"I grew up not really knowing much about the Vanderbilts," Anderson Cooper tells us.

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anderson cooper
Credit: Ben watts

For most of his life, Anderson Cooper had no interest in the famous Vanderbilt family he was born into. But after the birth of his son Wyatt Morgan in April 2020, the CNN anchor says he started to feel differently. 

"In some ways I wanted this to be a letter to my son," Cooper, 54, says in this week's PEOPLE cover story about Wyatt.

In his new book (co-written with historian and novelist Katherine Howe) Vanderbilt: The Rise and Fall of an American Dynasty (available Sept. 21), Cooper dives deep into the past to tell the incredible story of how his ancestors were once among the richest people in the world before losing it all.

9/27 cover
Credit: Ben Watts

He also sits down with PEOPLE to share what he's learned about love and loss from his famous family and how he's raising his son, whom Cooper is co-parenting with his former partner of 10 years, Benjamin Maisani, 48.

"My dad wrote a book before he died (during heart surgery when Anderson was 10) about his family growing up in Mississippi. And because he died when I was so young, a lot that I know of him came from that book. I wanted to write a letter to Wyatt about this crazy and unusual part of his family's past," he says.

Raised by his dad, Wyatt Emory Cooper, a writer, and his heiress-turned-fashion designer mother Gloria Vanderbilt, Cooper started going through boxes in his mother's apartment in 2019 after she died.

anderson cooper and gloria vanderbilt
Anderson Cooper and mother Gloria Vanderbilt
| Credit: Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty

"There were very personal letters from her grandmother and her aunt and her mother, and all these people who I didn't really know, who I'd never met, but whose voices suddenly kind of came alive in these letters," he says. "It was really fascinating to start to think of them as human beings and not just historical characters or people I'd read about, people you can read about in history books."

Cooper's maternal great-great-great-grandfather was shipping and railroad tycoon Cornelius Vanderbilt. He amassed extraordinary wealth during his lifetime, and made the Vanderbilts one of America's richest families.

anderson cooper book

"As a kid, my mom didn't really talk about her childhood. It was very painful for her. So I grew up not really knowing much about the Vanderbilts, and the little I did know was that they were very wealthy and they had built enormous palaces, and some of those were museums, but a lot of them had disappeared," says Cooper.

"It was always this question in my mind: How, in a hundred years, does a family go from having more money than anybody else in the world to having all their houses torn down because nobody can afford them?" he says.

Vanderbilt: The Rise and Fall of an American Dynasty is available Sept. 21.

This story originally appeared on people.com