The beautiful new book “Slim Aarons: Women”

The beautiful new book “Slim Aarons: Women” by Laura Hawk gives the lucky reader a journey into an era that is no more. Our family friendship with Slim Aarons goes back to the late 1940’s when he met my mother, Veroncia (Rocky) and father, Gary Cooper. They quickly became fast friends and would run into each other in various cities – New York, Hollywood, Paris. Many laughs were shared as Slim’s camera captured our family and, most famously, The Kings of Hollywood iconic portrait of Cooper, Stewart, Gabel and Van Heflin at a New Year’s Eve party in Beverly Hills.

The Cartier Mansion Grand Reopening Celebration in NYC

The Cartier Mansion in New York is shining once again after reopening this past September after two and a half years of extensive renovations. The building, which dates back to 1905, was originally a six-story mansion home to the Plant family, and is situated on 52nd Street and 5th Avenue. As the area became the commercial corridor we know it as today, the Plants moved uptown and sold the house to Cartier in 1917. The Gary Cooper Room, filled with watches, is encased in real leather wallpaper.

Holiday Wishes and Happy Memories

Celebrating both Christmas and New Year’s Day for the Coopers was always a little out of the ordinary. After going to Mass, part of the joy of our holiday season was to immerse ourselves in nature and hit the Santa Monica beaches running. With bathing suits under terry-cloth robes and our 2 Boxers in the car, we raced to the ocean and became 3 solitary members of the Polar Bear Club in the chilly Pacific waters. It wasn’t so much about presents and a beautiful tree but an exhalation of life and thanks for the ability to have and savor all that we were blessed with.
Simple gifts and eternal ones.

“Gary Cooper: They Came to Cordura (1959) : Heroic Icon Plays a Coward”

Abridged essay originally published by John DiLeo in the book, Screen Savers: 40 Remarkable Moves Awaiting Rediscovery (2008) on January 11, 2012

They Came to Cordura … maybe not one of the more well known of my father, Gary Cooper’s films, but one that was of special interest to him: one he wanted very much to make. Maybe because of all the many “heroic” roles he portrayed in his film career that spanned almost four decades, this subject of what makes a “hero”, “what is courage? ” intrigued him and the challenge of playing this character was something he really wanted to delve into. It was a tough, crazy location, shot out in St. George, Utah. Lots of blistering hot desert with the occasional respite via a long trip into Las Vegas for the cast and crew for some R&R. On many levels I feel it is a much under appreciated film.

– Maria Cooper Janis

They Came to Cordura (1959)*
Heroic Icon Plays a Coward
By John DiLeo

“What is courage? What is cowardice?” These lines appear on-screen before They Came to Cordura begins. The nature of bravery is an essential component of any war film but rarely has it been examined as directly, or as penetratingly, as it is here. Directed by Robert Rossen, Columbia’s They Came to Cordura was disliked by critics and ignored by audiences in 1959, but its contemplative, relentless burrowing into its themes should find more appreciative audiences today since moviegoers are now more accustomed to characters consumed with self-examination (and interested in analyzing others). As war movies go, this one is talky, but in its verbiage it offers an unusually probing look at human behavior under inhuman circumstances, specifically combat and its ever-after repercussions. They Came to Cordura has a massive, superbly executed battle sequence, yet the film stands out more for its willingness to tackle uncommon psychological issues than for its action. It’s a cerebral war movie without clear-cut heroes or cowards, and it emphasizes introspection, ambiguity, and conscience over victory and glory.

Gary Cooper had been a superstar, and one of Hollywood’s two or three most enduring leading men, for three solid decades when he made They Came to Cordura. The role of Major Thomas Thorn brought him little attention, but it’s a fascinating part for him to have played, and it resulted in one of his riskier performances. Thorn is the film’s “coward,” and to have it acted by Cooper, the man who won Oscars for two of the most famous heroic roles in screen history-the title role in the biopic of World War I soldier Sergeant York (1941) and the fictional marshal of High Noon (1952)-is ingenious casting. Cooper was in his late fifties when he played Thorn, a quarter century past his reign as the most beautiful man in movies, and his age only makes him more vulnerable. Thorn’s guilt and self-loathing are visible in the lines on Cooper’s face and the limitations of his body. Rarely has this great star seemed so exposed.

