Friday, November 23, 2012

Spielberg's "Lincoln"

By Mary Claire Kendall

Mary Todd Lincoln
The earliest known daguerreotype of her, 
taken c.1864 by Nicholas H. Shepherd. 
Source: Roger Norton Photo Gallery

Steven Spielberg’s film Lincoln is superb. 

There is just one very major flaw: Sally Field, age 66, played Mary Todd Lincoln, age 46, and it didnt work—at all. Field looks every bit her 65 years (age when filming), which is not a bad thing, except when you are playing a 46 year old: It’s simply not believable that she could be the mother of then ten year old Tad or the wife/lover of the then 55/56 year old president—exactly Daniel Day-Lewis’  age—when the war was winding down and he was working to pass the Thirteenth Amendment in the U.S. House of Representatives. Every time Field was part of a scene I found myself going, eh gad. 

Why Spielberg made this most unfortunate casting decision is a mystery. The only thing I can figure out is he thought it would work because Lincoln had aged 10 years by that time. But, having a wife who matched her real age would have had the effect of making Lincoln look older, which is the whole point: the war had been hell and his aged face showed it. 

Still of Daniel Day-Lewis in Lincoln. Credit: DreamWorks.

Mary Claire Kendall is a Washington-based writer. She writes a regular column for, most recently “Doolittle’s Raiders And The Miracle That Saved Them.”

Monday, September 24, 2012

Happy Birthday, F. Scott!

Original Francis Cugat cover commissioned by
Scribner's and Sons for The Great Gatsby published on April 10, 1925

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past." - The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Happy Birthday, Mickey Rooney!

Credit: Wikipedia

On September 23, 1920, Mickey Rooney (Joseph Yule, Jr.) was born, a blessed event that left the world a much richer place. Peers in Hollywood paid tribute to his talent, Cary Grant calling him "the most talented man in the history of movies": Rooney acted, acted and sangdanced, danced, dancedplayed drumssang while strumming the guitardid comedy, e.g., on "Hollywood Palace," a song and dance routine with Sammy Davis thrown in, along with some Wallace Beery and Cary Grant impersonations, for good measure... in short, he was a burst of theatrical talent and vitality... and just plain fun... 

Here he is on Private Screenings talking with TCM host Robert Osbourne in 1997... and forty years earlier on "What's My Line?"

His best friend was Judy Garland, about whom he reminisced with Osbourne... Here's a clip from the last film he made with her, "Words and Music" (1948), about Richard Rogers and Lorenz Hart, with Judy singing "I wish I were in love again"...

Finally, this classic: Micky Rooney on "The Twilight Zone"...  

Wishing Mickey Rooney the very best on his special day...

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Bob Hope and His Ladies of Hope

A year ago this Wednesday, September 19, Dolores Hope died at age 102.  “The smartest thing Bob Hope ever did,” Lucille Ball once quipped, was to marry Dolores.  Here’s his story – and theirs, originally published in National Catholic Register on October 19, 2011.  

Bob Hope — “the most honored entertainer” ever, according to the Guinness Book of World Records, for his achievements in theater, radio, film, TV, philanthropy and business, and an extraordinary record of service to country, with 199 USO shows around the globe — won the biggest prize of all in the waning days of his life when he converted to Catholicism.

Bob and Dolores Hope at Library of Congress in October 1993

Born Leslie Townes Hope on May 29, 1903, in Eltham, England, he was the fifth of seven boys.

Leslie’s mother, Avis, was very devoted and loving. His father, William Henry “Harry,” a stonecutter, “had only one fault,” as Hope recalled in his memoir, Have Tux, Will Travel: Bob Hope’s Own Story: “It was his theory that, as a result of his occupation, stone dust collected in his throat. He stopped off at the pubs to sluice it off.”

While initially prosperous, Harry’s trade gradually proved financially inadequate, as bricks displaced stone masonry — forcing the family to keep moving into smaller homes, with Harry increasingly turning to alcohol and women to feel like a real man and bury his feelings of inadequacy.

When the family immigrated to Cleveland seeking brighter prospects, Avis had to intervene to shore up the family finances, renting ever more spacious and seemingly unaffordable homes to take in boarders. The children contributed too, taking part-time jobs. But Avis made sure they had at least a modicum of religious formation. “Mom,” he wrote, “after making sure we were clean and uncomfortably dressed… sent us off to Sunday school at the Euclid Avenue Presbyterian — a church dad had helped build”

As a child, Hope was rescued by his brother, when he got pinned under a pier and nearly drowned, and managed to survive his father’s brutal beatings — physically, if not entirely psychologically.

But he was ultimately saved by his mother, who, a singer herself, encouraged her young son’s theatrical talent early on. After winning a Charlie Chaplin contest in 1914, Leslie set his cap — later his trademark brown derby hat — for the theater, convinced that being “on stage” was his true calling. 

He started in vaudeville as “Lester,” scandal-tainted Fatty Arbuckle intervening in 1925 to get him and his partner steady work in Hurley’s Jolly Follies. “I was making $40 a week and sending $20 home to my mother to help out,” he recalled.

