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Gary Cooper: "The best thing I ever did"
On this Easter Sunday, a lesson in faith and "trying to be a little better"
Sixty four years ago today, Gary Cooper became a Catholic. “The best thing I ever did,” he told his good friend Ernest Hemingway, also a convert, as he was nearing death.
The wandering years
Cooper was a gorgeously handsome Hollywood icon, known for such classics as Sergeant York (1941), Pride of the Yankees (1941), and High Noon (1952). Naturally, women flocked to him, which was not always the best thing for his soul, nor for his marriage after he wed beautiful New York socialite Veronica “Rocky” Balfe on December 15, 1933, whose uncle Cedric Gibbons was MGM’s art director.
He was “catnip to the ladies,” Richard Widmark saidof Cooper’s brief affairs with leading ladies, where falling in love on screen simply continued off screen, and it was usually no big deal especially since Coop, as close friends called him, was so tight-lipped about his film-related dalliances.
But the marriage began to hit some turbulence in the summer of 1943, when gossip columns reported Coop was keeping company with his For Whom the Bell Tolls (1943) co-star Ingrid Bergman, making Hemingway, author of For Whom the Bell Tolls, whom Bergman did not give the time of day romantically, positively jealous. Of course, for Rocky, rumors of the affair were excruciating.
Then, there was the affair with Fountainhead (1949) co-star Patricia Neal, which was much more serious, becoming romantic only after filming wrapped in October 1948, and causing a rupture in the Coopers’ marriage. Hollywood, such a different world at the time, shunned Neal on the social circuit, sending her film career nosediving.
Over Christmas 1950, Coop traveled with Neal to Hemingway’s refuge at the Finca Vigia in Cuba, seeking his approval. Hemingway withheld it, no doubt realizing how ill-advised this adulterous affair with someone 25 years his junior, no less, was. He knew a thing or two about that.
The affair took its toll—Cooper suffering debilitating ulcers, and his family, along with Neal, enduring intense emotional strain, complicated by Neal’s pregnancy, which, to her later regret, she terminated.
So Coop ended it, giving Neal a fur coat, after which he left for Europe for much-needed rejuvenation, just as he had done in 1931 after he had rocketed to stardom, only to discover the high price emotionally.
Meanwhile, God brought good out of evil. After separating from his family in May 1951, Coop came to see the emptiness in his life. “While he enjoyed his bachelor life,” Maria writes, “my father realized this was not really making him happy.”His character Will Kane in High Noon, filmed in the fall of 1951, reflected perfectly the moral conflict he was feeling.
Just as he was coming to terms with his own deeper needs, the family traveled to Europe in June 1953 for a High Noon publicity tour, which included a visit to the Vatican. (Though separated, they continued visiting and traveling together, and Coop stayed in touch through letters and phone calls.) On June 26, they met Pope Pius XII, which made a lasting impression on Cooper, still years away from his conversion.
In February 1954, when Maria was sixteen, her father returned home just as he finished filming Return to Paradise (1953), about a father who returns home to love and nurture his sixteen-year-old daughter. He missed his “dear girls” while he was oceans away, filming on location. Moreover, Rocky had “found her own self” in those years of separation. She socialized, gained a reputation as a fabulous host and, “impressed my father,” Maria writes, “with her own glamour, spunk, and verve”—exactly the elements that “were important for him in a woman.”
After settling back into married life, he strayed again at times, gallingly going for less-refined women—his affair with the Swedish actress Anita Ekberg a salient example. “It seemed like a good idea at the time,”he sheepishly told his wife with that classic boyish innocence. She wasn’t amused.
Settling down — for good
After Sunday Mass together, Maria said, they would joke about “the very erudite, funny” Fr. Harold Ford—“a real man,” whom her father called “Father Tough Stuff.” Cooper was intrigued by what he had to say, and said, “Oh, I’d like to hear him some day.” So Rocky said, “Well, come along.” So he did—this time, outside the ordinary Christmas and Easter routine.
