Gary Cooper was one of the greatest and most widely known movie stars of the golden age of Hollywood.
The biggest drama of his life, however, was not his role in Sergeant York or High Noon or in any of the eighty-four motion pictures he made from 1925-1960. Rather, it was his discovery of Jesus Christ and the Catholic Church, which brought decisive stability to his marriage and family life, and then peace during his final illness and death in 1961.
Cooper was born in 1901 on a Montana ranch to English immigrant parents. He was raised Episcopalian, but organized religion had little lasting impact on him. Rather, Cooper's basic decency and general religious sensibility as an adult were more indebted to the fresh air and big skies of Montana and his hard work as a cowboy than any particular religious practices of his youth.
Cooper also studied art and drama, and moved to California in 1924. Being a skilled horseman, he found good paying parts in the burgeoning (silent) movie industry as a stunt rider, but it wasn't long before his tall lean frame and powerful screen presence brought more significant roles. Then the introduction of and highlighted his deep voice, and by 1929 he was in high demand as a leading actor.
In the ensuing years, in the midst of the hard work on screen and the various romantic entanglements off screen, Cooper met the woman who was to prove the most important person in his life: Veronica Balfe. She was a beautiful, strong, and confident lady who shared with him a love of sports and the outdoors. She was also a Catholic. Having found genuine love and deep companionship, they were maned in 1933. With the addition of daughter Maria, they became a dose family.
But though Cooper played the exemplary "American hero" in the movies and was committed in principle to moral values, he also became one of the biggest stars in Hollywood, and as such he had to struggle with the scourge of the movie industry: the temptation to marital infidelity. He had numerous extramarital affairs, and for several years in the early 1950s he and Veronica separated. But they didn't follow the common Hollywood path to divorce. When they reunited in 1954, Gary was genuinely chastened and started taking steps toward greater personal maturity. He began to attend Mass with his wife and daughter, not only for the sake of family harmony but also because he was attracted to the vigorous personality of the young pastor, Father Harold Ford, whom he referred to as "Father Tough Stuff." But when Veronica invited "Father Tough Stuff" to dinner, he spoke with Gary not about religion but about their common passionate interest in outdoor life: hunting, fishing, swimming, and diving.
The two men became good friends and shared their interests. It was in the context of this friendship, slowly, that the movie star and the priest began speaking of the deep questions of life. It was thus very much out of conviction that Gary Cooper was received into the Catholic Church in 1959. Two years later, as he lay dying of cancer, he was able to say in his last public statement "I know that what is happening is God's will. I am not afraid of the future."
John Janaro "Gary Cooper." Magnificat (December, 2017).
Reprinted with permission of Magnificat.
John Janaro is Associate Professor Emeritus of Theology at Christendom College. He is a Catholic theologian, and a writer, researcher, and lecturer on issues in religion and culture. He is the author of Never Give Up: My Life and God's Mercy and The Created Person and the Mystery of God: The Significance of Religion in Human Life. He is married to Eileen Janaro and has five children.Copyright © 2017 Magnificat
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