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Golden Couples: Gary Cooper & Patricia Neal

It was April 1948 when director King Vidor spotted 22-year-old Patricia Neal on the Warner Bros. studio lot. A drama graduate from Northwestern University, she had just arrived in Hollywood following a Tony Award-winning performance in Lillian Hellman's Another Part of the Forest. Impressed by Patricia's looks, Vidor approached the young actress and asked if she would be interested in doing a screen test for the female lead in his newest film, The Fountainhead (1949). Gary Cooper had already signed as the male protagonist, and the studio was then considering Lauren Bacall and Barbara Stanwyck to play his love interest.     
 
Neal liked the script and about two months later, she met with the director for sound and photographic tests. Vidor was enthusiastic about Patricia, but her first audition was a complete disaster. Cooper was apparently watching her from off the set and he was so unimpressed by her performance that he commented, «What's that!?» He tried to convince Vidor to forget about Patricia and hire someone else, but the director was determined to cast her. He called her again the next day for a second test and this time she nailed it. Needless to say, she got the part.
 
Patricia Neal in publicity stills for The Fountainhead.
    
Written by Ayn Rand based on her novel of the same name, The Fountainhead featured Cooper as Howard Roark, a highly individualistic and uncompromising architect who struggles to follow a new artistic path in an increasingly conformist society. Neal's character is a sensual and emotionally charged newspaper columnist and heiress named Dominique Francon, who falls madly in love with Roark and almost gets killed in the process.
 
The Fountainhead premiered on July 2, 1949, and was a critical and commercial failure. Bosley Crowther of The New York Times described it as «wordy, involved and pretentious,» Variety deemed it «cold, unemotional [and] loquacious,» and John McCarten of The New Yorker called it «the most asinine and inept movie that has come out of Hollywood in years

Patricia Neal and Gary Cooper as Dominique and Howard in The Fountainhead.

The filming of The Fountainhead began in early July 1948 on location in Knowles, California, in the state's largest and oldest stone quarry, for what would be Roark and Dominique's first encounter in the film. During the three days they stayed there, Patricia became aware that she and Cooper shared a strong physical attraction, despite his initial impression of her.
 
When the production unit returned to Los Angeles to resume shooting on the Warners lot, it became obvious that there was an incredible amount of sexual chemistry between them. Patricia later recalled the exact moment when she knew that she and Cooper were in love: it was during rehearsals for the scene in which Roark professes his love for Dominique. He kisses her cheeks, her nose, her eyelids and her hair, while she kneels down before him in a gentle and sensitive way and confesses that she loves him too. As filming progressed, it was like their lines began to reflect their blossoming relationship. «I looked forward to each scene we would play together with a new sense of expectation,« Neal said. «Lines in the film became pregnant with meaning for us. Howard and Dominique said and did the things we could not yet express
 
Gary Cooper and Patricia Neal in publicity stills for The Fountainhead.

Gary Cooper was a notorious ladies' man. Since arriving in Hollywood in 1925, he had had affairs with several of his leading ladies, including Clara Bow, Lupe Velez, Marlene Dietrich, Carole Lombard and Tallulah Bankhead. After he married socialite Veronica «Rocky» Balfe in 1933, he somehow managed to remain faithful to his wife until 1942, when he became involved with Ingrid Bergman during the filming of Sam Wood's For Whom the Bell Tolls (1943). 

However, there was something about Patricia Neal that made her different from all his previous conquests. Not only was she intelligent, talented and beautiful, but she also possessed a joie de vivre and an ironic sense of humor that appealed to Cooper. Her youth (she was 25 years his junior) and freshness both flattered and inspired him, and he really fell in love. For her part, Patricia was overwhelmed by his beauty and found him a deeply romantic and sensitive man, as well as a stimulating companion. She later said of Cooper, «His eyes were the most fabulous shade of blue and always sparkling, and he had long eyelashes that were curled more outrageously than any girl's. His hands were long and graceful and beautiful [...]. He was the most gorgeously attractive man — bright too [...]
 
Patricia Neal and Gary Cooper during the making of The Fountainhead.

Neal held back from a love affair with Cooper until The Fountainhead was finished. She thought the sexual tension between their characters would be lost if they consummated their love. At the wrap party to celebrate the completion of the film, it became obvious that they were in love. Cooper's wife was in New York at the time, so the affair effectively began that night. To avoid scandal that could damage both of their careers, they kept the romance as discreet as possible. They would meet at friends' houses instead of public places and were careful not to display their affection at studio functions and other social settings. 
 
Gary Cooper and Patricia Neal on the Warner Bros. studio lot.

In the spring of 1949, Patricia met Gary's close friend and publicist Harvey Orkin at the home of Gene Kelly, which was a popular weekend hangout for the Hollywood crowd of that time. Orkin took a liking to her and soon invited her to accompany him and his girlfriend on a trip to Aspen, Colorado, where they were planning on attending a conference given by theologian Albert Schweitzer. Coincidentally, the Coopers were building a new house in Aspen, so Orkin, who was unaware of the affair, called the Cooper home and suggested they all go together for the event.

When they arrived in Aspen, they went for a tour of the construction site of the new Cooper house. Gary felt awkward to have Patricia and Rocky so close together. The atmosphere was strained, and he was nervous and quiet. That night, sensing that something was going on, Rocky confronted Cooper and he confessed that not only was he having an affair with Patricia, but he was also in love with her. Rocky was so enraged that she told their daughter Maria about his infidelity. The girl began hating Neal with a passion and both mother and daughter declared war against her. In public, however, Rocky continued to be the dedicated Mrs. Gary Cooper. 
 
