An all-American, champion-of-the-common-man movie star, the horseback-riding, gun-slinging Gary Cooper is another unlikely convert to Catholicism. While he didn’t convert until much later in his life, it was an audience with Pope Pius XII at a distraught, complicated time in his life that sealed the deal on his religious discernment.
Born in Helena, Montana in 1901, Gary Cooper had a somewhat inauspicious rise to national acclaim. When he was fifteen, he injured his hip in a car accident — his doctor sent him to his parents’ Montana ranch, where he was encouraged to horseback-ride as therapy. This misguided advice gave him a characteristic stiff walk and iconic, slightly-angled riding style that ended up being extremely beneficial for his career, if not his joint health.
As a young man, Cooper’s parents left Montana and moved to Los Angeles; they encouraged him to join them, suggesting that he nurture his interest in painting, drawing, and other fine arts in Southern California. This he did, where he began working as a stunt rider (for $10 per day) at several Hollywood movie studios to finance his art education. Though his riding skills gave him steady employment on Western film sets, Cooper was a horseman at heart and hated to see the dangerous stunts that often injured both horses and riders.
He loved the screen, though, and the energy of the movies; so, he did a screen test, hired a casting director, and became Hollywood’s sweetheart overnight. In the 1928 film Wings, Cooper’s two-and-a-half minute scene told the movie studios that they were looking at a star.
In 1933, Cooper married East Coast socialite Veronica Balfe, whose positive, steadying influence helped him to take control of his life and get a handle on some previous indiscretions — like many movie stars, then and now, Cooper had a series of affairs and romantic partnerships that may have been less than advised.
In 1948, however, Cooper began an extramarital relationship with his co-star from The Fountainhead, Patricia Neal, which ended up stretching three years and catalyzing a legal separation from his wife. God was on Cooper’s side, though, and in 1953, Balfe and his daughter (both devout Catholics) joined him on a press tour for High Noon. While in Italy, the three of them had an audience with Pope Pius XII.
His daughter later recalled that at the papal audience, Cooper had rosaries up his arm and his hands full of other mementos from well-wishers. Because of his bad hip and back, he had trouble genuflecting, and as he did, “everything just fell, the medals and rosaries and holy cards...while he was scrambling around on the floor, he suddenly encountered this scarlet shoe and robe…”
That meeting with the pope was just what Cooper needed to set him back on track, and on his return from the High Noon press tour, moved back in with his wife and daughter and began to reconcile their relationship. He began attending regular Mass with them, and received spiritual counseling from their parish priest. After a few years, he concluded that perhaps “a little religion wouldn’t do me no harm,” and entered the church formally in 1959.
—Claire Kosewic, Staff Bulletin Writer
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