Scandals of Classic Hollywood: That Divine Gary Cooper

by Anne Helen Petersen

Let’s talk straight: there was no cowboy handsomer than Gary Cooper. John Wayne had the sneer, and Gene Autry had the voice, but no one smoldered quite like Cooper. In his early films, he was glamour on a horse: his eyes lined, his face powdered, yet somehow right at home in the saddle — in part because unlike so many city-boys-turned-screen-cowboys, he grew up in Montana, one of the last veritable frontiers of the early 20th century. Over his 30 years in Hollywood, he would play variations on the cowboy — the cowboy goes to war, the cowboy goes to the city — but in each turn, he not only won the girl but did so righteously. Unlike other major stars, who allowed for and even reveled in the opportunity to play against type, Cooper kept things simple. He played slight variations on the same character, but their moral center remained constant: as he once told a screenwriter attempting to fine-tune his character, “just make me the hero.”

Cooper became a hero to many, even as he developed a reputation as one of the most notorious philanderers in Hollywood. He had stiff competition — Clark Gable, Spencer Tracy, the list goes on — but Cooper may or may not have slept with EVERY. SINGLE. CO-STAR. No matter his age, no matter their age, he was insatiable, before and during his marriage. How to reconcile his moral righteousness onscreen with his philandering offscreen? That was the work of Fixers, gossip magazines, and the studio system at large, which ensured that Cooper was never caught, never denounced, and held up as a paragon of American values. Of course, the way he looked in pants didn’t hurt.

Cooper was born Frank James Cooper in Helena, Montana, in 1901. His parents were recent immigrants from England, and after nine years returned home for an extended stint in the homeland that just happened to coincide with much of the First World War. His family came back to Montana in 1918, and Cooper enrolled in Grinnell College (cue massive Grinnell rally cry in comments) to study agriculture.

If you’ve never been to Helena, here’s what you need to understand. It’s the capital of Montana, which makes it a big deal in a big state with few people. Cooper’s father went from being a farmer to being a lawyer to being a supreme court judge, demonstrating the sort of upward mobility that now seems a distinct relic of the 20th century. Cooper rode horses and had impeccable manners, which meant that he had none of the problems usually associated with “low class,” ethnic stardom (see especially: the case of Clara Bow). I imagine him not unlike Brad Pitt’s character early in A River Runs Through It, full of potential, swagger, and perfectly sun-kissed, golden shoulders.

The fact of his Montana childhood (never mind those pesky British years!) provided the raw material from which the fan magazines could weave elaborate, Louis L’Amour-esque backstories. One Photoplay article, purportedly penned by Cooper himself, highlighted his natural, rugged, un-urban upbringing on his Montana ranch:

Nights, lying very quietly on your bunk, you attune your ears to every sound that the darkness gives. The faint mournful note of the loon, in the far distance. The round gurgle of Andy’s creek as it parts to pass the huge boulder at its center. The soft patter of chipmunks as they stealthily come to nuzzle at the door, in search of food.

All I’m saying is that if this small-town-turned-sorta-city girl read that in a fan magazine, I’d be all over that Cooper in the same way I want to go live with Bon Iver in a cabin and do watercolors in thick sweaters. In other words: Cooper’s back story appealed to something seemingly primal, something in women, both in the 1920s and today, that wants to go live in wide open spaces with a man who knows how to chop some mother-f-ing wood.

Cooper spent a few years at Grinnell, but when his father retired from the bench and moved his mother to Los Angeles, Cooper gave up ag classes to try his hand as a Hollywood extra. A casting director replaced his given name, Frank, with “Gary,” because she thought Cooper evoked the “rough, tough” nature of her hometown of Gary, Indiana. (Can you imagine “Gary” not being a name for dads and uncles? Up to this point, though, it was just a city. Look at the ridiculous uptick in baby boys named Gary following Cooper’s rise to fame.)