In New Castle, Pa., Hope got his solo break and, at the conclusion of a three-day engagement, telling well-received Scotch jokes, became a “single” and soon headed for mob-ruled Chicago to make it on his own without his partner. But, after running up a $400 tab for donuts and coffee—and perhaps some medicinal spirits—he wasn’t making it. On the verge of giving up, by chance, he bumped into a Cleveland pal, who introduced him to a theater booker friend, who gave him a Decoration Day (i.e., Memorial Day) gig. “Would $25 be all right?’ (the booker asked)… I just managed to say, ‘I’ll take it,’ without bursting into tears…”

By 1929, now renamed “Bob Hope,” he was becoming a well-known and liked comedian and landing more small parts on Broadway, leading up to a large Broadway role in Jerome Kerns’ hit “Roberta” (November 1933 to July 1934). From there, his career took off — soon including radio, film, and eventually TV, his first special debuting Easter Sunday 1950.

Pivotal “Roberta” would transform his life in another important way.

Early on, his co-star George Murphy took him to the Vogue Club on 57th Street to introduce him to a beautiful singer named Dolores Reade.

Father Benedict Groeschel of the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal, a good friend of the Hopes — introduced by the Gallo family — fondly reminisced that Dolores’ Italian-American father was a well-known “singing waiter” on bustling 149th Street in the Bronx and that her mother was Irish-American.

She was irresistible.

Bob fell in love with Dolores when she sang in her “low, husky voice … soft and sweet … ‘Only a Paper Moon and Did You Ever See a Dream Walking?’ They wed a few months later — “The smartest thing Bob Hope ever did,” Lucille Ball once quipped.

Their 69-year marriage, rare in the annals of Hollywood, gradually welcomed four adopted children: Linda, Anthony, Eleanora Avis “Nora” and Kelly.

Starting in World War II, Hope began donating entertainment hours to cheer up the troops, soon expanding his charity work to other causes. First, there was cerebral palsy; then the Eisenhower Medical Center — donating land in Palm Springs and raising millions through his Annual Hope Golf Classic — followed by myriad other causes, especially Catholic charitable institutions that helped children and the poor.

By the mid-point of his life — as one his former writers, Arthur Marx, son of Groucho, wrote in The Secret Life of Bob Hope — he was “no longer just a comedian or film star. He was big business … (also including) oil, real estate, frozen orange juice, charity fundraising, golf, wholesale meat, personal appearances on both sides of the Atlantic … Major League baseball (i.e., Cleveland Indians)… He was also part owner of several radio and TV stations.”

His success was accompanied, and made possible, by a fiercely competitive spirit, combined with a penny-pinching nature — a remnant of his struggle just to survive as a child and in vaudeville. Whereas he had a heart of gold when it came to the troops and special friends like his agent Jack Saphier — paying all his medical expenses when he was terminally ill — he drove particularly hard bargains with others, including his writers, who made Bob Hope. But it wasn’t personal.

Marx reminisced how, after a typically long writing session, he would ask Sherwood Schwartz, later of “Gilligan’s Island” fame, to go buy him a pineapple sundae. When he returned with it, Hope would enjoy it without offering any to his hungry writers. Later, when Schwartz was posted with Armed Forces Radio in New York, he showed up at Hope’s Pepsodent Show rehearsal with a pineapple sundae, and told Marx, “I sneaked up behind Hope and without telling him who I was, said, ‘Here’s our sundae, Mr. Hope’ and put it in his hand. Without turning around, and without missing a beat, Hope took the sundae from me and snapped, ‘What kept you so long, kid?’”

All through his life, he was also a prodigious womanizer — often leaving Dolores in tears. “I’m no angel. I’ve known very few angels,” Hope wrote. As Marx summed it up, he had more women than Errol Flynn, Chico Marx and his good friend Bing Crosby combined, which once brought the couple to the brink of divorce.

The irony is: Bob Hope’s signature song, “Thanks for the Memory,” is about a couple who is contemplating divorce, and then they begin to reminisce about the wonderful times they’ve had, and decide to stay together.

Dolores toughed it out, knowing infidelity was Bob’s weakness — albeit, like his good qualities, it played out in extreme ways.

Agent of Conversion

“Dolores,” Father Groeschel said, “faithfully, prayerfully, patiently and with a certain amount of suffering” endured these trials. “She was a devout Christian wife, and she did what she was supposed to do.” Quite simply, the reason she was able to persevere, as he summed it up, is that “Dolores Hope was a great Christian.”

Through it all, she was praying him into the Church.

“Basically, the agent of his conversion was his wife,” observed Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, the retired archbishop of Washington, who got to know Hope through Cardinal Terence Cooke of New York (whose cause for beatification is now in Rome), when he served as his secretary.

She was a daily communicant and was particularly devoted to Our Lady, and she prayed for him with a deep faith — and asked others to pray for him as well.

Also — and this is not to be underestimated —“she took very good care of him,” longtime friend Virginia Zamboni said.

Father Groeschel observed the conversion process up close.

