Gary Cooper was Hollywood's beloved "good guy"—but few know his darker history. Behind his seductive stare, this cowboy struggled to rein in his womanizing ways, always falling prey to his forbidden desires. Buckle up: Cooper's story is fraught with danger, heartbreak, and, in the end, unbelievable pain.
Gary Cooper was born Frank James Cooper on May 7, 1901. Raised on a ranch in Montana, little Cooper was already well on his way to Hollywood. Unbeknownst to him, life on the ranch provided the young boy with a slew of skills that he'd later use in his career, especially horseback riding. However, his mother had other dreams for her two young sons.
Cooper's mother Alice wanted her boys raised right, and to her, that meant shipping them across the ocean to England for a "proper" education. For the rough-and-tumble Cooper, the stuffy formalities of school never quite suited his free-wheeling personality. By 1912, his days of learning English, French, and Latin were over and he returned home.
However, not even the security of home could save him from unforeseen tragedy.
When he was only 15 years old, Cooper was in a terrible car accident and badly injured his hip. Sadly, his doctor gave him the worst possible advice: He prescribed horseback riding as a method of recuperation. Bad idea. Although the frequent riding wasn't good for his hip at all, it did give him his signature walk. Throughout his acting career, his tilted riding style and rigid gait became some of his most beloved traits.
Of course, Gary Cooper was so much more than a cowboy, and soon, a surprising new passion drove him to new heights.
Before becoming one of Hollywood's greatest leading men, Cooper had another creative calling—art. Yes, teenage Gary Cooper dreamed of becoming an artist. He was a painter who eventually dropped out of college and began selling his cartoons to newspapers. His dramatic pursuits were still a buried dream. In fact, he didn't get his first real taste of drama until his family moved to LA.
Once there, however, a whole new world opened up to him.
Once landed in LA, two of Cooper's friends from Montana introduced him to a new line of work—that of film extras and stuntmen. Within this exciting new network of friends, he also met a rodeo champion named Jay "Slim" Talbot who would later become Cooper's most loyal stuntman. At the time, however, Slim was his ticket to something greater: He introduced Cooper to a casting director—and as they say, the rest was history.
By 1925, Cooper was a full-blown stuntman in the silent pictures—but he wasn't exactly happy about it. You see, stunt work had a dark side, often creating a volatile environment for horses and riders. It was a risky business with injuries running rampant and Cooper even called the work "tough and cruel". He wanted out, and luckily, he had the perfect escape plan.
Gary Cooper's days as a stuntman were coming to a close, and he was more than ready to break into acting. Not only did he pay for a screen test, but he also hired an agent, Nan Collins, who suggested that the actor make a big change. You see, there were already other actors with the name Frank Cooper. To ensure that her new client had a unique moniker, Collins suggested the name "Gary"—the name of her hometown.
The name was a golden choice, and even Cooper adored it. On his way up and out, he had no idea just how successful he'd be.
In 1926, Cooper starred in his first big success, The Winning of Barbara Worth, after which critics hailed him as a "dynamic new personality". His standout performance finally won him the long-term contract he'd been hoping for, and Paramount Pictures happily scooped him up. With the wheels of success beginning to turn, Cooper had more than just a career to look forward to.
One of the key players to help Cooper in his rise to stardom was none other than the beautiful Clara Bow. Thanks, in part, to her influence, he landed a role in one of the biggest films of 1927, Children of Divorce. But that wasn't all. Behind the scenes, there was a romance brewing. You see, Cooper was quite the lady's man and not even Bow could resist his charms.
Unfortunately, as heated as their offscreen chemistry was, only one of them survived the move from silent films to "talkies".
Although Cooper owed much of his initial success to Clara Bow and her "It Girl" influence, it was he who mediated the transition to "talkies" without a hitch. Sadly, with her grating Brooklyn accent, Bow got left behind. Their romance was swift and short-lived, with Cooper moving on to conquer Hollywood. However, the lovely Clara Bow certainly wasn't his last high-profile lover.
In fact, before his day in the sun was over, Cooper gained himself an infamous reputation of becoming one of the industry's most ruthless womanizers.
Cooper really knew how to move from one "It Girl" to the next. In 1929, he embarked on one of his most tempestuous affairs. On the set of The Wolf Song, Cooper fell for the alluring Mexican actress, Lupe Vélez. However, Vélez's hot-blooded nature often landed them in some outrageous fights. Emotions were running high at all times and the tabloids just ate their antics up.