Cooper played an extra in a handful of films before arriving on the set of The Winning of Barbara Worth in 1926. The actor cast as the second male lead didn’t show, and someone shoved Cooper into the part. He didn’t need much — some gesturing, but no words, since the cinema was still silent — and Cooper had his break. Shortly thereafter, he signed a contract with Paramount. When Clara Bow saw him on the Paramount lot, she insisted he be cast in her upcoming film, It. As longtime readers of Scandals of Classic Hollywood know, It made Clara Bow a star — and it also made Bow and Cooper somewhat of an item.

Cooper’s scene in It was unremarkable, but his appearance in Wings, released later that same year, truly launched his career. He plays a World War I flying cadet, and although his screentime was still relatively short, there was one scene — an extended close-up shot, the light streaming in from outside — in which he looked gorgeous. His gorgeousness was compounded by his character’s tragic fate (everyone knows a character gets hotter when he dies at the end of the film; just ask Leo).

The fan mail poured in, and in classic Hollywood, fan mail was one of the main gauges of where a contracted star would go next. Did fans like him as a romantic hero? Okay, fine then, let’s do more of that. After Wings, Cooper appeared in a slew of silents, usually playing variations on the romantically rugged yet sophisticated hero. He embodied the Jazz Age masculinity, which is to say he was tall and dressed impeccably, but wasn’t a complete dandy.

In 1929, he filmed The Wolf Song with Lupe Velez. Cooper plays a cowboy who somehow makes his way to Taos, where he meets Velez and falls in love, but nevertheless feels drawn by the call of adventure. Sounds like every guy trying to get out of staying together with his girlfriend for summer break, but bygones. The film is mostly forgotten, but you might seek it out simply because it shows Cooper in full-frontal, Fassbender-style nudity. It’s brief; he’s brushing his teeth in the river; BUT WHATEVER.

If Bow was “The It Girl,” then Velez was “The Mexican It Girl” — spunky, beautiful, buxom, and mercurial. And since Cooper had hooked up with Bow, he naturally hooked up with Velez as well.

Look at them! Aren’t they adorable! Even more adorable? Velez purportedly claimed that Cooper “has the biggest organ in Hollywood but not the ass to push it in well.” OH MY GOD I AM BLUSHING JUST TYPING THAT.

Between poor thrusts, Cooper filmed The Virginian — his first real “talkie,” based on the tremendously successful 1902 novel of the same name. Basic premise: Cooper is from Wyoming, he is a cowboy, and he is the hero. He likes a girl from afar.

The film was a MONSTER hit and cemented the foundation of Cooper’s image: volatile, full of honor, a bit of a secret romantic, yet still and always the hero. Who just happens to look smokin’ in pants:

I mean WOW.

But as Cooper scholar Steven T. Sheehan points out, even in The Virginian, Cooper is still a bit of a glamour-boy. He wears heavy makeup (look at that eyeliner!) that makes his face look even smoother and more boyish when compared to the rough terrain surrounding him. What’s more, the director shoots him in glamour close-ups — similar to the one that made him famous in Wings — usually used for female love interests. Granted, a lot of male stars were still heavily made-up during this time period, but they were usually situated in parlors and urban spaces. Cooper was essentially a pretty-boy cowboy. As will become clear, this look changed as standards of masculinity shifted with the onset of the Depression. In hindsight, the glamour-look underlines just what a product of Hollywood even the most “natural” of stars remain.

Once a studio finds what works, it runs with it — in 1930 alone, Cooper starred in Only the Brave, The Texan, and A Man From Wyoming, all of which exploited his cowboy image. In Morocco, he played a taciturn cowboy in a soldier’s uniform — only this time he was up against Marlene Dietrich. If you read the last column on Dietrich, you know why this film is awesome. And it will come as no surprise that Cooper and Josef von Sternberg, the film’s director and Dietrich’s svengali, did not get along — in part because von Sternberg insisted on filming Cooper in passive positions, always looking up at a beautifully lit Dietrich. I love this, I love it so much.

Power differential manifest.

Cooper supposedly complained to the bigwigs at Paramount — remember, this was von Sternberg and Dietrich’s first American film — and had it stopped. But the backstage intrigue didn’t stop there.