“They were both very friendly people,” he said. Years before he converted, they would open their “large” yet “comfortable” home — but not mansion-like — to guests from time to time. “Bob,” he said, “was very pleasant and easy to get on with” — not at all “on stage.”

He loved to tell a story to priests who visited, sometimes for retreats Dolores hosted, about a “big Catholic” event he attended where “the priest who was introducing him told eight jokes.” Father Groeschel recalled that “Bob got up, looked at the crowd,” as if warming up to tell his own set of jokes, “and said, ‘Let us pray.’

“That,” said Father Groeschel, “is real Bob Hope!”

In the midst of the mirth, Father Groeschel emphasized, he was “extremely respectful to a priest. Practically every word or sentence, he would call me ‘Father.’”

Of course, it’s quite comical to imagine Bob Hope — this man who was so firmly planted in the here and now, not missing a beat when it came to human nature — reacting to all of the reminders of eternity around him.

Sometimes, the two intersected, as when Dolores wrote to Father George Rutler on Dec. 9, 1991: “One of the times I was watching you on EWTN you told a wonderful story about St. Philip Neri, who died with a Bible and a joke book along side of him. … I told Bob about this, and he asked if there really was such a joke book. Is it possible that anything like this can be traced?”

They shared more than laughs.

“They were very generous in every way,” said Cardinal McCarrick. “The many benefactions are legion.”

For example, in May 1994, Our Lady of Hope Chapel, endowed by the Hopes in memory of Bob’s mother Avis, was dedicated at the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception.

And Father Groeschel noted, “They supported many works of the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal.”

God was generous, too — with his grace.

Arc of Conversion

The gradual arc of Bob Hope’s conversion is apparent in his last book, My Life in Jokes, divided into 10 decades. Introducing his fourth decade, when he started entertaining the troops, he wrote: “I was offering time and laughs — the men and women fighting the war were offering up their lives. They taught me what sacrifice was all about.”

It was during World War II, according to Cardinal McCarrick, that Bob became “very close” to New York Cardinal Francis Spellman. “They made all those rounds visiting the troops. And I really think that Bob was impressed by the faith of the Catholic men and women in the service that he met and by their enthusiasm to greet Cardinal Spellman. He often said, ‘He got a bigger hand than I did.’”

“For many years,” Cardinal McCarrick said, “we had been chatting with him about the Church.”

God began, gradually, to wake him up to spiritual horizons.

For instance, Hope had lots of trouble with his eyes (first left, and then even right, would hemorrhage) and often had to rest in a dark room after surgery — once for three weeks. For the peripatetic Hope, that must have been misery, but also a time for badly needed reflection.

In his late 80s, at age 89, Bob Hope got the ultimate wake-up call.

It was at the festivities surrounding the opening of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library on Nov. 4, 1991.

As Marx describes Hope’s reaction to his reduced status, “He couldn’t believe it. ‘I’m Bob Hope,’ he complained to the people in charge. … ‘I’m sure I’m on the limo list.’”

But he wasn’t.

This world-class comedian and philanthropist, who had journeyed the world many times over, “flying a few million miles,” since World War II, entertaining “his boys”; this friend of presidents and royalty since the ’40s — who had “known most of the great personalities of our time, in politics, sports and show business,” as he wrote in Don’t Shoot, It’s Only Me —was now being shunted aside to make small talk on an open-air tram with Lou Wasserman and Michael Eisner on the way to celebrating Reagan’s immortalization at his brand-new library.

After all these years of self-indulgence — interlaced with great generosity — God was tapping Bob on the shoulder to give him a spiritual pineapple ice-cream sundae.

In his last 10 years, according to Marx, he finally settled down and began enjoying life with Dolores, attending church regularly with her at St. Charles Borromeo in North Hollywood.

“Dolores,” Cardinal McCarrick said, “always was anxious that he become a Catholic. I think he had been close to the Church in faith for many years … and she was the one who kept bringing it up to him as a possibility. She would never force anyone. She was always very thoughtful and considerate. But she was persistent in saying ‘One of these days; one of these days.’ And, finally, he said, ‘Okay, it’s time.’”

Father Groeschel said that while Bob Hope was advanced in age (i.e., 93) when he converted, “He was very clear” and lucid and “could talk.”

Msgr. Thomas Kiefer, the former pastor at St. Charles Borromeo, 1984-2000, “was the one who ultimately brought him into the Church” 15 years ago, said Cardinal McCarrick. Msgr. Kiefer, “a dear friend of both of them,” died on Oct. 30, 2006.

Bob Hope died in 2003; Dolores followed him on Sept. 19, at age 102.

Late this summer, when Dolores was still “quite conscious,” Father Groeschel stopped by to see her.

“Dolores, I hope you’re living comfortably,” he said.

She responded with a quip, “I’m ready to get out of here comfortably.”

Knowing she was instrumental in helping her husband win the biggest prize of all must have been great comfort, indeed.

Mary Claire Kendall is a Washington-based journalist and screenwriter.
Copyright © 2011 Circle Media, Inc. All rights reserved.