They Came to Cordura is set in Mexico in 1916, yet it could be classified as a World War I movie because of the story’s awareness of America’s imminent entry into the European conflict. The military men in Cordura know that their cavalry-led fighting will soon be extinct, with the Great War decisively changing the tools of war. The notion of heroism takes on greater urgency for the military as our involvement in WWI looms: they’re going to need heroes to inspire all the young men about to be sent overseas. So, in this outmoded world of battle on horseback, a much bigger war provides a percolating subtext. Cooper’s casting also has significance for his specific on-screen associations with WWI. His Sergeant Alvin York, the cinematic epitome of WWI heroism, provided a valorous ideal for young men on the eve of the attack on Pearl Harbor. Cooper had also appeared in, among others, the silent, Oscar-winning Wings (1927), which fought WWI in the skies, and A Farewell to Arms (1932),a poetically rendered WWI love story. As a WWI-era examination of courage, They Came to Cordura may sound like typical Cooper fodder, yet it offers little of what you expect: it’s a war movie without an official war; its heroes can hardly be called role models; and, though it is purely, tenaciously war-themed, it has the landscape of a western.

After an attack on Columbus, New Mexico by Pancho Villa, the American army hunts for Villa and his rebels inside Mexico. Because of an act of cowardice during Villa’s attack, Major Thorn is quietly demoted to awards officer, a position in which, ironically, he recommends brave soldiers for the Congressional Medal of Honor. In Mexico, Thorn selects five men to be decorated and makes arrangements to lead them back to the base in the U.S. (at Cordura), relieving them of active duty until their medals can be approved (and so that they will be alive to receive them). But Thorn has a much more personal mission: to probe the men’s minds and figure out what it is they have that he lacks. In short, what is the secret ingredient of courage under fire? But as the journey becomes torturous, and the “heroes” prove to be inarticulate, ungrateful, and less than admirable, Thorn may never find the answers he seeks. Also on the trek to Cordura is Adelaide Geary (Rita Hayworth), an American with a Mexican ranch who is under arrest for allegedly aiding Villa’s men.

Cordura has an interesting opening. Cooper emerges from the background of an outdoor shot, and you expect him to walk into the foreground. He stops to get some coffee, but the camera doesn’t stay with him, moving instead to the military matters being discussed by an officer and the press. The subliminal message is clear: Cooper isn’t playing an important guy. Thorn is a man stripped of his dignity, a man who cannot forgive his failure, and he hopes that the five men he deems heroic can teach him something about bravery. For all his celebrated underacting, and his ability to rely on leading-man charm if need be, Cooper doesn’t shy away from Thorn’s weaknesses, his masochism, or his obsessive need to accomplish his goal. Beneath the weight of his guilt is the mettle to see this thing through, and a searing desperation to be enlightened and perhaps redeemed. With a transparently readable face, Cooper was a natural for movie acting. The moments I find most memorable are his point-blank interviews with the men about their heroic actions. “What made you do it?” he asks, ready to take notes in his little black book, followed by an earnest “Try to remember.” He speaks of how important it is to him to know what they thought, what they felt, what it is that makes people go beyond “the limit of human conduct.” Cooper has a focused commitment and fullness of purpose that makes these scenes among his best. The naiveté in Thorn’s desire to intellectualize human impulses, and make conscious what was unconscious, and tangible what may remain abstract, only makes his quest more moving. That he’s met with indifference, confusion, and lies-a total lack of revelation-is painful. Thorn is searching for profundity, but his subjects are anything but profound.

Based on the novel by Glendon Swarthout, They Came to Cordura is something of a middle-aged Red Badge of Courage, so focused is its search for answers with regard to the inexplicability of wartime instincts. Director Rossen cowrote the screenplay with Ivan Moffat, and they clearly felt a passion for the themes expressed. The script is meticulously faithful to the book until the finish, altering how things end for Thorn. Rossen’s direction is intelligent and thoughtful, and he maintains a balance between absorbing talk and action blasts, though it’s widely documented that he wasn’t happy with Columbia’s final edit of the film. Rossen had made Body and Soul (1947), the quintessential boxing movie, and All the King’s Men (1949), a highly overrated, Oscar-winning Best Picture, before being blacklisted for his Communist-party past. His career resumed, after he named names, with the turgid Alexander the Great (1956), in which Richard Burton, wearing a blond wig that appears to have been styled for June Allyson, makes you wonder what was so “great” about him. After Cordura, Rossen made The Hustler (1961), his best movie.