Cooper was still carrying on with Lupe Velez — he wanted to marry her, but Cooper’s mom (recall, she was right there in L.A.) thought her too “vulgar” and “tasteless.” We might attribute her verdict to good ol’ fashioned racism, but Lupe was a bit of a hot mess. Or at least that’s how the press chose to portray her, most likely in keeping with her onscreen image as a fiery Latina. She loved acting “low-class,” and threw parties with cock fights and “stag films,” a.k.a. thinly veiled porn. She got in fights, especially over men, and was prone to extreme jealousy. To wit: angry over Cooper’s close friendship with Anderson Lawler, known, in the time’s parlance, as a “swisher,” or flamboyant homosexual, Velez supposedly “unzipped Cooper’s fly at a social gathering and started sniffing his crotch, claiming to smell Lawler’s cologne.”

I can’t even.

Velez was also framed as an animal of desire: Cooper gave her two eagles, “love birds” to symbolize their predatory affection, and their shared bed was “eight feet square,” which, as film scholar Henry Jenkins points out, makes it sound more like a “wrestling ring” than a “boudoir.” I kinda want her to be my best friend, but I somehow don’t think she had best friends, or friends at all.

How much of these reports were true, and how much were fabricated to fit her image as a “Mexican spitfire,” may never be known. What’s to be relished, however, is how she and Dietrich went head-to-head on the set of Morocco.

Velez insisted on being on-set at all times — and with good cause, given Cooper’s tendencies and Dietrich’s je ne sais quoi. She became even more aggressive as filming continued and evidence of an affair seemed to materialize. (I have no idea what said evidence was; more crotch-sniffing?) The fan magazines satirized their competition, and Velez, famous for her impersonations, did a devastating satire of Dietrich at a prominent Hollywood gathering. In hindsight, Dietrich would explain that “Gary was totally under the control of Lupe.”

Part of me likes the idea of these two powerful women doing crazy shit for Cooper’s affection, and part of me realizes that it’s yet another case of romantic individualism — women dividing themselves in their fight for men. But Cooper was not immune or ignorant to the games being played in his name. He lost 40 pounds over the course of he and Velez’s three-year relationship, and Velez apparently shot at him when he left Los Angeles by train to Chicago. (She missed, started swearing at her poor aim, and fled arrest. Allegedly. Some of this stuff is just too much, but then I look at all of Lindsay Lohan’s crazy antics, and maybe not.)

Over the next few years, Cooper was paired with the most gorgeous and promising female stars in Hollywood — with Carole Lombard in I Take This Woman (1931), Claudette Colbert in His Woman (1931), and Joan Blondell in Make Me a Star (1932). The common theme: Cooper plays a man of few words who woos sophisticated women, which is exactly what’s happening in this photo with Lombard:

In 1932, Cooper and his Paramount “rival,” Cary Grant, were cast against the glorious Tallulah Bankhead in Devil and the Deep (1932). Bankhead was a loose canon who would have totally read The Hairpin, not least because her most famous quote was “The only reason I went to Hollywood was to fuck that divine Gary Cooper.”

Girl deserves an entire column, but what you need to understand now is that it appears she achieved her goal — as did almost all of Cooper’s co-stars. The next few years were more of the same. He played the lead in the first adaptation of A Farewell to Arms in 1933, a role that would eventually lead to a close friendship with Hemingway himself. He looks much better fit for the role than Rock Hudson would 20 years later — or maybe I’m just distracted by the leg?

Amid all his onscreen cowboying and philandering, Cooper began courting Veronica Balfe, a starlet best known as the blonde dropped by King Kong. This time, Cooper’s mother approved, and the two were wed in late 1933. Balfe retired from the screen, fated to become the woman with the least amount of Google Image results who also slept with Gary Cooper.

After a brief reunion with Dietrich onscreen and off in Desire (1936), Cooper appeared in a role that would retexture his image from the eyeliner-wearing cowboy sophisticate to that of a straight-talking everyman — a masculinity perfectly inline with the values of Depression-era America. The film was Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, a delightful piece of what is now known as Capra-corn, a.k.a. films made by Frank Capra (including Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Meet John Doe) that are by turns saccharine, adorable, forcefully American, and intermittently satisfying. Which is to say they take advantage of you the same way that Extreme Makeover: Home Edition does, with a potent ideological mix of chivalry, charity, and consumerism.