This shorter version was published in Forbes on first anniversary of Dolores Hope’s death. 

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Happy Birthday, Gene Kelly!

Happy Birthday to Gene Kelly, born 100 years ago today... America is a richer place for his marvelous contributions to our artistic, cultural and film heritage... Besides “
Singin’ in the Rain,” “An American in Paris” is another personal favorite of mine, co-starring themarvelous Leslie Caron, who celebrated her birthday on July 1... 

Friday, August 17, 2012

Gary Cooper's Authenticity


Hollywood icon Gary Cooper, who died 50 years ago this year, had a refreshing authenticity that makes his conversion to Catholicism only natural.
Contrary to frequent reports asserting otherwise, his conversion was not prompted by illness. “No way,” his daughter, Maria Cooper Janis, said. “He was coming to this on his own, in his own time … bits and pieces of his own life that he wanted to put together in a new way.”
“He had a very real spirituality,” Maria said, “that wasn’t an ‘ism’ … that, I think, he was born with, that he grew up with, living out West in nature [and] having a very strong affinity to the American-Indian culture and spirituality.”
Born May 7, 1901, in Helena, Mont., as the Old West was fading, Cooper was an accidental star, coming to Hollywood to find work as a commercial artist and be closer to his parents.
After he landed some stunt work, the handsome, understated Cooper was soon “discovered,” and, in 1925, he began acting in uncredited roles.
His film career, spanning 36 years, took off with Wings (1928), winner of the first Best Picture Academy Award.
His scene was a short one — just two-and-a-half minutes long. But, as Paramount Pictures’ legend A.C. Lyles described it, “When he came on the screen, it just lit up with him.” With just 200 feet of film, Hollywood moguls knew they were looking at a star.
Indeed, they were.
He singlehandedly lifted Paramount’s sagging Depression-era fortunes, playing “everyman” heroes, perfectly capturing the era, such as Longfellow Deeds in Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936); Long John Willoughby in Meet John Doe (1941) — both Frank Capra classics — and Alvin York in Sergeant York (1941), Cooper’s favorite role and one steeped in Christian spirituality, for which he won his first Oscar.
He came to embody the essence of the American character, especially that unique combination of rugged individualism and magnanimous selflessness — in his case, nurtured by the West and his English immigrant parents, who inculcated in him the elegant manners of a “gentleman.”
“With Gary, there are always wonderful hidden depths that you haven’t found yet,” Mr. Deeds Goes to Town co-star Jean Arthur said in Frank Capra: The Catastrophe of Success by Joseph McBride. “You feel like you’re resting on the Rock of Gibraltar.”

Of the genre of film with which he was most identified — the Western — having starred in The Virginian (1931), the original, standard-setting Western, he said in a 1959 interview: “I like Westerns because the good ones are real … [telling] stories of … pioneers [who] braved the elements, and … [through] the Western picture … we realize that our country was and is full of people who believe in America.”
Cooper was a “great movie actor” because in screenwriter/director Richard Brooks’ view, “he can make you feel something, something visceral, something deep, something that matters. He is who he plays.”
High Noon, a flawless Western, considered his greatest film, for which he won his second Oscar, revealed the moral struggle in the victory of good over evil.
In contrast, recent box office flop Atlas Shrugged: Part I calls to mind the one role Cooper played — Howard Roark in Warner Bros. Pictures’ The Fountainhead, Ayn Rand’s other work — that did not reflect Cooper’s character at all.
As Maria said of her father, “While he stood for rugged individualism — the individual against the world — anything that smelled of selfishness or exclusively self-interest was not his thing.”
Cooper’s self-effacing nature permeated his life. In March 1961, dying of cancer, he flew to New York to record the off-camera narration for The Real West. TV producer Donald Hyatt recalled “his simplicity and lack of ‘big star’ pretentions.” For instance, when there was no room for his coat on the rack, Cooper said, “Don’t take another coat off: Just throw mine anywhere” (Gary Cooper: American Hero by Jeffrey Meyers).
But, like all heroes, mere mortals after all, Cooper had a fatal flaw, which, ironically, surfaced after the filming of The Fountainhead, when the two stars — the married Cooper and Patricia Neal, 25 years his junior — began an affair, creating, as Cooper’s daughter notes with wry understatement, a “complicated situation.”
As Richard Widmark summed it up in American Hero, “Cooper was “catnip to the ladies.” From the start, his leading ladies, including, for instance, Clara Bow, Marlene Dietrich, Tallulah Bankhead, Lupe Velez, Carole Lombard, Ingrid Bergman and Grace Kelly — and many other women along the way — warmed up quickly to him.
They were always brief affairs that went with the filmmaking territory, where falling in love on screen simply continued off screen.
The affair with Neal was different. It endured beyond filming.
It began in October 1948, after The Fountainhead wrapped, and continued until Christmas 1951, when Cooper, realizing the affair must end, gave Neal a fur coat and left for Europe — exactly a year after he had taken her to Cuba, seeking his good friend Ernest Hemingway’s approval of this long-term extramarital relationship, which he failed to get.

