‘All Too Human’ Stars Would Have Loved Pope Francis

AP Photo
AP Photo

Two of the stars I write about in Oasis: Conversion Stories of Hollywood Legends—Gary Cooper and Patricia Neal—fell in love. Problem is, “Coop” was married. As his daughter, Maria Cooper Janis, said, it was a “complicated situation.”

Cooper took Neal down to Cuba in Christmas 1950 to try and get his good friend Hemingway’s approval of their relationship. Hemingway gave a thumbs down.

Pope Francis, fresh off his trip to Cuba, would understand.  Man is weak, life is a journey, and God is there every step of the way offering his love.

While the Coopers were not living together in the early fifties, they still stayed in touch and traveled together, including a well-timed trip to Europe in June 1953 for a High Noon publicity tour.

On June 26, Cooper, his wife Rocky, and daughter Maria met Pope Pius XII. Like the awkwardly shy and endearing “every man” characters he played in his films, his real life persona infused this dramatic moment with some classic ordinariness.

Just imagine this scene happening during the visit of Pope Francis to America!

Everyone in Hollywood was begging for a memento.  So at the Papal audience, Maria said, “my father had rosaries up his arm” in addition to the other mementos he was holding.  But because of a bad back, he had trouble genuflecting. As he did, “everything just fell—the medals, and the rosaries and the holy cards…”  They all went rolling across the floor, and carpet, into other guests’ shoes, even under the Pontiff’s robes. While Cooper was scrambling on all fours “suddenly,” she said, he encountered “this scarlet shoe and a robe…” And, “There was the American actor Gary Cooper groping around in monumental embarrassment… with Pius XII looking down and patiently smiling,” Maria wrote in Gary Cooper Off Camera: A Daughter Remembers.

Like Francis, Cooper also had a special affection for the poor. While in Italy he visited his foster child, Raffaela Gravina, who lived in a small mountainside town outside Naples, impoverished during World War II from relentless bombing.  “VIVA GARY COOPER, VIVA GARY COOPER,” written in white paint on the dirt road, expressed the town’s gratitude.  “They crowded around us,” Maria wrote, “and I saw such a look of compassion on my father’s face, it made me want to cry.”

In February 1954, when Maria was 16, her father returned home just as he finished filming Return to Paradise (1953), about a father who returns home to love and nurture his 16-year-old daughter.

Soon he realized he wanted to try and not be “such a bum,” and, in the mid-50s, he began studying to become a Catholic, converting in April 1959. By year’s end, he became sick with cancer. As he lay dying in May 1961, in excruciating pain, he told The Strait Times “that what is happening is God’s will. I am not afraid of the future.”

Also, he wanted Hemingway, who was not long for this world either, to know that becoming a Catholic “was the best thing I ever did.”

Patricia Neal, likewise, began to walk a spiritual path. After suffering a stroke, she reconciled with Maria—“I forgive you,” Maria wrote—as well with Rocky, her former romantic rival, who had “fought to keep her man,” Maria said.

As she was coming to terms with her shattered marriage with Roald Dahl, Patricia, still conflicted over her undying love for Gary Cooper, sought guidance at the Abbey of Regina Laudis, where Mother Dolores Hart lives in consecrated life. There she was told she could still love Coop—spiritually. (She, too, would convert to Catholicism.)  Exactly the wise solution Pope Francis would find.

Mary Claire Kendall is the author of Oasis: Conversion Stories of Hollywood Legends, published by Franciscan Media in 2015. Among other projects, she is working on a book about Hemingway.