Cooper and Hemingway,
from Photoplay magazine, October 1961
Coop (born Frank James Cooper) was the son of Charles Henry Cooper, an associate judge of the Montana State Supreme Court. When he was nine, his mom and dad decided that their two boys' crude Montana manners needed some English polishing. So he and his older brother Arthur were shipped off to Dunstable, a public school in Bedfordshire, England - much against Gary's wishes.
At Dunstable, Gary stood out from his "gentlemanly" classmates like a pig in a poke. He just couldn't get the hang of Latin verbs - and didn't want to. He hated his fancy school clothes - blue jeans and an old shirt were more to his liking. When a newsboy teased and taunted him about his "spiffy dude" that did it! He punched the other kid in the nose.
The headmaster at Dunstable acted promptly. He requested that Mr. and Mrs. Cooper "remove their sons from the premises," which they immediately did. Nevertheless, their three-year stay at the school made a lasting impression. They say the students at Dunstable School still use "Howdy, pardner" as their standard form of greeting.
Ernest Hemingway's mother also tried to force him into a mold for which he wasn't suited. She had ambitions to be a singer, and used to invite friends and neighbors into their 30-foot square music room to hear her perform. Dutifully the neighbors and friends came.
When her son Ernest was very young, she forced a cello upon him and made him practice and play. "My mother kept me out of school one whole year to study music and counterpoint," Hemingway recalled later. "She thought I had ability, but I was absolutely without talent. We played chamber music - someone came in to play the violin, my sister played the viola, our mother the piano."
Every so often he ran away from home, leaving his cello behind - to work at odd jobs. This was his way of winning freedom, however temporary it was, from Grace Hemingway's apron strings. When he did learn a better way, he learned it from his father.
Dr. Clarence Edmond Hemingway was senior obstetrician at the Oak Park Hospital in Illinois - a man of stature - yet he still had the need to flee his wife's world of "Do this" and "Don't do that." Periodically, he and the boy ran away together, to the world of woods and streams, to hunt and fish in Northern Michigan's magnificent wilds.
In 1928, the older Hemingway could run no longer. Suffering from diabetes and angina pectoris, he crept upstairs, took an old Civil War revolver out of a cabinet, put it in his mouth and pulled the trigger. (Years later, Ernest was to receive a Christmas present from his mother - a package containing the same gun with which his father had killed himself.)
It was at Fossalta on the Italian Piave, on July 18, 1918, that nineteen-year old Ernest experienced "a fear of his own fear" that was to bring about "the lifelong need to test his courage." As a volunteer soldier in the Italian infantry, he was injured seriously by an Austrian trench-mortar while giving out chocolate bars to three Italian soldiers.
He was to write later, "I died then. I felt my soul or something coming right out of my body, like you'd pull a silk handkerchief out of a pocket by one corner. It blew around and then came back and went in again. I wasn't dead anymore."
He wasn't dead, but with his legs badly shattered he carried one of his three companions back to safety. (The other two soldiers were dead.) A machine gun burst hit in back of the knee and he was out for good.
Three months later he was released from the hospital after having been given a bone graft, a new aluminum kneecap, and two decorations. Two hundred and thirty-seven pieces of shrapnel had been found in his body.
That blast of mortar fire and burst of machine gun bullets had also presented him with the subjects that were to dominate his writing, and the obsession that were to shape his life: fear, courage, death.
Gary Cooper's destiny was also thrust upon him violently. After having said good-bye and good riddance to his English Little Lord Fauntleroy suit, he slipped back into his American jeans and old shirt and went to high school in Helena, Montana.
One day he was riding with a friend in a Model T when the brakes failed. His pal was thrown clear, but Coop was pinned under the overturned car. His hip was broken and he suffered torn ligaments in his leg.
For awhile he hobbled around on crutches, and then his doctor suggested he go to his father's ranch at the head of the Missouri River near the Big Belt Mountains, about fifty miles away from Helena, to recuperate. Because every step he took caused him excruciating pain, he preferred to ride. He spent about two years at the ranch, most of the time in the saddle, and learned to anticipate every move of his horse so as to lessen the pain in his hip. When he had to walk, he affected that characteristic rolling gait which years later, when he was a movie star, studio press agents characterized as the "typical cowboy walk."
It was this superb horsemanship, gained during his two years of convalescence, that led Coop to his first movie job. Some cowboys from Montana told him he could make ten dollars a day riding a horse in a Tom Mix picture - five dollars extra if he would take a fall while his mount was galloping. His reaction was one of amazement. "You know," he said, "it seems like a right nice way to make a living."
Baptism by violence
Well, it wasn't all "nice." Like Hemingway, Cooper had his baptism by violence, and in the years that followed he too had to test his own courage many times. In the early days as a movie stunt rider, every inch of his body was bruised, and his hip ached something awful each time he climbed on a horse. (An X-ray, taken years later, showed that his Model T accident had opened a wide crack in his hip bone.) At one time or another, he damaged his right shoulder, contracted yellow jaundice, developed ulcers, suffered four hernias, and was bitten by a star - a dog; hooked by steers, kicked by mules, almost drowned, knocked down by dynamite, beaten up by a fellow actor, wounded by a blank cartridge, burned in a dressing room fire, partly deafened by an explosion and generally manhandled and mauled.
He summed it all up neatly: "Most of my life I've been held together by Band-Aids." For fun he went hunting in Africa, and fishing on uncharted streams.
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