Ten minutes before classes officially ended, Maria Cooper Janis would sometimes climb through the bushes that separated Marymount High School and the Bel-Air Golf Club.
“Our time was coordinated,” the daughter of Academy Award–winning legend Gary Cooper tells Closer. “I would meet up with my parents on the fourth or fifth hole, walk with them and hit some golf balls.”
In Hollywood, where actors’ personal lives often fail to live up to their on-screen persona, Gary, the star of such classics as Sergeant York, The Pride of the Yankees and High Noon, was a rare exception. “He was a decent, kind, honest, loyal man who treated women with respect,” says Maria, who confides that she “has nothing but wonderful memories” of her childhood.
The adored only child of Gary’s 28-year marriage to socialite Veronica “Rocky” Balfe went everywhere with her parents. “It was the three Coopers,” Maria, 83, recalls. “I was given tennis lessons very early on but they took lessons, too. We would all play.”
On weekends, Rocky was “the instigator of all sorts of adventures” like beach swims or fishing expeditions. “My father spent part of his childhood in Montana. He loved nature,” says Maria.
In the evenings, Gary and Rocky liked to entertain at home. “Jimmy Stewart was one of my father’s closest friends. Bing Crosby was also a good pal, and Ingrid Bergman and Audrey Hepburn became family friends,” says Maria, who notes that celebrity was not enough to gain admittance.“ My father didn’t like people who were ego-driven,” she says. “He was bored by self-absorbed people.”
Of course, Gary wasn’t perfect. This blue-eyed ladies’ man had many affairs during his marriage. He even left home during his five-year relationship with Patricia Neal, his costar in 1949’s The Fountainhead.
“When my father walked out, my mother was not one of these outraged, screaming wives,” Maria notes. “She went out and made her own life.” They reconciled, and the three Coopers set sail for Europe to promote High Noon in 1953. “[My parents] never stopped loving each other,” says Maria.
In his last decade, Gary converted to Catholicism, Rocky’s religion, and took comfort in his home. He also lived to receive a third Oscar, for lifetime achievement, which was accepted by Jimmy Stewart on his behalf before Gary’s 1961 death. “I miss my father’s physical presence. He had a tremendous sense of humor and he loved to have a good time,” says Maria, “but I can still feel his spirit.”
— Reporting by Katie Bruno
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