Cooper had already been working to eschew his glamour image. A 1935 piece in Woman’s Home Companion made the glamour image and placement on Hollywood’s “Best Dressed List” a thing of his boyhood past. According to Cooper, “I don’t know a darn thing about dressing. I just trust in the Lord and keep my shoes shined.”

It sounds like a line straight out of Mr. Deeds’ mouth. Deeds, the bumbling Vermonter-cum-greeting-card poet who inherits $20 million from his uncle, is taken to New York to sort out the estate, only to have all sorts of con artists take advantage of his straight-talking goodness. Throughout the film, Deeds makes a huge display of rejecting the ridiculous components of wealth: he refuses to be dressed by his Uncle’s valet, and calls out those who would ridicule his Hallmark-esque verse. He also falls in love with the very woman who’s been conning him most obviously — a reporter, played by Jean Arthur, who exploits his weakness for “women in distress,” then files reports of Cooper’s bumbles (feeding donuts to a horse, slugging pompous writers in a restaurant, refusing to bankroll the fiscally ridiculous Opera) on the front page of the paper.

Deeds is one of the first films to show a bit of age around Cooper’s eyes, but he also looks amazingly attractive. He speaks slowly and deliberately, with the sort of steady gaze that reminds me of the boys I used to slow dance to Garth Brooks’ “The Dance” with in high school. He’s not stupid, per se, just wholly without irony. He plays the tuba — in public, with tremendous glee — which should tell you just about all need to know about this man.

Plus look at how nicely he looks at Jean Arthur!

And all rumpled and hungover!

After Deeds figures out that everyone’s been swindling him, he makes to go back to Vermont, presumably to hang out with me on the top of the hill where I currently live, entertaining me by playing the tuba and wearing pants. But before he can go back, a desperate, jobless man — a character familiar to any viewer of films released between the years 1931 and 1939 — attacks and then appeals to Deeds, begging him to take pity on the common man.

What happens next could have been set in the present day: a benevolent, wealthy man who spreads the wealth to the less fortunate in order to make a equitable society … is framed as literally crazy. The effort to institutionalize Deeds for benevolence falls flat, Cooper gets to punch some more people in the face, Jean Arthur returns to his side, and all is well — and Cooper emerges even more American and “straightforward” than before.

At the time of Deeds’ release, Cooper was 35, two years married, and soon to be a father. Just as the country had reveled in excess and changed its ways, so too did Cooper. The extravagant, overly romantic, ascot-wearing man was no more. He was still the hero, but now he was no-frills. Importantly, the press labored to frame the shift not as a transformation, but as an illumination of the “real” Cooper. The glamour Cooper had always been a Hollywood show; the real Cooper resided beneath the make-up and intricate wardrobe.

The publicity machine also framed this “real” Cooper as filled with wisdom. A 1939 article belabored the point, relying on an anecdote from director Joel McCrea. Cooper arrived at McCrea’s ranch; the two greeted each other and agreed to take a walk. According to McCrea,

We walked for an hour or more, with never a word from him. That was like him. [The two men paused at a beautiful vista.] We stood there for five or ten minutes, perhaps, both of us silent. Finally, Coop drew a long deep breath and turned to me. “You know, McFee, that European situation is a hell of a mess,” he remarked. He launched into as intelligent a discussion of international affairs as I have ever heard. When he had finished, he shut up again.

The message: still waters run fucking deep.

With this new, Depression-era masculinity established, Cooper’s career continued to flourish. It’s an object lesson in stardom: stars whose images can shift with the times endure, those whose images are tacked to a specific cultural moment decline and fade.

Cooper turned down the role of Rhett Butler, publicly declaring “Gone With the Wind is going to be the biggest flop in Hollywood history. I’m glad it’ll be Clark Gable who’s falling flat on his nose, not me.” Cooper would later eat his words, but he recovered from the embarrassment by hanging out with Hemingway, shooting and fishing around Sun Valley (and inviting Life Magazine to come along). How very Gary Cooper of him.

Please invite me to this party.