Though he never talked about it, Maria senses that, after her father returned home, “he probably was looking for some more stability than he found personally.…” Father Ford’s sermons made him think, she said. Everything was coming together.
“I know he realized in the last five years of his life,” said Maria, “with incredible gratitude all the blessings he’d been given,” and he wanted to “acknowledge it externally.… And, I think having a living, active connection to a spiritual structure, which he had never had… was part of the appeal.”And, so, some fifteen years after making Sergeant York—Cooper’s favorite and most memorable role, for which he won his first Oscar—he was walking in York’s footsteps, spiritually.
Contrary to some accounts, Rocky did not engineer her husband’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.”However, she did invite Fr. Ford 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. “Father Ford,” writes Maria, “became a scuba buddy and joined us diving in the large marine land of the Pacific tank where we all cavorted with its inhabitants.”
“A little religion wouldn’t do him no hurt”
In the midst of cavorting, the talk occasionally began to drift toward religion. As Alvin York said, “A fellow can’t go looking for it; it’s just got to come to a fellow.” Fr. Ford and Cooper began getting together for longer discussions about faith on drives up to Malibu and elsewhere. Gradually, Cooper evidently concluded, in Ma York’s famous words, “a little religion wouldn’t do him no hurt” and, in fact, could do him great good. As he told Hollywood reporter Ruth Waterbury:
Last winter, when I began trying to find out how to be less of a bum, I saw that religion is a sort of check up on yourself, a kind of patterned way of behaving. As I saw it, if a fellow goes to church, any church, and tries to straighten out his mind, it sure helps. After I digested that idea, I began thinking how our family had always done everything together.… Therefore, I figured if I was trying to change from the careless sloppy sort of guy I am, it seemed silly to go to a different church from the one my girls attend.
On April 9, 1959, Gary Cooper was formally admitted into the Catholic Church. Close family friend Shirley Burden, himself a convert, served as Cooper’s godfather at his baptism, and Dolores Hart was his godmother. Burden—Cornelius Vanderbilt’s great-great-grandson, whose wife was Douglas Fairbanks Sr.’s niece—met with Cooper several times beforehand to help him understand this new role. It would be the role of a lifetime and Cooper knew it would not be easy, as he reflected in the same interview with Waterbury shortly after his conversion:
I’d spent all my waking hours…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 guess that’s what started me thinking seriously about my religion. I’ll never be anything like a saint. I know. I just haven’t got that kind of fortitude. The only thing I can say for me is that I’m trying to be a little better. Maybe I’ll succeed.
“I know,” announced Cooper as he lay dying, “that what is happening is God’s will. I am not afraid of the future.”
Gary Cooper died of prostate and colon cancer on May 13, 1961, Feast of Our Lady of Fatima, just six weeks before Hemingway would breathe his last. He 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 days.
Mary Claire Kendall is author of Oasis: Conversion Stories of Hollywood Legends, published in Madrid under the title También Dios pasa por Hollywood, featuring 12 legends of Hollywood, including Gary Cooper, portions of the respective chapter included in this article. She recently finished a biography about Betty Hutton, as well Oasis II, featuring six more legends of Hollywood, publication TBD. She is currently writing a book about the life of Ernest Hemingway viewed through the prism of faith for publication in 2024.
Jeffrey Meyers, Gary Cooper: American Hero (New York: Morrow, 1998), p. 206.
Maria Cooper Janis, Gary Cooper Off Camera: A Daughter Remembers (New York: Abrams, 1999), p. 49.
Janis, Gary Cooper Off Camera, page 67.
Meyers, page 277.
Maria Cooper Janis, interview with author, April 12, 2008.
Janis, Gary Cooper Off Camera, page 161.
Ruth Waterbury, “The Real Reason Gary Cooper Became a Catholic,” Motion Picture, November 1959, p. 88.
Waterbury, p. 53.
“Cooper: I’m not afraid, It’s God’s will,” The Straits Times, May 6, 1961.