During one notable spat, Vélez grabbed a knife and began chasing Cooper around. She certainly didn't play lightly, and her anger wasn't just fun and games. Vélez aimed to maim and she eventually hit her mark: She cut Gary Cooper so deeply, he required stitches. Of course, this was only the beginning. Where Vélez used physical aggression to hit her lover where it hurt, Cooper betrayed her in his own nefarious way.
Gary Cooper was not a man of loyalty and commitment. While entertaining his fiery passion with Vélez, he also struck up some affairs on the side. And the women he chose weren't just anybody. He seduced and ravished some of the greats, including Marlene Dietrich and Carole Lombard. Of course, his hungry libido didn't end there.
Gary Cooper and Lupe Vélez lasted an entire three years before their relationship wore him down. She just didn't fit into his life, and to make matters worse, his mother despised her. When they finally broke up, Cooper was exhausted. However, Vélez had one last go at her lover. She'd never backed away from violence in the past—but what she did next was perhaps her most dangerous act of all.
As the story goes, a run-down Gary Cooper was just about to board a Los Angeles train, when Lupe Vélez caught up to him. However, this was no tearful goodbye—this was revenge at its finest. Allegedly, Vélez yelled out, "Gary, you son of a b*tch". But that wasn't the worst part. She also took aim and fired a shot at him. Luckily, the bullet didn't touch the actor, and in the wake of the commotion, he ducked into the train car.
Vélez—standing at only five feet—was small but incredibly mighty. And even though she almost ended Gary Cooper's life, the lothario never forgot her.
Down the road, Cooper shed some light on how and why he stayed with Vélez—his wildest temptress—for so long. He wrote, "You couldn't help but being attracted to Lupe Vélez. She flashed, stormed, and sparked, and on the set, she was apt to throw things if she thought it would do any good. But she objected to being called wild. She'd say, 'I am not wild! I am just Lupe.'"
Now, we don't know all the secrets that this couple kept, but Vélez—always one to feed the gossip mill—revealed some tawdry details about Cooper to the journalist Hedda Hopper...and the scoop was downright scandalous.
While dating Vélez, Cooper had an extremely close friendship with the actor Anderson Lawler. They even shared a house together for a short while. Vélez revealed that every time Cooper returned from visiting Lawler, she'd pick up on Lawler's scent. But that wasn't the wildest part. Later, her biographer claimed that Vélez supported Cooper's intimate relationship with Lawler as long as she could join them.
These allegations insinuated quite the scandalous three-way, but when it came to scandal, Gary Cooper was just getting started.
Gary Cooper squeezed out a whopping ten pictures in only two years—but it took a heavy toll. After being overworked for so long, his health took a disturbing turn. He'd dropped thirty pounds and suffered from anemia and jaundice. And then came the depression. His epic rise to stardom wasn't all he'd thought it would be and left Cooper feeling utterly alone.
It was time for a well-deserved break, but even away from Hollywood, the actor still managed to flirt with impropriety.
In May 1931, Gary Cooper left Hollywood behind, traveling from Algiers to Italy, where he decided to stay. Of course, he had quite the lavish accommodations, shacking up with the Countess Dorothy di Frasso at her villa in Rome. The Countess became Cooper's mentor in all things European—and her adventurous side led him to some of his most life-changing experiences.
While di Frasso introduced Cooper to fine wines and unparalleled gustatory pleasures, she also showed him how to refine his social etiquette, especially among the high-and-mighty nobles. But Cooper's trip wasn't only about fancy affairs and high-brow visits to Italian art galleries. Not at all. Together, Cooper and his Countess traveled to East Africa.
There, the actor engaged in some bloody sport that made him feel like a winner through and through.
Traversing Mount Kenya, Cooper went on a hunting safari—and the spoils of this ten-week excursion were rather horrifying. He took down over 60 animals, most notably: two lions, antelopes, and a rhinoceros. This disturbing spree only enhanced his appreciation for the wild. Satiated by his hunting, it was time to relax on a Mediterranean cruise.
However, his greatest pleasures lay behind closed doors.
You see, the Countess di Frasso wasn't just a good friend, she was also Cooper's lover. Even more scandalous? She was a married woman. Despite this, di Frasso welcomed Cooper's romantic advances, and before long, they'd both thrown themselves into a reckless affair. At this time, both the Countess and her husband barely saw one another. After living such a passionless existence, Cooper's presence in her life was quite exciting—but it was never meant to last.
After a year abroad, Cooper returned to what he knew best—acting. This time, however, he was no amateur and won himself a handsome contract with Paramount. Instead of working himself to the bone, he agreed to make only two films per year. He also attained director and script approval, as well as an impressive $4,000 a week. Suddenly, Cooper found himself back in the saddle.
