Man of the West: Gary Cooper

Gary Cooper did more than most to shape Hollywood’s all-American archetype. But offscreen, he was as comfortable in sharp tailoring and behind the wheel of a fabulous car as he was in the company of the beautiful and famous.

Man of the West: Gary Cooper

In episode one, season one of The Sopranos, Tony laments the egregious failings of the modern American psyche to his nonplussed therapist, the forbearing Dr. Melfi. “Let me tell ya something,” he says. “Nowadays, everybody’s gotta go to shrinks, and counsellors, and go on Sally Jessy Raphael and talk about their problems. What happened to Gary Cooper? The strong, silent type. That was an American. He wasn’t in touch with his feelings. He just did what he had to do.” It’s no surprise that the emotionally dissolute Soprano should hold Cooper up as a taciturn all-American archetype. Although ‘Coop’ appeared in more than 100 movies, playing roles from a British subaltern in India (The Lives of a Bengal Lancer) to a white-tied socialite (Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife), it was the 1952 western High Noon that became his familiars. In it, Cooper played Marshal Will Kane, a small-town lawman whose sense of duty is tested when he must choose whether to face a gang of killers alone or leave town with his new wife. It gained Coop immortality, as well as a best actor Oscar and a string of adjectives: laconic, rawboned and upright among them. 

Those grace notes also fitted the offscreen Coop. He was long — 6’3” — and lean, and broad of shoulder. He walked with a bow-legged lope, the legacy of a broken hip sustained as a teenager when he turned over his Ford Model T. He had piercing blue eyes and was a dedicated huntsman on land and sea. Directors lauded his instinctive sense of timing, his quick intelligence, and his ability to cut to the heart of a character. “He was a poet of the real,” said the playwright Clifford Odets. “He knew all about cows, bulls, cars, and ocean tides. He could always tell you his first vivid impression of a thing. He had an old-fashioned politeness, but he said nothing casually.” 

Cooper, far right, when he was 13.
A promotional studio portrait from 1935.
Cooper and his wife, the actress Veronica Balfe, arrive at a preview of the movie 'Rosalie.'
Cooper alongside Fay Wray in a still from the 1928 silent film 'The First Kiss.'
He put aside his doubts about acting when he discovered that the western star Tom Mix made $17,000 a week.

Cooper himself was, naturally, more circumspect. “I recognise my limitations,” he once said. “For instance, I never tried Shakespeare. I think I’d look funny in tights. It’s just that once in a while I find a good picture, the happy combination of director and actors, which gives me a fresh start. Mostly I think it’s because I look like the guy down the street.” 

True, if your street is full of guys whose features look hewn from granite. Cooper was born in 1901 in Helena, Montana, and his all-American-ness was perhaps only partially compromised by the fact his mother was from Gillingham, Kent, while his father was a Bedfordshire-born attorney who eventually sat on the state’s Supreme Court. Cooper was sent to an English boarding school at the age of nine and returned four years later to work on the family’s cattle ranch on a bend of the Missouri river, where he honed his equestrian skills. He studied art at Iowa’s Grinnell College, and left for Los Angeles in 1924 with aspirations to make it in advertising, but became disillusioned when he found himself painting glowing testimonials for cough drops on vaudeville curtains. 

He put aside his reservations about acting — he was horrified at the sight of the “mascara’d and lipsticked” faux- cowboys who needed “glue in the saddle” — when he discovered that the western star Tom Mix made $17,000 a week. A friend of his father’s found him a role in a two-reeler called Tricks (1925), and he dropped his Christian name, Frank, at the suggestion of an agent, who re-christened him after her hometown in Indiana. “A good thing she didn’t come from Poughkeepsie,” he said later. Cooper made a splash with his 105 seconds of screen time as a poker-faced, gangling and ultimately doomed first- world-war aviator in 1927’s Wings. Audiences were quick to seize on his sense of honour and heartbreaking integrity, and he was off and running —or, more accurately, off and loping. 

Poster from 1952’s High Noon.
Poster from Frank Capra’s 1936 comedy 'L’Extravagant Mr. Deeds.'
Poster from 'The Pride of the Yankees,' 1942.
A Paramount Pictures portrait of Cooper in 1939.
Elliott Roosevelt, the son of Franklin D. Roosevelt, chats to Cooper at the Paramount lot during filming of 'One Sunday Afternoon' (1948).
Slim Aarons captures the film stars (left to right) Clark Gable, Van Heflin, Cooper and James Stewart enjoying a joke at a New Year’s party at Romanoff’s in Beverly Hills.
Audiences assumed the ‘real’ Coop mirrored his onscreen exemplars, a man who fended off the siren call of decadence.

There were key roles that made the most of Cooper’s bearing and reticent drawl, from 1929’s The Virginian (his first implacable cowboy role) to 1936’s Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (backwoods innocent faces down Gotham corruption), and 1941’s Sergeant York (conscientious objector becomes war hero), for which he won his first Oscar. “Every line in his face spelled honesty,” said Frank Capra, who directed Cooper in Mr. Deeds. “Our Mr. Deeds had to symbolise incorruptibility, and in my mind Gary Cooper was that symbol.” 