But God brought great good out of this “complicated situation,” which was extremely difficult on every individual involved — Cooper suffered debilitating ulcers; his family, along with Neal, endured intense emotional strain. Neal became pregnant and had an abortion in March 1950.
The spiritual brick bats — turning points — his weakness precipitated were nothing new.
He had suffered a nervous breakdown in 1931 due to Hollywood’s filmmaking demands on their new star and his non-stop romancing. As he wrote his nephew Howard: “I had drifted, taken advice, let people get at me through my emotions, my sympathy, my affections …”
As he would later, he sought solace and healing in Europe in 1931, having lived in England as a child for two years, some 20 years earlier. After a year away amidst high society, and fully rejuvenated, a key turning point in his life arrived in the form of the lovely Eastern socialite Veronica “Rocky” Balfe, niece of famed MGM art director Cedric Gibbons, who was 12 years his junior. He married her a year later on Dec. 15, 1933.
A Catholic, with refined manners — albeit some detractors criticized her perceived Eastern snobbery — she brought great stability and genuine love to Cooper’s life.
However, as Ted Nugent, a studio electrician at Paramount who observed him closely, commented in Gary Cooper: American Hero, “If he was born for the camera, he was born to make love. … He wanted to satisfy women … enjoyed looking at them, listening to them, pleasing them. … A guy like that does not change.”

Not without grace, that is.
After separating from his family in May 1951, in the wake of his affair with Neal, Cooper came to realize his life’s emptiness. His character Will Kane in High Noon (1952), filmed in the fall of 1951, perfectly reflected the moral conflict he was feeling.
On June 26, 1953, while on a publicity tour, joined by his family to promote High Noon, he visited the Vatican and met Pope Pius XII, which made a deep impression on him.
Everyone in Hollywood was begging for a memento. At the papal audience, Maria reminisced, “my father had rosaries up his arm,” while grasping other mementos. But, because of a bad back, he had trouble genuflecting and, as he did, “everything just fell — the medals and the rosaries and the holy cards …” While Cooper was scrambling on all fours, “suddenly,” she humorously recalled, he encountered “this scarlet shoe and a robe.”
In early 1954, after filming Return to Paradise (1953), coincidentally about a father who returns to take care of his 16-year-old daughter, he returned to his family and his own 16-year-old daughter.
After settling back into married life, he strayed again, now going for less-refined women — his affair with the Swedish actress Anita Ekberg the most salient example. “It seemed like a good idea at the time,” he told his wife with that classic boyish innocence.
She wasn’t amused.
Realizing the stress his wandering placed on his family, Cooper began going to church with Rocky and Maria outside of the ordinary Christmas and Easter routine.
Though he never talked about it, Maria senses he turned to religion because “he probably was looking for some more stability than he found personally.”
It happened very naturally. After Sunday Mass together, she said, “we’d joke about” the “very erudite, funny” Father Harold Ford — “a real man,” whom her father dubbed “Father Tough Stuff.”
Cooper was intrigued and said, “Oh, I’d like to hear him some day,” prompting Rocky to respond, “Well, come along.”
Father Ford’s sermons, Maria said, made him think.
Contrary to some accounts, Rocky did not engineer Cooper’s conversion. “It wasn’t knocking him over the head,” Maria said. “Because, believe me, no one made my father do what he didn’t want to do.”
Soon Rocky invited Father Ford over to their home, thinking the two men might share some spiritual reflections. Instead, they shared their mutual interest in guns, hunting, fishing and scuba diving!
In the midst of cavorting, the talk occasionally began to drift toward religion, mirroring the path followed by Sgt. Alvin York, who said, “A fellow can’t go looking for it; it’s just got to come to a fellow.” Sure enough, Father Ford and “Coop” began getting together for longer discussions — for instance, on drives up to Malibu.
Gradually, Cooper evidently concluded, in Ma York’s famous words, “a little religion wouldn’t do him no hurt” and, on April 9, 1959, was formally admitted into the Catholic Church.
Close family friend Shirley Burden — Cornelius Vanderbilt’s great-great-grandson, married to Douglas Fairbanks Sr.’s niece — who was himself a convert, served as Cooper’s godfather at his baptism. 
Later that year, Cooper explained his conversion, saying: “I’d spent all my waking hours, year after year, doing almost exactly what I, personally, wanted to do; and what I wanted to do wasn’t always the most polite thing either. … This past winter I began to dwell a little more on what’s been in my mind for a long time [and thought], Coop, old boy, you owe somebody something for all your good fortune. I’ll never be anything like a saint. … The only thing I can say for me is that I’m trying to be a little better. Maybe I’ll succeed” (The Hollywood Greats by Barry Norman).
In April 1961, a visibly moved Jimmy Stewart appeared at the Academy Awards to accept Cooper’s honorary Oscar and to “drop the hint” that his friend was seriously ill. The next day newspaper headlines around the world blared: “Gary Cooper Has Cancer.”
Visitors started coming, and messages poured in from friends and well-wishers around the world, including Pope John XXIII, Queen Elizabeth, John Wayne, Ernest Hemingway, former President Dwight Eisenhower, Bob Hope, Audrey Hepburn and many others. Even President John F. Kennedy called from Washington, finally getting through a day later.
Friends, expecting to find gloom at the Cooper home, instead found light and sunshine, crisp flowers and cheerful music, as the family faced this profoundly difficult time with faith.  Billy Wilder “recalled that [Cooper] dressed in stylish pajamas and robe and seemed more composed than his guests.” As Rocky told Hedda Hopper, “What helped him most was his religion.” As his illness progressed, “He never asked ‘Why me?’ and never complained” and was spiritually enriched by the sacraments and books such as Bishop Fulton Sheen’s Peace of Soul (Gary Cooper: American HeroHow I Faced Tomorrow, interview with Veronica Cooper and Maria Cooper Janis). 
“I know,” announced Cooper as he lay dying, “that what is happening is God’s will. I am not afraid of the future” (The Straits Times, May 6, 1961).
Gary Cooper died of prostate and colon cancer on May 13, 1961, and is beloved for the indelible portrait he gave us of what it is to be an authentic American hero — a portrait that’s incomplete without the story of his last heroic days.
Mary Claire Kendall writes from Washington, D.C.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Patricia Neal's Heart