1941 was a blockbuster year: back with Capra for Meet John Doe, this time paired with Barbara Stanwyk, an adorable lose forelock, and the slogan “Be a better neighbor.”

Later that year, he appeared in Sergeant York as a “natural” marksmen and conscientious objector who, because his religion is that of the Tennessee backwoods, is still forced into the army. After lots of hemming and hawing (at one point, Cooper goes home and begs God for answers; the WIND then blows his bible open to a passage that implies that he must serve his country, and in so doing serve God). Cooper goes to war, still morally conflicted, but when his fellow men are cornered by Germans, proves himself a tremendous hero. The moral: he killed only to end the war more quickly, thereby preventing even more killing.

Sergeant York was based on the story of the real-life Sergeant York — a man so humble he refused the opportunity to adapt his story until the producers agreed to use the money to finance a bible school. THAT was the guy Cooper was playing onscreen. The specifics of the narrative were particularly salient to a nation that was still oscillating between isolationism and engagement in the current world war. Having seen the ravages of “The Great War,” how could the nation justify going to war again? How could the “pacifist” be convinced to kill Germans yet again?

Pearl Harbor would make the decision clear just months after Sergeant York’s release — and just in time to push Cooper toward an Academy Award for Best Actor. Recall that most Academy Awards do not, necessarily, go to the best performances; rather, they often go to performances that best embody an ideological moment. See: the post-racism of Crash triumphing over the still-too-transgressive man-love of Brokeback Mountain, or last year’s celebration of a certain attitude towards race relations in the nominations for The Help. By awarding Gary Cooper with the Oscar for Sergeant York — by then, the best grossing film of 1941 — both the Academy and the nation at large were endorsing a particular attitude toward World War II and war in general: the war might be horrible, but it is necessary, and good, solid, Christian men like Cooper would lead the way toward what was right.

More nobleness followed: as Lou Gehrig in The Pride of the Yankees (1942) and as a sieve for Hemingway yet again, this time with Ingrid Bergman at her most boyish in For Whom the Bell Tolls (1943).

The films were fewer and far between, but Cooper was nominated for three straight years for Best Actor. Plus, this picture of him with Selznick and Bergman off-set just slays me:

Hemingway considered For Whom the Bell Tolls the only successful Hollywood adaptation of his work (after seeing The Killers, he supposedly yelled “Get me to the bathroom, I’m going to be sick!), in large part due to Cooper’s work. “You played Robert Jordan just the way I saw him,” Hem told Cooper, “tough and determined. Thank you.”

And then the war ended, and what was a noble hero to do? Hollywood had a gangbusters year in 1946, but then everything essentially went to shit. Newly married post-war couples started moving to the suburbs (and away from picture palaces), television began to expand, and the U.S. government made good on its threat to divest the studios of their exhibition arms (a.k.a. their theaters). The studio system was in slow decline.

The films that Cooper made next were both a reaction to and a expression of those years. He somehow managed to make The Fountainhead bearable in adaptation form, but I’m really only taking the critics’ word for it, so strong is my antipathy towards Rand. But The Fountainhead, like all of Rand’s books, is a particularly post-war, ego-driven, American novel — in some ways, Cooper was born to play the part. And look at this preposterous poster:

Naturally, the 47-year-old Cooper had an affair with his Fountainhead co-star, the 21-year-old Patricia Neal. Things only get smuttier from there: when Neal became pregnant with Cooper’s child, he purportedly insisted she have an abortion. Cooper’s long-suffering wife found out about the relationship and sent a telegram demanding he end it. Telegram chastising doesn’t work, however, as evidenced by the long-recycled story of Cooper’s daughter, by then in her early teens, spitting on Neal in public.

Amid all this drama, Cooper starred in what is now regarded as his defining role: the beleaguered sheriff in High Noon, battling against time to get his passive townsfolk to give a shit. The film — an obvious but effective parable of McCarthyism — won no small amount of praise, in part because Hollywood itself was one of the most high-profile targets of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). (One of the film’s screenwriters and producers, Carl Foreman, was called before the committee and deemed an “un-cooperative witness” for his refusal to name names. The film’s co-producer, Stanley Kramer, attempted to kick him off the picture, but Cooper intervened; Foreman eventually fled to England to avoid prosecution.)