All of which led audiences to assume that the ‘real’ Coop mirrored his onscreen exemplars, a man who fended off the siren call of decadence with a narrowing of the eyes and a judicious deployment of the words ‘yup’ and ‘nope’. His reputation as a succinct savant was burnished by tales from friends like David Niven of his unerring ability to drop off into catnaps between takes, or of his artless love of the great outdoors, whether stalking big game, skiing, or scuba-diving. Dig deeper, though, and a more rounded — even reassuringly sybaritic — character emerges. He had affairs with Clara Bow and Marlene Dietrich, and shared a Laurel Canyon hideaway with the Mexican actress Lupe Vélez along with a pair of caged golden eagles. In 1930 he walked out on his onerous Paramount contract and high-tailed it to Rome, where he fell in with the Countess di Frasso, a married New York heiress who moved him into her multimillion-dollar villa and introduced him to the delights of the Riviera, the winter safari, and Italian tailoring. 

In 1933, his contract renegotiated, Cooper married the 20-year-old New York debutante Veronica ‘Rocky’ Balfe; her wealth and social connections provided him an entrée into high society. Their huge house in Los Angeles’ exclusive Holmby Hills neighbourhood became a gathering place for friends including Ernest Hemingway (Cooper, the e-fit of a grace-under-pressure Hemingway hero, would play the lead in film versions of A Farewell to Arms and For Whom the Bell Tolls), the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Jock Whitney, Lord Mountbatten, Henry Ford II, and Aristotle Onassis. 

Cooper and Balfe at the premiere of 'A Star is Born,' 1954.
at Waterloo station in London before leaving for the U.S. in 1931.
Martha Hemingway, Cooper, Balfe and the author Ernest Hemingway at the Stork Club in New York City, 1943.
Any time you’re alone or feel you’re not supported, Cooper’s Will Kane becomes the perfect metaphor. 

Cooper’s immaculate suiting now came courtesy of Anderson & Sheppard; he owned a fleet of cars, including a Bentley and a 1935 Duesenberg SSJ (which, in their increasingly tenuous attempts to stress his simple-man bona- fides, his PR team stressed that he soaped down himself ), and he amassed a formidable art collection, including works by Renoir, Gauguin, Georgia O’Keeffe, and Pablo Picasso. Cooper had met the latter in France, and told him: “You’re a hell of a guy, but I don’t really get the pictures.” Picasso, tickled, apparently replied: “That doesn’t matter. If you really want to do something for me, get me one of those hats you wear in the movies.” A 10-gallon-Cubist masterpiece swap was duly effected. “Picasso was not alone in being charmed by Cooper’s directness and his refusaltobewhathewasnot,”wrote Life magazine. 

While Cooper’s personal life was increasingly swell-egant, his work was getting quieter and purer; his horror of over- dramatisation and actorly tics meant he sought to convey more by doing less. “You’re positive he’s going to ruin your picture,” the director Sam Wood once said. “I thought something was wrong with him the first time I worked with him. I could see a million dollars going glimmering, but I was amazed when I saw the screen.” Cooper’s still-centre-of-the-vortex style reached its apogee with High Noon

The film’s stark, windswept anomie, set to the ticking of a countdown clock to the titular hour, matched Cooper’s contained intensity. And, it transpired, there was a lot of extraneous noise to tune out: from accusations that Carl Foreman’s screenplay was a thinly veiled critique of the U.S. government’s mid-century zeal to root out communists (John Wayne declined the role of Kane, calling High Noon “the most un- American thing I’ve ever seen”; Gregory Peck, Marlon Brando, Montgomery Clift and Charlton Heston also turned it down) to 51-year-old Cooper’s affair with his co-star, the 20-year-old Grace Kelly (his marriage was rocked, but not toppled, by further affairs with Ingrid Bergman and Patricia Neal). 

“The story of a man who was too proud to run!”, as the film’s poster had it, is now seen as the forerunner of the modern existential western, enshrined in the Library of Congress and a favourite of U.S. presidents from Ronald Reagan to Bill Clinton, who screened it at the White House 17 times. “It’s no accident that politicians see themselves as Gary Cooper in High Noon,” said Clinton. “Not just politicians, but anyone who’s forced to go against the popular will. Any time you’re alone and you feel you’re not getting the support you need, Cooper’s Will Kane becomes the perfect metaphor.” 

Cooper arrives in London to complete shooting of the film 'The Wreck of the Mary Deare.'
In St. Mark’s Square, Venice, in 1955.

There were more sterling performances — notably 1958’s Man of the West, in which he played a reformed outlaw forced to confront his violent past — but Cooper’s last decade was marked by declining health, with ulcers, prostate operations and, eventually, the cancer that would kill him, aged just 60, in 1961. He never lost the approbation of his peers, however; too ill to attend the presentation of a lifetime achievement award at the Oscars a few weeks before his death, James Stewart accepted in his stead. “Coop, I want you to know this,” he said. “That with this goes all the warm friendship and the affection and the admiration and the deep, deep respect of all of us. We’re very, very proud of you, Coop.” The Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera reckoned that Cooper’s passing marked the end “of a certain America... that of the frontier and of... the exact sense of the dividing line between good and evil.” But, pace Tony Soprano, maybe Gary Cooper’s most imperishable legacy is that he made the strong, silent thing look very, well, bada-bing.