Oscar-winning actress’ journey was one of healing and forgiveness.
by Mary Claire Kendall

Originally published in National Catholic Register on August 10, 2011  

Patricia Neal, who died a year ago this August, was one of the 20th century’s most gifted actresses of stage and screen. But soaring achievement was met with heart-rending tragedy, including three strokes that nearly ended her life at age 39.

Through it all — in a plan that only God could have written — she secured her greatest achievement of all: a surpassing quality of love, guided, after she hit rock bottom, by the richness of Catholicism.         

It was a most unexpected development, making her remarkable life even more so.

Patricia Neal — christened “Patsy Louise” — was born on Jan. 20, 1926, in the small town of Packard, Ky., a close-knit community in the heart of coal country, where neighbor looked after neighbor and life’s pleasures were simple.

“Life in Packard,” she wrote in her critically acclaimed autobiography As I Am, “was very good.” The hub of activity was the church — “of course, Baptist” — and general store.

Her larger-than-life father William Burdette “Coot” Neal was from southern Virginia, where his family owned a tobacco plantation near Danville; and her earnest, warm-hearted mother, Eura Mildred Petrey, was from Packard, where her father, “Pappy,” was the town doctor.

“Remember what the Psalmist says,” Pappy would remind her. “‘He changes desert into pools of water.’”

At age 11, now living in Knoxville, Tenn., “I saw a glorious lady giving monologues, and that’s all I wanted to do …” she told Turner Classic Movies’ host Robert Osborne in a 2004 Private Screenings interview. Her father’s boss’ daughter, just back from New York, was giving drama lessons, which her parents green-lighted Christmas 1937. “My monologues,” she wrote, “graduated from the front yard to Aunt Maude’s drawing room, and my audiences were growing. I got great notices the first play I did, so I knew I wanted to be an actress.”

During her first year at Northwestern University, her “daddy” — “the rock upon which anything good about me has been built” — died of a heart attack. Though eager to get to New York, she studied another year at Northwestern, at her family’s request, where drama teacher Alvina Krause was starting a summer theater and brought her along. From there she headed for New York, where she quickly landed an understudy role in The Voice of the Turtle and acquired her new name —”Patricia” — which the producer, Alfred de Liagre, thought matched her regal manner.

“Applause,” she wrote, “was love. It was approval by everybody. And I bathed in it.”

She also wanted the real thing. In New York, at age 19, when her first “boyfriend,” the son of an abortionist, told her he loved her more than anyone else, she traded in her virginity for “love.” When he dumped her for his virginal high-school sweetheart, she was deeply wounded.

Trusting her well-formed, sensitive theatrical instincts, she soon made her theatrical mark, landing a starring role in Another Part of the Forest (1946), for which she won a Tony in the first such awards ceremony; while, at the same time, hardened in “love,” she pursued romance without conscience and wrecked two marriages.

The offers started pouring in from Hollywood, and she landed a contract with Warner Bros. and the starring role in John Loves Mary opposite Ronald Reagan, whom she met on New Year’s Eve 1947 when she first arrived in Hollywood.

A year later, director King Vidor introduced her to Gary Cooper when she was testing for The Fountainhead, and, after filming wrapped, she began a legendary affair with her married co-star.

“When the young doctor took my virginity and made me a bad woman,” she wrote in As I Am, “I made up my mind I would never get hurt like that again. … Gary touched my heart as no one else had done before. I was really in love, and it was like I was innocent again.”

Predictably, the affair brought great turmoil to the lives of all involved — Patricia suffered a nervous breakdown when it came to an end, as it had to, by Christmas 1951; and Gary’s young daughter Maria famously spit on Patricia in public, according to Patricia Neal: An Unquiet Life by Stephen Michael Shearer. “Gary adored her,” she wrote in As I Am. And, as she told Osborne, “He loved Rocky (his wife).” In 1959, during a chance encounter from afar in New York, Maria glowered at her, evidencing how raw the wound still was.

