
"Not to sound too Dr. Phil all of a sudden," he said, "but I think the key to survival is to embrace one's past and to not run away from it. And to come to some sort of relationship with it or understanding of it."