After being so off-kilter for so long, Cooper finally got his life back on track—both professionally and romantically.
In 1933, Gary Cooper had a date with destiny. At a party, he was introduced to the 20-year-old debutante Veronica Balfe. Balfe came from money, but she wasn't like any of his other conquests. She didn't come from Hollywood and she wasn't married. In fact, to Cooper, she seemed like the perfect candidate for a long-term commitment.
After slipping beneath the sheets of countless actresses, Cooper had finally found someone he wanted to put down roots with. Not only that, but Balfe seemed to be his perfect match. They shared the same interests, adoring outdoor activities like skiing and horseback riding. She was also his ticket into New York high society. Being with her opened a whole new world to the ambitious actor. And that was only the beginning.
In December 1933, Cooper and Balfe married in a low-key ceremony, away from the prying eyes of the press. Once a wayward rogue, the actor found himself refreshed by his new wife. Even his friends noticed that she sparked a radical shift in his behavior: He took back the reins and turned his back on his wayward past...for the time being, that is.
Throughout the 30s, Cooper certainly seemed like the picture-perfect husband. In 1937, he and Balfe welcomed a baby girl, Maria Veronica Cooper. Cooper warmed to fatherhood and came across as a loving and doting parent. He taught little Maria to ski and bicycle, and soon, the entire family could enjoy their outdoorsy adventures together.
Cooper's personal life thrived, but during this period, he made a massive professional mistake.
Few know that Gary Cooper was David O. Selznick's first choice for the role of Rhett Butler in the sweeping epic Gone With The Wind. He certainly had the refined yet rugged looks for the part, but when personally asked to take the part, his response was shocking. Cooper didn't want the part, not one bit. And in retrospect, his reasons were laughable.
Convinced that Gone With The Wind would flop at the box office, Cooper wanted absolutely nothing to do with the production. When the runner-up, Clark Gable, stepped up to the plate, Cooper confidently said, "Gone With The Wind is going to be the biggest flop in Hollywood history. I'm glad it'll be Clark Gable who's falling flat on his nose, not me".
As we all know, Cooper's predictions were utterly wrong, and his missed opportunity went on to win an Academy Award for "Best Picture," among others. Clark Gable certainly got the last laugh in the end. But where one door closes, another opens, and one of Cooper's greatest films was just around the corner...However, it would only invite scandal back into his life.
Everything was going swimmingly for Cooper and Balfe until one infamous actress came between them. When Ingrid Bergman replaced the lead in 1942's For Whom the Bell Tolls, Cooper approved. On set, the Cooper and Bergman's chemistry was palpable, and their intimate onscreen moments were described as "rapturous". But their passion didn't end there.
After the unbelievable success of For Whom the Bells Tolls, both Cooper and Bergman went on to star in another movie together, Saratoga Trunk. While playing opposite Bergman, Cooper relapsed back into his womanizing ways, and before long, they had taken their on-screen romance off-screen. However, this time, he wasn't courting a needy mistress...
Ingrid Bergman was quite the player herself and wasn't one to have her heart broken too easily. In fact, when it came to their hot-blooded fling, it was Cooper who came out the worse for wear. Later, he said, "No one loved me more than Ingrid Bergman, but the day after filming concluded, I couldn't even get her on the phone". The player had been played, but that didn't discourage him from going completely off the deep end.
Cooper's brief moment of fidelity was officially over. In 1948, he betrayed his wife yet again when he pursued Patricia Neal during the filming of The Fountainhead. The cheating actor tried his best to keep the affair a secret, but in the end, nothing could keep Hollywood from tracking down the truth. The consequences almost tore his family apart.
When Cooper and Neal's affair became public knowledge, his wife came to him with her heart on her sleeve. The rumors were awful—but when she confronted her husband, she didn't get the answer she was looking for. Cooper came clean about his infidelity but wasn't about to give up his mistress anytime soon. Instead of breaking things off, he continued to sleep with Neal.
The affair created a rift in Cooper's marriage that seemed too monumental to overcome, and consequently, he and Balfe separated in 1951. But if you think that Cooper had found a newfound bliss in Neal, nothing could be further from the truth. Later, Neal came forward with some disturbing allegations against the perpetual "good guy" of Hollywood.
According to Patricia Neal, Gary Cooper had a vicious side. When he discovered that she'd stepped out with Kirk Douglas, he hit her. But that was just the tip of the iceberg. Cooper got himself into a rather dicey situation when Neal became pregnant with his child. Like many powerful men in Hollywood, he arranged a hasty abortion for her.