After Warner Bros. failed to renew her contract, she returned to New York and the stage she loved so much, this time starring in Lillian Hellman’s The Children’s Hour and soon met and fell and love with renowned writer Roald Dahl, whom she married on July 2, 1953.

The marriage had some initial bumps — Roald asking for a divorce the first year — but, crisis averted, their children began making their grand entrances: Olivia Twenty, born on April 20, 1955; Chantal Tessa Sophia, born on April 11, 1957; Theo Matthew Dahl, born on July 30, 1960.

Then tragedy struck on Dec. 5, 1960, when their son Theo — her “beautiful boy,” just 4 months old — was struck by a taxi as the family au pair was strolling him along a New York City street. He suffered brain damage, occasioning many surgeries and the family’s move back to England.

As Theo recovered, aided by Roald’s development of a successful therapeutic intervention, both career and family thrived: Patricia played Mrs. Failenson in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961), and they continued settling into a marvelous life in their white cottage with plush gardens at Great Missenden, not far from London, as, charmingly, Roald began testing his stories out on his children and writing some hit children’s books.

However, tragedy again struck the following year when Olivia, not qualifying for a scarce measles vaccine, contracted and died of the disease on Nov. 17, 1962.

Roald was utterly devastated. But, as they gradually picked up the pieces, Patricia landed the role of Alma Brown in Hud (1963), for which she won a Best Actress Oscar. The director Martin Ritt kindly scheduled filming in segments so she could take care of her most cherished role: that of mother and wife. A year later, Ophelia Magdalena was born on May 12, 1964.

As if the brain-damaging accident and death of Theo and Olivia, respectively, were not enough, on Feb. 17, 1965, while bathing Tessa, she suffered three near-fatal burst cerebral aneurysms and was in a coma for three weeks.

She had only that week begun filming John Ford’s Seven Women and was pregnant — a fact known only to her and Roald.

Just 39 years old, her life had changed inexorably.

As she worked to recover, she was guided by the strong, firm hand of Roald — sometimes seemingly too much so.

Then, one day she received a letter that would change her life — spiritually and emotionally.
It was from Maria Cooper, and while Roald later burned it, she will never forget the letter’s three key words: “I forgive you.”

“The grace of God in Maria,” according to Benedictine Mother Dolores Hart, a former Paramount actress, is what prompted this amazing gesture, as she stated in a 2010 The World Over interview. “Maria knew that ‘forgiveness demands an action,’ and I think that is one of the deepest realities of Christian love.”

On Aug. 4, 1965, having survived her stroke, Lucy Neal was born. As her precious baby grew, Patricia continued to heal physically, making her return speech in 1966 at The Waldorf Astoria in New York. It was a signal achievement for someone who had had to learn how to walk and speak again. As she noted in her speech — for which she had prepped and practiced to a wearying degree, “Tennessee hillbillies don’t conk out that easy.”

When she finished, she wrote, “I knew my life had been given back to me for one reason,” though she was unsure what that was.

Later she recognized, among other purposes, her stroke brought attention to this all-too-common, debilitating medical emergency, serving as a catalyst for the building of many hospitals, including the Patricia Neal Rehabilitation Center in Knoxville.

She credited “Roald the Rotten” for throwing her back in the deep water “where I belonged.” Indeed, by 1967, she was cast to play the leading role in The Subject Was Roses (1968). While it was difficult to learn lines, she quipped in her book, “I was a hit … just for being alive.”

However, when she won the starring role in the television pilot of The Waltons (1971), she was not asked to play the role in the TV series because executives worried her health would not bear up under the pressure.

Nor did her marriage bear up under the pressure; in 1972 Roald secretly began an affair with Catholic divorcee Felicity Crosland, the London-based freelance coordinator for David Ogilvy’s ad agency, who worked with Patricia when she began filming commercials for Maxim coffee.

In 1973, as the Maxim campaign was thriving, Patricia found herself returning every three weeks to New York, and she wrote to Maria Cooper asking to get together. Maria replied, “I very much want to see you.”

Finally, after many attempts, Maria agreed to join Patricia for breakfast in her hotel suite. Upon arriving, Patricia wrote, she “spread her arms open to me. She held me, and the years of emptiness between me and Gary was over.”

“An amazing grace” occurred during that meeting, as she realized for the first time since her stroke, its gift: “Somehow, a memory that once had the power to wound me now passed benignly through my head.”

The memory was also being set right, as Patricia poignantly recounted in As I Am:

“Maria finally asked, ‘Is it true that you were pregnant by my father?’”

“Yes, I am sorry I didn’t have it.”

“It’s my loss, too. I’m the only one.”

Before the meeting ended, Maria asked her to promise to write to her mother, who was now “Mrs. John Converse.”

Five years later, while in Nice, France, in the summer of 1978, she again ran into Maria Cooper, now married to the accomplished pianist Byron Janis. Sensing Patricia’s inner turmoil, Maria asked her about her “faith in God,” and, told she was struggling with it, given all the tragedy in her life, Maria suggested she visit the Abbey of Regina Laudis in Bethlehem, Conn.