Cooper had an affair with the very young Grace Kelly, who played his very young and very ardent Quaker wife. The affair presumably set Neal over the edge, as the next year, she suffered a nervous breakdown and left Hollywood. Between the daughter-spitting and Kelly’s beauty, I can see why. But she went on to marry Roald Dahl, with whom she had five children — including Ophelia Dahl, co-founder, along with Paul Farmer, of Partners in Health, a.k.a. the subject of Mountains Beyond Mountains. Between that life and a fleeting affair with aging Gary Cooper, I’d say she chose right.

High Noon is Cooper’s most famous role, and with good reason. It’s a near-perfect film, damning and yet just shy of heavy-handed. In many ways, High Noon is the natural extension of the evolution of Cooper’s image, at least how he was fated to function in the realities of America: dandy cowboy becomes principled cowboy becomes disillusioned cowboy. John Wayne would later call it “the most un-American thing I’ve ever seen in my whole life,” which, if you know any stories of old John Wayne, means it obviously had a lot going for it.

There was something particularly ironic, or maybe just fitting, in the choice of Cooper for the role of the Sheriff. Cooper himself had served as a “friendly” witness when he was called before HUAC in 1947, and was part of the “Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals” with Barbara Stanwyck, Clark Gable, Ginger Rogers, and others. While Cooper was against Communism, he did not support the practice of “blacklisting,” i.e. preventing anyone who had refused to testify from working in Hollywood. All right, all right Gary, you’re partially redeemed.

For all its cultural resonance, the Cooper of High Noon is decidedly middle-aged, and lacks the Craggy Dude hotness that settled in the smile lines of Newman and Redford. And this, I think, is why many contemporary fans don’t see Cooper as a hot Hollywood star — an important star, of course, but more Dad than Hot. I certainly didn’t understand the appeal until I saw Deeds, and then I wanted him to play the tuba and be sincere with me all night.

Cooper converted to Catholicism in 1958, reconciling with his wife and daughter. As he told Hemingway, “You know, that decision I made was the right one.” But in 1960, Cooper fell ill with prostate cancer, which quickly spread to his colon, lungs, and bones. Yet he managed to keep his illness from the press — at least until Jimmy Stewart had to accept an honorary Academy Award in his stead in April 1961. “We’re very proud of you, Coop,” Stewart said, “all of us.” And then broke down. Hemingway, watching the broadcast, had to turn away.

Hemingway would later call Cooper from the Mayo Clinic, where he himself was receiving treatment for all matter of ailments. The chatted the way older men who hate the phone do, a mix of awkwardness and guffaws. They made plans to go to Africa. But as the phone conversation came to a close, Cooper became serious. “Papa,” he said, “I bet I beat you to the barn.” A month later, Cooper was dead.

In the beginning, Gary Cooper was a beautiful, luxurious thing to behold. Then he was a moral, benevolent thing to behold, and finally he was a disillusioned yet enduring thing to behold. No star better embodies the shift in the values and masculinity that guided American society from the ’20s through the ’50s. Even amid the Red Scare, when many Americans began to feel a creeping sense of doubt about what their xenophobia and reactionary politics had fostered, Coop was there to prove that righteousness endured. As theorist Richard Dyer would say, he acted out what mattered to millions of people, and that act made him a star beyond measure.

And regardless of his philandering, regardless of the arduous work of his studio’s publicity departments, there was something plaintive, almost childlike, maybe even innocent about Cooper. You see it in the way he talks about himself, and you see it in pictures like the one below. His image may have been a product of manipulation, but no man could so convincingly and unerringly play a certain type of man onscreen without a seed of those characters deep in himself. He may have been a lousy lover and an even lousier husband, but everything about him seemed prime for redemption. Just look at that divine, ridiculous, contradiction that was Gary Cooper, and see if you can’t fathom forgiveness.

Previously: Marlene Dietrich, Femme Fatale.

Anne Helen Petersen is a Doctor of Celebrity Gossip. No, really. You can find evidence (and other writings) here.