Hollywood icon Gary Cooper, who died 50 years ago this year, had a refreshing authenticity that makes his conversion to Catholicism only natural.
Contrary to frequent reports asserting otherwise, his conversion was not prompted by illness. “No way,” his daughter, Maria Cooper Janis, said. “He was coming to this on his own, in his own time … bits and pieces of his own life that he wanted to put together in a new way.”
“He had a very real spirituality,” Maria said, “that wasn’t an ‘ism’ … that, I think, he was born with, that he grew up with, living out West in nature [and] having a very strong affinity to the American-Indian culture and spirituality.”
Born May 7, 1901, in Helena, Mont., as the Old West was fading, Cooper was an accidental star, coming to Hollywood to find work as a commercial artist and be closer to his parents.
After he landed some stunt work, the handsome, understated Cooper was soon “discovered,” and, in 1925, he began acting in uncredited roles.
His film career, spanning 36 years, took off with Wings (1928), winner of the first Best Picture Academy Award. His scene was a short one — just two-and-a-half minutes long. But, as Paramount Pictures’ legend A.C. Lyles described it, “When he came on the screen, it just lit up with him.” With just 200 feet of film, Hollywood moguls knew they were looking at a star. Indeed, they were.
He singlehandedly lifted Paramount’s sagging Depression-era fortunes, playing “everyman” heroes, perfectly capturing the era, such as Longfellow Deeds in Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936); Long John Willoughby in Meet John Doe (1941) — both Frank Capra classics — and Alvin York in Sergeant York (1941), Cooper’s favorite role and one steeped in Christian spirituality, for which he won his first Oscar.
He came to embody the essence of the American character, especially that unique combination of rugged individualism and magnanimous selflessness — in his case, nurtured by the West and his English immigrant parents, who inculcated in him the elegant manners of a “gentleman.”
“With Gary, there are always wonderful hidden depths that you haven’t found yet,” Mr. Deeds Goes to Town co-star Jean Arthur once said. “You feel like you’re resting on the Rock of Gibraltar.”
Of the genre of film with which he was most identified — the Western — having starred in The Virginian (1931), the original, standard-setting Western, he said in a 1959 interview: “I like Westerns because the good ones are real … [telling] stories of … pioneers [who] braved the elements, and … [through] the Western picture … we realize that our country was and is full of people who believe in America.”
Cooper was a “great movie actor” because in screenwriter/director Richard Brooks’ view, “he can make you feel something, something visceral, something deep, something that matters. He is who he plays.”
High Noon, a flawless Western, considered his greatest film, for which he won his second Oscar, revealed the moral struggle in the victory of good over evil.
In contrast, recent box office flop Atlas Shrugged: Part I calls to mind the one role Cooper played — Howard Roark in Warner Bros. Pictures’ The Fountainhead, Ayn Rand’s other work — that did not reflect Cooper’s character at all.
As Maria said of her father, “While he stood for rugged individualism — the individual against the world — anything that smelled of selfishness or exclusively self-interest was not his thing.”
Cooper’s self-effacing nature permeated his life. In March 1961, dying of cancer, he flew to New York to record the off-camera narration for The Real West. TV producer Donald Hyatt recalled “his simplicity and lack of ‘big star’ pretentions.” For instance, recounted in Gary Cooper: American Hero by Jeffrey Meyers, when there was no room for his coat on the rack, Cooper said, “Don’t take another coat off: Just throw mine anywhere.”
But, like all heroes, mere mortals after all, Cooper had a fatal flaw, which, ironically, surfaced after the filming of The Fountainhead, when the two stars — the married Cooper and Patricia Neal, 25 years his junior — began an affair, creating, as Cooper’s daughter notes with wry understatement, a “complicated situation.”
As Richard Widmark summed it up, “Cooper was “catnip to the ladies,” according to Gary Cooper: American Hero. From the start, his leading ladies, including, for instance, Clara Bow, Marlene Dietrich, Tallulah Bankhead, Lupe Velez, Carole Lombard, Ingrid Bergman and Grace Kelly — and many other women along the way — warmed up quickly to him.
They were always brief affairs that went with the filmmaking territory, where falling in love on screen simply continued off screen.
The affair with Neal was different. It endured beyond filming.
It began in October 1948, after The Fountainhead wrapped, and continued until Christmas 1951, when Cooper, realizing the affair must end, gave Neal a fur coat and left for Europe — exactly a year after he had taken her to Cuba, seeking his good friend Ernest Hemingway’s approval of this long-term extramarital relationship, which he failed to get.
But God brought great good out of this “complicated situation,” which was extremely difficult on every individual involved — Cooper suffered debilitating ulcers; his family, along with Neal, endured intense emotional strain. Neal became pregnant and had an abortion in March 1950.
The spiritual brick bats — turning points — his weakness precipitated were nothing new.
He had suffered a nervous breakdown in 1931 due to Hollywood’s filmmaking demands on their new star and his non-stop romancing. As he wrote his nephew Howard: “I had drifted, taken advice, let people get at me through my emotions, my sympathy, my affections …”
As he would later, he sought solace and healing in Europe in 1931, having lived in England as a child for two years, some 20 years earlier. After a year away amidst high society, and fully rejuvenated, a key turning point in his life arrived in the form of the lovely Eastern socialite Veronica “Rocky” Balfe, niece of famed MGM art director Cedric Gibbons, who was 12 years his junior. He married her a year later on Dec. 15, 1933. A Catholic, with refined manners — albeit some detractors criticized her perceived Eastern snobbery — she brought great stability and genuine love to Cooper’s life.