Cooper had started looking considerably older on-screen once WWII ended, but he continued not only to be a star but to make worthwhile movies. There were interesting parts in The Court-Martial of Billy Mitchell (1955), Friendly Persuasion (1956), Ten North Frederick (1958), Man of the West (1958), and The Wreck of the Mary Deare (1959), some ignoring his noticeable aging and others acknowledging it, yet they all made use of the low-key skills of which he was now a long-standing master. The boyish comic glint he irresistibly flashed in Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936) was no longer evident, but in its place was the life experience that allowed Cooper to tackle issues of responsibility and conscience with a persona of integrity that few stars could match. He died at age 60 in 1961 from cancer. Though his life was relatively short, his career had density and scope. In terms of portraying the male experience, from The Virginian (1929) and Morocco (1930) in his youth, to The Pride of the Yankees (1942) and For Whom the Bell Tolls (1943) at his peak, to High Noon and They Came to Cordura in his maturity, was there really anything left for Cooper to say?

*They Came to Cordura (1959): Heroic Icon Plays a Coward” is an abridged version of the essay by the same title which appears in John DiLeo’s book, Screen Savers: 40 Remarkable Movies Awaiting Rediscovery (2008). Used by permission of the publisher. Copyright ® 2008 Hansen Publishing Group, LLC. All rights reserved.

Gary Cooper: A Father, a Man, an American


The world of today, saturated with fears of international terrorism, global ecological crises, and a glut of hardwired broadband information networks that weave connections across the entire planet is a far cry from the world that Gary Cooper left when he died on May 13th 1961.

When my father was very ill, one of his last spoken words was in the form of a question,” I wonder if we will know when a rocket ship will land on Mars”? How many times as a kid growing up in the Montana of the first decade of the 20th century, did he sleep under the stars and look up, pondering the mystery of “out there”.?

As an actor, he delved into the human mystery — to capture and portray the complex attributes of persona and character. His artist’s eye observed what he encountered and his artist’s soul translated that into onscreen portrayals that did what he expressed his desires to be, “to show on screen, he best that an American man can be.”

The distinction between “celebrity” and “star” was quite different in those days, and while there have always been actors who self-destruct, watching it happen today seems to have become almost a blood sport. So sad, and so much the antithesis of everything my father stood for both within his profession, as a friend, and as a human being.

Some years ago at the time of his death Alistair Cook wrote a tribute to “The legend of Gary Cooper” in the Manchester Guardian Weekly:

…. Well, the friends most certainly mourn the gentle shambling “Coop”, but what the world mourns is the death of Mr. Longfellow Deeds, who resisted and defeated the corruption of the big city; the snuffing out of the sheriff in High Noon heading back to duty along the railroad tracks with that precise mince of the cowboy’s tread and that rancher’s squint that sniffs mischief in a creosote bush, sees through suns and is never fooled. What the world mourns is its lost innocence, or a favorite fantasy of it fleshed out in the most heroic of American myths: that of the taut but merciful plainsman, who dispenses justice with a worried conscience, a single syllable, a blurred reflex action to the hip, and must face death in the afternoon as regularly as the matador, but on main street and for no pay… He represented every man’s best secret image of himself: the honorable man slicing through the broiling world of morals and machines…

50 years ago on May 13/14, The New York Times ran such headlines as “Gromyko Refuses to Yield on Seats for Laos Rebels,” “Congo to convene Parliament soon”, “U.S. Pledges Rise in Aid To Bolster South Vietnam” and “Wave of Negro Militancy Spreading Over the South”. What a changed world!

My father’s century passed, but on the 50th anniversary of his death the lines of his favorite poem ring (carve) into the present reality even more forcefully than when he struggled to write them down from memory in the last painful weeks of his life. But write them down he did… from the English poet John Donne:

No man is an island entire of itself every man
is a piece of the continent, a part of the main;
if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe
is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as
well as any manner of thy friends or of thine
own were any man’s death diminishes me,
because I am involved in mankind.
And therefore never send to know for whom
the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

I hope we all don’t lose touch with who we really are and can be at our best… and maybe go watch a Gary Cooper movie or two.