Remembering Gary Cooper: actor, family man, catholic convert

By Barbara Middleton* for Inside the Vatican

Here, Pope Pius XII greets Gary Cooper, his daughter Maria (next to him) and wife Veronica (far left) during a June 26, 1953 visit to the Vatican while the Coopers were on a European publicity tour for the movie High Noon

Inside the Vatican correspondent Barbara Middleton interviewed Maria Cooper Janis, the daughter of legendary screen star and three-time Academy Award winner Gary Cooper. The great actor died of cancer in 1961 at the age of 60. He became a Catholic in 1959.

Maria Cooper Janis, the daughter of legendary screen star and three- time Academy Award winner Gary Cooper.

Barbara Middleton: What was your father, Gary Cooper, like as you grew up? How did your mother handle your father being a celebrity?

Maria Cooper Janis: Fame and success never changed him. It never went to his head and he always stayed humble and full of gratitude for the good fortune that fell into his lap. “I don’t like to see exaggerated airs and exploding egos in people who are already established,” he would say. “No player ever rises to prominence solely on his or her extraordinary talent. Players are molded by forces other than themselves. They should remember this. And at least twice a week drop down on their knees and thank providence for elevating them from cow ranches and dime store ribbon counters.”

As a father he was warm, loving, and funny. Our family did many things together, sports in particular. We skied together in the winter and learned scuba diving to explore the beauties of the undersea world, both in the Mediterranean and in the Pacific off the coast of southern California.

My mother, Veronica, nicknamed “Rocky,” was often the instigator of new adventures and my father happily jumped in with enthusiasm. She was very beautiful, very shy and a woman who felt that it was important for a wife to be a good companion to her husband as well as all the obvious. She was a combination of very feminine and yet in a way a “jock” at the same time — and my father loved that. They shared a great love and appreciation of art and beauty.

When my father was shooting a film, she rarely went on the set. He didn’t like family “hanging around” and she was always very active in raising me and following their joint hobby, raising Sealyham Terriers. Animals were always a rich part of our lives in Los Angeles and at the time we had 3 ½ acres of land so we could have a bit of a personal farm with chickens, ducks, geese, a tortoise, and dogs. My mother was a very smart woman and the dangers of being married to a handsome screen star must not have been easy, but she was level-headed like he was, and the celebrity part, which came with the job, so to speak, she took with a certain humor and wisdom and never lost the qualities that drew the two of them together in the first place.

What influence did your mother have on the formation of your faith? Did you attend Catholic school growing up?

Maria: My mother and I would go to Mass on Sundays and I went to Marymount Grade School, a Catholic girls’ school which was conveniently one block from our home in Brentwood. I also attended a wonderful coed school for a while, the John Thomas Dye School. My parents wanted me to have a school experience of a coed education.

Screen star Gary Cooper (center) poses with his daughter Maria (left) and wife Veronica (nicknamed “Rocky,” right).

What was the meeting like with Pope Pius XII at the Vatican in 1953?

Maria: Our Vatican audience with Pope Pius XII was, of course, unforgettable. It was a relatively small audience and in those days one had to dress in black with a veil on your head. I will never forget, however, the funny thing that happened to my father, who at that time was many years away from converting. Lots of friends had asked him to bring back rosaries and medals blessed by the Pope so as about 10 of us were standing in a medium-sized room, the Pope came walking toward us. We all genuflected — well, my father had a bad back and he sort of lost his balance a bit and all the medals and rosaries he had hung over his arm crashed to the floor as he bent to kiss His Holiness’ ring while trying to retrieve the medals that had rolled all over the place. Embarrassed!! Yes. He blushed? Yes. Lovely words, I am sure, came from the Pope, but I was lost in trying to be reverent and upset for my father.

Fr. Harold Ford, priest of Good Shepherd Parish in Beverly Hills, CA, who became a close family friend of the Coopers

Actress Dolores Hart — now Mother Dolores Hart

What was your favorite movie of your fathers’s, and his?

Maria: Films that always touch me especially are High Noon, Pride of the Yankees, Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls, Sergeant York and The Hanging Tree. I don’t know what his personal favorite was, but I do know that, when asked what made him choose the roles he did, he answered that he always wanted to portray the best a man can be.

What led your father to Catholicism? What inspired his conversion?

Maria: I don’t know what led him to make the decision to convert. It was not, as is mistakenly written about, due to his being ill. For years, he would usually come to Mass with my mother and I for Christmas and Easter, but I never heard him talking about what his thinking and feeling process was in terms of religion. My mother and I would praise Father Harold Ford, a priest at the Church of the Good Shepherd in Beverly Hills, whose sermons were short but powerful, and related to the real lives of his congregation.

Father Ford became a family friend, even accompanying us on scuba diving adventures. He eventually baptized my father and also officiated at his funeral Mass.

He was successful in the eyes of the world and received many awards, including several Academy Awards. How did he view that?

Maria: Of course success was important to him; any artist wants to feel he or she has succeeded in their endeavors. However, it was not his motive to become a famous actor. Being awarded his three Oscars deeply pleased him. The first was for the role of WWI American hero, Alvin York; the second was for the famous High Noon in which, as marshall, he refuses to run and stays to protect the townspeople from a killer gang, all alone. The third Oscar is a Lifetime Achievement Award for his over 100 films made in a life cut too short by cancer. In his last weeks, the only complaint I ever heard him voice was, “Damn, just when I was beginning to learn what acting was all about…”

Actress Dolores Hart — now Mother Dolores Hart at the Benedictine Abbey of Regina Laudis — visited your home. At Mother’s 50th anniversary of Holy Vows, you presented her with your dad’s Oscar. Do you still visit Mother?

Maria: My best friend was the young actress Dolores Hart. At Mother Dolores’ 50th Anniversary of her vows, I felt she deserved to have for that day my father’s Lifetime Achievement Award. She was shocked and happy. She has dedicated her life of Ora et Labora with the Benedictine community and has been an inspiration to everyone who knows them and her. I visit Mother Dolores as often as possible and during Covid we did a lot of Facetime visits on the phone.

Is there something, Maria, you would like to tell me that I didn’t ask you?

Maria: After my father died of cancer and my mother remarried — a renowned surgeon, Dr. John Converse — there was a party given for the bride and groom. One of the guests was introduced to me, and somehow, I knew that standing right in front of me was the answer to not only my life’s journey, but to my unspoken prayers as well. Now, some 54 years later and a life of touring the world with an internationally renowned pianist, Byron Janis, I know that grace led me to that very place and time. God’s choreography is truly beyond our understanding and our imagination! And to circle back to my parents, Gary and Rocky Cooper, they could not have prepared or taught me better how to choose a positive life and most of all, about real love.

*Barbara Middleton served in the Kennedy administration’s State Department. In 1977, she founded the Holy Trinity Apostolate with the late Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

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