In the fall of 1978, Maria said that Patricia, suffering under the weight of her crumbling marriage, called her and asked about that abbey. Maria gave her the contact information for her good friend, Dolores Hart, who had lived at the abbey in consecrated life for 15 years.  “Through grace or whatever,” Maria said, “she was the one who picked up the phone and made the appointment and took herself to the abbey.”  Her role, she said, was to “give her the opportunity,” but after that “it was Pat’s party.”

As the date of her scheduled visit neared, she wrote, “I suddenly wondered what the hell I was doing, going to a Catholic nunnery.”

When she arrived at the abbey in May 1979, she wrote, “I was taken to have a parlor with the nun who had written to me. She greeted me from behind a grille and had the most beautiful eyes I had ever seen.” She outlined the plan for the three-day visit, and in response to Patricia’s query about smoking told her, “while it was a ‘prohibiting law,’ the abbess ‘knew from real sin,’ and she was sure a way to indulge my vice could be found.”

During prayers in the monastery chapel, “filled with flowers beautifully arranged … (and) calming strains of Gregorian chant … from behind a large grille …” Patricia wrote, “I remember thinking it was the first time I had felt close to peace in a long time.” And, the meals, she wrote, were wonderful, especially the fresh bread!

On the second day, she wrote, “I worked up courage to talk about the struggle my marriage had become.” The nun — the same one with the beautiful eyes — only listened. 

Later when she did a reading of Helen Keller for the abbey, her goal became clear: “At other times,” Keller wrote, “things that I have been taught … and learned … drop away, as the lizard sheds its skin, and I see my soul as God sees it.”

On the third day, when the nun took her to the garden, Patricia “carefully avoided mentioning the affair with Gary …” But, the nun suggested, Patricia wrote, “I would have to go … even further back than the stroke to find the seeds of my discontent” — after which the affair with Gary Cooper spilled out. Patricia lamented “there was no way we could have been together.” The nun “corrected” her by saying “‘But there was’” a way, i.e., spiritually. “I never forgot that conversation,” Patricia wrote. 

Before she left, Patricia chose a flower from the greenhouse as a remembrance of Olivia. “That evening at vespers, I saw it had been placed right in front of the altar. I went back to my little room and wept.” Later, as she was packing up, she realized she had forgotten all about “the booze” she had brought to help her endure the three days at the abbey!

A few years later, having benefited from the abbey’s consistent guidance, when Patricia was again in New York for filming on Ghost Story, she happened to see the death notice for Rocky’s second husband, Dr. John Marquis Converse, on Feb. 1, 1981. With that, she finally fulfilled the promise she made to Maria years earlier and wrote to Rocky. 
After Rocky received her letter, Maria told Patricia her mother was so moved, that she read it “over and over.” Amazingly, Patricia told Osborne, Rocky wrote her back on April 20, “my Olivia’s birthday.”

“After some time had passed,” Maria said, “she and my mother arranged to meet.” This lovely ending to such a difficult personal trial for all involved was “so good,” Patricia told Osborne — “what life’s made of.” 

In 1983, after Roald asked Patricia for a divorce, she was utterly devastated, and, as Mother Dolores recounts, she returned to the States intent on writing a scathing autobiography. But Mother Benedict Duss, the abbess and founder of Regina Laudis, told her writing such a book would be a decidedly bad idea. Instead, she instructed her to calm down and write her autobiography with Mother Dolores, who urged her “to remember it all” — a grueling process that took five long years and 1,200 pages.

At the outset, as she wrote this book and recovered from her “pits” in the wake of her divorce, she lived at the abbey for a few months and followed the routine of a postulant as best she could. Mother Dolores recalled with delight on The World Over with Raymond Arroyo shortly after Patricia’s death, how she cleaned the monastery grille better than anyone ever had. She also went to work cleaning the cobwebs out of her soul, facing, with brutal honesty, what she needed to set right in her life and becoming a willing participant in the process by which the Holy Spirit would “change desert into pools of water,” as her Pappy had counseled some five decades earlier.

She told Mother Dolores she wanted to be buried at the abbey. But Mother Dolores told her she first needed to become a Catholic. “Ooohhh. Well … I’ll work on that,” Mother Dolores said she replied, doing a marvelous imitation of that inimitable voice and style.

As she worked on her conversion, in 1990, shortly before Theo turned 30, she finally decided to call Roald and his now-wife Felicity, and let bygones be bygones. She talked to Roald three more times before his death later that year. Nov. 17 was “the last time I hung up on my love” — coincidentally the anniversary of Olivia’s death, as well as that of his mother.

On March 30, 2010, she was finally admitted to the Church.

Four months later, on Aug. 8, 2010, she died of lung cancer at the age of 84 in her beloved Martha’s Vineyard. She was laid to rest at the Abbey of Regina Laudis in Bethlehem, Conn.

Mary Claire Kendall is a Washington-based journalist and screenwriter. This piece serves as a companion to “Gary Cooper’s Authenticity.”