This certainly wasn't a fairytale love affair, and by the end of 1951, it was over and done with.
For the next two years, Cooper maintained a rocky relationship with his wife and daughter. All the while, the rumors just kept pooling around him. His purported dalliances included Grace Kelly, Gisèle Pascale, and Lorraine Chanel. Somehow, Balfe still held a flame for her disloyal husband, and in 1953, she welcomed him back into the family home.
However, Cooper's turbulent personal life wasn't the only distressing thing about him.
During the 50s, Cooper struggled with his health. Constantly plagued by ulcers and hernias, the actor had to undergo several operations. When he returned to his wife, he decided to turn a new leaf. While doing publicity for 1952's High Noon, Cooper and his family explored Europe together. It was a great bonding moment, but it also inspired a great transformation in the troubled actor.
When Gary Cooper visited the Vatican, he arranged for a private meeting with the Pope himself. The born and raised Episcopalian wanted to become a Catholic and slough off the sins of his past. But that was easier said than done. Cooper had a weakness for women and his sudden desire to follow a moral code reflected his efforts to mend his marriage.
He believed that "a little religion wouldn't do him no hurt". But while he always struggled with his romantic life, there was one relationship that stood the test of time.
Cooper's relationships went beyond his errant womanizing. He also had a very close friend in the writer, Ernest Hemingway. But this was quite the unusual pairing. You see, Cooper and Hemingway had polarizing personalities. The writer was a total wild card: He was an obnoxious drinker—loud and rearing for a fight. On the other hand, the actor was more reserved and kept his demons locked behind closed doors; he didn't even like to read.
Together this friendship pinpointed an equilibrium that carried them through 20 years of friendship.
The one thing that Cooper and Hemingway did share was their love of nature. They bonded over hunting and fishing trips. Incredibly impressed with how Cooper portrayed some of his characters on screen, Hemingway specifically requested him for the lead role in For Whom The Bell Tolls. These bosom buddies did so much together...In fact, they even approached their tragic ends in tandem.
In 1960, Cooper's health took an incredibly worrisome turn. Doctors diagnosed him with prostate cancer, and sadly, it had already spread to his colon. He had to go undergo surgery, but the danger was far from over. Only a month after his operation, Cooper to have yet another surgery, this time to extract a tumor from his large intestine. The actor's fate hung in the balance.
By the end of the year, cancer had spread to his lungs and bones. But here's the weird part: Cooper had no idea that all hope was lost. When the doctors informed his wife of his condition, she decided to keep it a secret from him. In January of 1961, Cooper took his family out to Sun Valley for a vacation...the last one they'd ever share together.
While Cooper battled cancer, his friend Hemingway faced his own mental tribulations. They managed to hike through the snow together one last time before Cooper discovered that he was indeed on death's door. A couple of months later, the beloved actor made one last announcement to the public–and his words were utterly devastating.
On May 4, 1961, Cooper expressed, "I know that what is happening is God's will. I am not afraid of the future". Nine days later, he closed his eyes forever. In a tragic twist of fate, his closest friend, Ernest Hemingway, didn't last that much longer. He took his own life less than two months after Cooper passed. But while Gary Cooper breathed no more, the rumors surrounding him only ramped up.
Gary Cooper's most infamous love affair with Lupe Vélez ended with a dodged bullet and a hasty train getaway...but did it really end there? Down the road, writer Robert Slatzer made some intense claims in regard to Lupe Vélez, who took her own life, and that of her unborn child. According to his interview with her, she told him that the child she carried was none other than Gary Cooper's.
Vélez confided in Slatzer, telling him that Gary Cooper believed Harald Ramond to be the father. When Slatzer tried to follow up with Cooper, the actor admitted that he may have been the father. Now, Slatzer's alleged knowledge can't be thoroughly confirmed, but he talked to one more star about the whole debacle—and she revealed a deranged piece of the puzzle.
In Slatzer's account, Clara Bow confessed to hearing Gary Cooper on the phone with Lupe Vélez shortly before her passing. He was screaming at her—and his words were utterly chilling: He threatened Harald Ramond's life for impregnating his old flame. Bow, however, didn't believe that Harald Ramond was the father at all, and that, instead, Vélez had tried to save Cooper's reputation by lying about the whole thing.
Of course, Cooper's involvement in Vélez' demise is only one of many speculations concerning her taking her own life. According to the biographer Michelle Vogel, Cooper's decision to end his relationship with Vélez, not to mention his refusal to accept the child, may have sent her "over the edge".
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