Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Gary Cooper, Catholic convert

Gary Cooper and family with Pope Pius XII
Cooper was not yet Catholic, and was already too old to play Thomas Merton

Some actors are well known to be Catholic, but Gary Cooper is certainly not one of these, probably because he converted near the end of his life.  Cooper (1901 - 1961), famous for playing heroes in movies like "High Noon," "The Pride of the Yankees" and "Sergeant York," was a top movie star from Hollywood's golden age.   Cooper received five Academy Award nominations for Best Actor, winning two, as well as an Honorary Award for Lifetime Achievement in 1961. The American Film Institute ranked Cooper 11th on their list of top 100 male stars.

Cooper was born in Montana, and educated in England until the outbreak of the Great War.  Cooper then returned to Montana, and after leaving college without earning a degree was trying unsuccessfully to make a living as a political cartoonist when his parents retired and moved to California.   Cooper decided to follow them there, remarking that he "would rather starve where it was warm, than to starve and freeze too."

After failing in several lines of work, Cooper found a job as a movie extra in 1925, becoming a major star after his first sound picture, "The Virginian," in 1929.   In 1933 Cooper married socialite and California women's skeet shooting champion, Veronica Balfe, known as Rocky.   Rocky was Catholic, and she and Cooper had one child together, a daughter named Maria.  Cooper was not a very faithful husband, carrying on affairs with many of his co-stars, including Marlene Dietrich, Grace Kelly, and Tallulah Bankhead.  Cooper's longest and most notorious affair was with Patricia Neal, whom he met in 1949 while making the movie "The Fountainhead."  Rocky told their daughter Maria about her father's affair, blaming Patricia Neal.  When Maria next saw Neal, she spat on the ground in front of Neal.   Patricia Neal ended the affair on Christmas Day, 1951, and Cooper and Rocky eventually reconciled.

Cooper was a lifelong Republican and anti-Communist.  Judging from this excerpt of testimony Cooper gave before the House Committee on Un-American Activities in 1947, the real life Cooper was not much different from his onscreen persona:

"... as I remember, some actor's name was mentioned to me who had a house in Moscow which was very large—he had three cars, and stuff, with his house being quite a bit larger than my house in Beverly Hills at the time—and it looked to me like a pretty phony come-on to us in the picture business. From that time on, I could never take any of this pinko mouthing very seriously, because I didn't feel it was on the level."

While he was sowing his wild oats, Cooper felt a growing attraction to the Catholic Church, and was baptized in 1959.   As he was dying of cancer in 1961, Cooper read Thomas Merton's book "No Man is an Island."  Maria Cooper wrote to Merton about this, and received this letter from Merton in return:

October 11, 1961
Dear Maria,
I was touched by your kind letter, and glad that it gives me an opportunity to greet you and your mother personally, and advise you of my friendship and good wishes. With everyone else, I loved Gary Cooper and his great movies, which I often remember with satisfaction--well, relatively often. For it is a long time since I have been to a movie. I even had a temptation and hope that if Seven Story Mountain became a film, he would play a part in it. This was a clear case of vanity on my part!! Anyway, with all my blessings and good wishes,
Father Louis Merton
PS. I am sending a book you might like.

Cooper was originally buried in Culver City, but when Rocky remarried and moved to NY, she had Cooper's body exhumed and reburied in Southampton, NY.  In 2000, Rocky herself died, and was buried beside Cooper.    

In 2008, another Hollywood Catholic convert, Dolores Hart, was the guest of honor at a conference organized by the patron of this blog, the Servant of God Fr. John Hardon, SJ.   After Mother Hart told her story of leaving Hollywood to become a Benedictine nun, several others spoke, including Patricia Neal and Maria Cooper.   That's the same Maria Cooper who'd spat on the ground in front of Patricia Neal more than 50 years earlier.   Somewhere along the line, Gary Cooper's daughter and his most notorious mistress had made peace. 

Maria Cooper, Mother Dolores Hart, and Patricia Neal

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