Gary Cooper building on his land in Aspen, Colorado, circa 1952.

Perhaps because of the developing gossip around town, or simply because Warner Bros. wanted to generate more interest in The Fountainhead, the studio decided to pair Cooper and Neal in another film, Michael Curtiz's Bright Leaf (1950). In this costume drama set in the 19th century, Gary played Brant Royle, a tenant farmer who returns to his hometown intent on restoring his family's name, after they were driven off their tobacco farm several years before. Patricia was Margaret Singleton, the daughter of the cigar magnate who ruined the Royles. Consumed with hatred and a desire for revenge after her father commits suicide, Margaret marries Royle and sets out to destroy his new empire.
 
Gary Cooper and Patricia Neal as Brant Royle and Margaret Singleton in Bright Leaf.

In the meantime, Cooper and Neal continued with their affair, and Rocky continued with her façade. In October 1950, a few months after Bright Leaf was released to indifferent responses, a new crisis erupted when Patricia told Gary that she was pregnant. At first, both of them were happy about the news. After all, that child represented the culmination of their love and Cooper could use this to finally divorce Rocky and marry Patricia. For several days, they went on with their lives as if nothing had changed, but then reality started to sink in and they began questioning what would happen if she had that baby. Earlier that year, Ingrid Bergman had given birth to an out-of-wedlock child and the consequences had been catastrophic. Cooper then called a doctor in downtown Los Angeles and told Patricia he had set up an appointment for her.
 
On a bright October day, Patricia walked up to a small office, handed over money (provided by Cooper) and a few hours later, she walked out. She would always regret that day. «For over thirty years, alone, in the night, I cried,» she later said. «For years and years, I cried over that baby. And whenever I had too much to drink, I would remember that I had not allowed him to exist. I admired Ingrid Bergman for having her son. She had guts. I did not. And I regret it with all my heart. If I had only one thing to do over in my life, I would have that baby
 
Gary Cooper and Patricia Neal during the making of Bright Leaf.

In May 1951, Rocky's patience began wearing thin. She wanted to have a loyal husband, but Gary wanted to continue his relationship with Patricia. When the Coopers were legally separated on May 16, the gossip columnists quickly began speculating about what had led to the breakup. Soon, Cooper and Neal were seen in public together, though he warned the owners of the various establishments and restaurants that they were not to be photographed while they were there, or he would sue. They were evasive in interviews too, but the affair was obvious.
 
By mid-1951, the strain of his situation was starting to show on Gary Cooper. He looked drawn and weary, consumed by guilt, the conflict between Neal and his family, and his own maddening indecision. He wanted to marry Patricia, but not if that meant losing the respect of his daughter, who worshiped him. In addition, his health began to break down and he had a series of surgeries for ulcers and hernias. He was literally a mess.
 
Gary Cooper and Patricia Neal in publicity stills for Bright Leaf.

One day in late 1951, Patricia called Gary's mother, whom she had met a few times, and invited her to tea. Alice Cooper was outraged and rebuffed her, saying, «Why should I see you after what you have done to my son? He is sick because of you. Do you know what you are?» Stunned, Patricia hung up. She knew what she was. She knew she would always be «the other woman» and Gary would never truly commit himself to her. Hurt and humiliated, she called Gary, who was in Colorado with Rocky and Maria, recuperating from a surgery. «Gary, it's over, I really mean it,» she told him. «I can never see you again. You mother — I called her. She insulted me. No, she told me the truth. It's over.» Cooper replied, «You want it that way? All right... if that's what you want.» Patricia was definite in her answer. «Yes. Yes, that's what I want

And just like that, it was all over. After the breakup, both Neal and Cooper suffered deeply. She gained a lot of weight, found it difficult to concentrate on her work, and came close to a mental breakdown. For a time, he too was a physical and mental wreck. According to his nephew Howard, Cooper seemed «born again» when he was with Patricia; now he looked terrible, «like death.» A few days before Christmas, Neal received a holiday gift from Cooper: a mink jacket with an attached note that read, «I love you, baby. Gary.» Her hopes in reconciliation revived and she called him in Sun Valley, Idaho, where he was spending the season with his family. Sadly, the conversation was not what she had expected. She declared her love for him, but her heart was broken once again when he told her that he was not coming to California; he was actually thinking of going to Paris. So there it was. Their three-year relationship was truly over. 
 
Gary Cooper and Patricia Neal, a tragic love story.
 
When Gary Cooper and Patricia Neal met by chance, and for the last time, in New York in October 1955, she confessed: «You broke my heart, Gary. You really did.» He tried to explain and justify himself by saying: «You know, baby, I couldn't have hurt Maria for the world.» In the end, his family proved to be more important than his love for Patricia.
 
In an interview she gave in 2008, Patrica stated, «I loved Gary Cooper, for years and years and years. And I still love him. Of course, Rocky was not very happy with me. And I don't blame her. Nor was her little girl, Maria, who I guess was about 11 when we started. And I was very sorry. But Gary... I just loved Gary very much.» 


_______________________________________
SOURCES:
Gary Cooper: American Hero by Jeffrey Meyers (Cooper Square Press, 2001)
Patricia Neal: An Unquiet Life by Stephen Shearer (The University Press of Kentucky, 2006)

Comments

  1. Watching Bright Leaf right now and never knew this but of history.

    ReplyDelete
  2. It was a raging fire and it would have extinguished as all fires do. But he did love her.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Ah Love is all consuming even when you know it just end.

    ReplyDelete

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