We were often spoken of as "The Coopers" by our friends in Hollywood. Ours was a unique family togetherness that was obvious and operative. So many of the daily-life things we did were just like any other family's activities. But for us there was a plethora of extraordinary situations as well. Meeting with the pope, being introduced to the royal family in England, a wild late-night ride in Paris with the shah of Iran--it was as glamorous as it sounds even today, but always tempered by the down-to-earth values of my parents.
We had a number of family traditions, one of them being a Sunday swim in the ocean after Mass. My mother and I would wear our bathing suits under our clothes, then after church we'd zip up the street to our house in Brentwood, get Poppa, who had been studying or working in his gun room or catching forty more winks, pile the dogs in the car, and take off for Santa Monica.
Caption for a photo showing Gary Cooper with Pope Pius XII (source: Janis, 79; photo credit: G. Felici):
The excitement of the approaching audience with the pope touched all of us. Those were the days when the dress code for meeting the pope was black, long sleeves, and veil. This was way before Vatican II, and now it seems strange to me that for a supposedly joyous occasion one had to dress as if at a funeral. Anyway, it added to the drama, and we lined up in an ornate gilded room in the Vatican with about twenty other VIP guests. My father was years away from becoming a Catholic, but the pomp and ritual were awesome, and everyone was highly nervous. We had bought rosaries and medals to be blessed by His Holiness, and Poppa had a fair share in his hands and over his wrists. The great doors swung open and a Swiss Guard thumped ceremoniously on the floor with an intricately carved gilt staff to announce the pope's arrival. Then His Eminence flowed in through the door--slim, white-robed, pale--and started down the line of guests. Just as he was nearly in front of my father, we all genuflecteed, but with his stiff back, Poppa lost his balance a bit and in that moment dropped all his beads, medals, and cards. They went rolling and scattering all over the floor, under the pontiff's robes, the carbet, and into other people's shoes. And there was the American actor Gary Cooper groping around in monumental embarrassment, trying to scoop up the momentos with Pius XII looking down and patiently smiling.Janis, page 160:
In the mid to late fifties, my father's conversion to Catholicism started silently. He never discussed much about it but simply started joining us for Mass more often. The ostensible reason was to hear the good sermons given by a dynamic young priest, Father Harold Ford, dubbed by my father as "Father Tough Stuff." Father Ford didn't give hellfire and brimstone, but he was a very human and with-it man. My mother invited him over for a drink one afternoon, thinking there might be some deep and profound conversations about matters of the spirit. Think again! He and my father disappeared into the gun room and as far as I can tell all they talked about was hunting, fishing, and scuba diving. Father Ford became a scuba buddy and joined us diving in the large marineland of the Pacific tank where we all cavorted with its inhabitants.Janis, page 45:
My father's search for his own spiritual kingdom apparently was coming together, and after many months of learning the basics with Father Ford, and "living with the questions," he did, as Rilke so beautifully put it, "live the questions now. Then perhaps someday far in the future you will gradually, without even knowing it, live your way into the answer." Into the answer he took himself. Shirley Burden, an old and dear friend, himself a convert, was godfather at Poppa's baptism.
And, in a strange irony, Thomas Merton, the inspired, spiritual Trappis monk from the Abbey of Gethsemane, whom he had never met, played an important part in my father's last weeks. Reading Merton's book No Man Is an Island, gave Poppa great solace and comfort, and I received a treasured note from Father Louis (Merton) several months later:October 11, 1961My father was still well at the time of his becoming a Catholic. His reasons for converting are his to know. He did say to [his friend Ernest] Hemingway toward the end, "You know, that decision I made was the right one." I know he and Papa spoke about "the Catholic thing." Whatever Ernest's ambivalence was, the two guys obviously hashed out a lot in that area. How tragic that Hemingway's illness had robbed him of the comfort and sense of the supporting arms of God.
I was touched by your kind letter, and glad that it gives me an opportunity to greet you and your mother personally, and advise you of my friendship and good wishes. With everyone else, I loved Gary Cooper and his great movies, which I often remember with satisfaction--well, relatively often. For it is a long time since I have been to a movie. I even had a temptation and hope that if Seven Story Mountain became a film, he would play a part in it. This was a clear case of vanity on my part!! Anyway, with all my blesings and good wishes,
Father Louis Merton
PS. I am sending a book you might like.
My father's [Gary Cooper's] close friends among the Native American people are now all dead. He never told us of his own sweat lodge ceremony and his "blood-brothering." Typical of him to keep such deep and personal events to himself. But his passion for the Indian was deep. His sense of anger at the injustice done to them, deeper still. And he imbued me with a great love and respect for their culture and religion.Janis, page 121:
I think he [Gary Cooper] always harbored a secret desire to have an extremely hot car, take it to Bonneville Salt Flats near Salt Lake City, and let 'er rip.Janis, page 167:
My father was initially buried at Holy Cross Cemetary in Santa Monica... Some years later, after my mother and I had moved east to New York and Long Island, we also moved my father's coffin to Southampton... Gary Cooper took a lot of people with him on his life's journey from the hills of Montana to a quiet plot marked with a huge boulder from a Montauk Point rock quarry. The church had some "rules" about why they would not like that stone in the cemetary, but my mother flashed her green eyes at the presiding pastor and snorted, "Do you mean to tell me that if Jesus Christ said, 'Thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church . . .,' you will now refuse to let me have a rock for a marker for my husband's grave. . . ."
Well, a massive salmon-and-beige-colored stone, probably 316 million years old, from the Bistrian quarry, anchors the burial site in Southampton. It's a perfect symbol for what my father loved and stood for.