Hollywood leading man GARY COOPER was born on this date (d: 1961); Cooper was born Frank James Cooper in Helena, Montana, in 1901. If you’ve never been to Helena, here’s what you need to understand. It’s the capital of Montana, which makes it a big deal in a big state with few people. Cooper’s father went from being a farmer to being a lawyer to being a supreme court judge, demonstrating the sort of upward mobility that now seems a distinct relic of the 20th century. Cooper rode horses and had impeccable manners, which meant that he had none of the problems usually associated with “low class,” ethnic stardom (see especially: the case of Clara Bow). Imagine him not unlike Brad Pitt’s character early in A River Runs Through It, full of potential, swagger, and perfectly sun-kissed, golden shoulders.
Let’s talk straight: there was no cowboy handsomer than Gary Cooper. John Wayne had the sneer, and Gene Autry had the voice, but no one smoldered quite like Cooper. In his early films, he was glamour on a horse: his eyes lined, his face powdered, yet somehow right at home in the saddle — in part because unlike so many city-boys-turned-screen-cowboys, he grew up in Montana, one of the last veritable frontiers of the early 20th century. Over his 30 years in Hollywood, he would play variations on the cowboy — the cowboy goes to war, the cowboy goes to the city — but in each turn, he not only won the girl but did so righteously. Unlike other major stars, who allowed for and even reveled in the opportunity to play against type, Cooper kept things simple. He played slight variations on the same character, but their moral center remained constant: as he once told a screenwriter attempting to fine-tune his character, “just make me the hero.”
Cooper became a hero to many, even as he developed a reputation as one of the most notorious philanderers in Hollywood. He had stiff competition — Clark Gable, Spencer Tracy, the list goes on — but Cooper may or may not have slept with EVERY. SINGLE. CO-STAR. No matter his age, no matter their age, he was insatiable, before and during his marriage. How to reconcile his moral righteousness onscreen with his philandering off screen?
That, of course, was the work of Fixers, gossip magazines, and the studio system at large, which ensured that Cooper was never caught, never denounced, and held up as a paragon of American values. Of course, the way he looked in pants didn’t hurt. And while Kim Carnes recorded a smash hit, “Bette Davis Eyes”, she could just have easily sung “Gary Cooper Eyes”. I mean, really…look at that picture and tell me I’m wrong.
Ever helpful Lupe Velez purportedly claimed that Cooper “has the biggest organ in Hollywood but not the ass to push it in well.” Cooper carried on with Velez for a good long while — he wanted to marry her, but Cooper’s mom (she was right there in L.A. with her boy) thought her too “vulgar” and “tasteless.” We might attribute her verdict to good ol’ fashioned racism, but truthfully, Lupe really was a bit of a hot mess. Or at least that’s how the press chose to portray her, most likely in keeping with her onscreen image as a fiery Latina.
She loved acting “low-class,” and threw parties with cock fights and “stag films,” a.k.a. thinly veiled porn. She got in fights, especially over men, and was prone to extreme jealousy. To wit: angry over Cooper’s close friendship with Anderson Lawler, known, in the time’s parlance, as a “swisher,” or flamboyant homosexual, Velez supposedly “unzipped Cooper’s fly at a social gathering and started sniffing his crotch, claiming to smell Lawler’s cologne.”
I can’t even.