However, as Ted Nugent, a studio electrician at Paramount who observed him closely, commented, “If he was born for the camera, he was born to make love. … He wanted to satisfy women … enjoyed looking at them, listening to them, pleasing them. … A guy like that does not change,” he said, according to Gary Cooper: American Hero.
Not without grace, that is.
After separating from his family in May 1951, in the wake of his affair with Neal, Cooper came to realize his life’s emptiness. His character Will Kane in High Noon (1952), filmed in the fall of 1951, perfectly reflected the moral conflict he was feeling.
On June 26, 1953, while on a publicity tour, joined by his family to promote High Noon, he visited the Vatican and met Pope Pius XII, which made a deep impression on him.
Everyone in Hollywood was begging for a memento. At the papal audience, Maria reminisced, “my father had rosaries up his arm,” while grasping other mementos. But, because of a bad back, he had trouble genuflecting and, as he did, “everything just fell — the medals and the rosaries and the holy cards …” While Cooper was scrambling on all fours, “suddenly,” she humorously recalled, he encountered “this scarlet shoe and a robe.”
In early 1954, after filming Return to Paradise (1953), coincidentally about a father who returns to take care of his 16-year-old daughter, he returned to his family and his own 16-year-old daughter.
After settling back into married life, he strayed again, now going for less-refined women — his affair with the Swedish actress Anita Ekberg the most salient example. “It seemed like a good idea at the time,” he told his wife with that classic boyish innocence.
She wasn’t amused.
Realizing the stress his wandering placed on his family, Cooper began going to church with Rocky and Maria outside of the ordinary Christmas and Easter routine.
Though he never talked about it, Maria senses he turned to religion because “he probably was looking for some more stability than he found personally.”
It happened very naturally. After Sunday Mass together, she said, “we’d joke about” the “very erudite, funny” Father Harold Ford — “a real man,” whom her father dubbed “Father Tough Stuff.”
Cooper was intrigued and said, “Oh, I’d like to hear him some day,” prompting Rocky to respond, “Well, come along.”
Father Ford’s sermons, Maria said, made him think.
Contrary to some accounts, Rocky did not engineer Cooper’s conversion. “It wasn’t knocking him over the head,” Maria said. “Because, believe me, no one made my father do what he didn’t want to do.”
Soon Rocky invited Father Ford over to their home, thinking the two men might share some spiritual reflections. Instead, they shared their mutual interest in guns, hunting, fishing and scuba diving.
In the midst of cavorting, the talk occasionally began to drift toward religion, mirroring the path followed by Sgt. Alvin York, who said, “A fellow can’t go looking for it; it’s just got to come to a fellow.” Sure enough, Father Ford and “Coop” began getting together for longer discussions — for instance, on drives up to Malibu.
Gradually, Cooper evidently concluded, in Ma York’s famous words, “a little religion wouldn’t do him no hurt” and, on April 9, 1959, was formally admitted into the Catholic Church.
Close family friend Shirley Burden — Cornelius Vanderbilt’s great-great-grandson, married to Douglas Fairbanks Sr.’s niece — who was himself a convert, served as Cooper’s godfather at his baptism.
Later that year, Cooper explained his conversion, saying: “I’d spent all my waking hours, year after year, doing almost exactly what I, personally, wanted to do; and what I wanted to do wasn’t always the most polite thing either. … This past winter I began to dwell a little more on what’s been in my mind for a long time [and thought], Coop, old boy, you owe somebody something for all your good fortune. I’ll never be anything like a saint. … The only thing I can say for me is that I’m trying to be a little better. Maybe I’ll succeed,” according to The Hollywood Greats by Barry Norman.
In April 1961, a visibly moved Jimmy Stewart appeared at the Academy Awards to accept Coop’s honorary Oscar and to “drop the hint” that Coop was seriously ill. The next day newspaper headlines around the world blared: “Gary Cooper Has Cancer.”
Friends, expecting to find gloom at the Cooper home, instead found light and sunshine, crisp flowers and cheerful music, as the family faced this profoundly difficult time with faith. Billy Wilder “recalled that (Coop) dressed in stylish pajamas and robe and seemed more composed than his guests.” As Rocky told Hedda Hopper, “What helped him most was his religion.” As his illness progressed, “He never asked ‘Why me?’ and never complained” and was spiritually enriched by the sacraments and books such as Bishop Fulton Sheen’s Peace of Soul, according to Gary Cooper: American Hero and “How I Faced Tomorrow,” an interview with Veronica Cooper and Maria Cooper Janis.
“I know,” announced Cooper as he lay dying, “that what is happening is God’s will. I am not afraid of the future,” according to The Straits Times, of May 6, 1961.
Gary Cooper died of prostate and colon cancer on May 13, 1961, and is beloved for the indelible portrait he gave us of what it is to be an authentic American hero — a portrait that’s incomplete without the story of his last heroic days.
Mary Claire Kendall writes from Washington, D.C.