Biographers do much of their work in the study and the library, but they also get to some out-of-the-way places.  I’ve interviewed people in bars, nursing homes, and insane asylums, chased down wealthy informants in country houses and elegant apartments, poor ones in drafty cottages and cluttered flats.  Some welcomed me with a hefty drink, others couldn’t wait to get rid of me.  I am always passed on from one to the other by surviving family and friends.  They seem to enjoy participating, however reluctantly at first, in the search for one of life’s eternal puzzles: the heart and mind of another person.  They can’t help having partial views of their own, and they sometimes promote a barely disguised agenda.  The biographer, positioned uncomfortably as judge and appraiser of an important or even great man or woman, who must nevertheless have been fallibly human, finds himself balancing contradictory views of his subject.  When I was writing the life of Gary Cooper, his daughter Maria, an ardent Roman Catholic, suggested I accompany her on a visit to a Benedictine convent.  

Though I could not guess how this would further my research, it was an offer I couldn’t refuse.  I knew some jolly Irish priests in Montana and had once spent the night in a monk’s cell at St. John’s University in Minnesota, but my knowledge of conventual life was confined to the lurid and mysterious: the cruelty and suffering of enforced seclusion in Diderot’s La Religieuse, sexual hysteria in Huxley’s The Devils of Loudon, sacrificial austerities in Kathryn Hume’s A Nun’s Story.  I remembered the bold, jaunty description of Byron’s Don Juan: “He learned the arts of riding, fencing, gunnery, / And how to scale a fortress—or a nunnery.”  I could imagine Cooper doing just that in some romantic drama of the 1940’s.

Maria helped manage the musical career of her pianist-husband, Byron Janis, and looked in frequently on her mother, Rocky, now bedridden from the effects of a stroke.  But she had been helping me for several weeks in New York.  She had showed me her files and scrapbooks, videotapes and photographs, and introduced me to her mother and to many of her father’s friends and family.  She was glad to get away to a place she often visited and where she had many friends, and I looked forward to getting her to talk to me at length about her adored father.  On a sparkling fall day in November 1996, the leaves still yellow and gold, we drove from Park Avenue to the Abbey of Regina Laudis in Bethlehem, Connecticut.  

A reticent, shy, and modest man, Cooper was universally liked.  In life, he was charming, with the gift of simplicity; on the screen, he was heroic yet tender and vulnerable.  He had lived in two worlds, with his professional life in California (where he had numerous affairs) and, through Rocky, his social life among wealthy sophisticates in New York, Southampton, and Europe (where he played the role of the devoted husband).  I had interviewed many actors who knew him, from Shirley Temple and the still-dapper Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., to Richard Widmark and Suzy Parker, his young costar in Ten North Frederick (one of his last and best films, where he played an older man, unhappily married, in love with a younger woman).  I had also spoken to publicity agents and photographers and directors such as Billy Wilder, who emphasized the witty, worldly, sexy side of Cooper in Love in the Afternoon.  

In New York, I had just met some of Cooper’s other friends, who ruefully acknowledged his philandering reputation.  Rocky had suffered the pain of his infidelity throughout her marriage, but she learned to endure his affairs with his costars.  In the early 1950’s, however, his long affair with young actress Patricia Neal caused a crisis that almost destroyed their family life, as wife and lover struggled for possession.  For several years, he lived apart from Rocky and Maria, and when he returned he did not altogether give up his love affairs.  Later, under Rocky’s influence, Cooper took instruction and was received into the Catholic Church.  When he contracted cancer soon afterward, religion gave him comfort and helped him accept his condition.  

Maria was taking me to meet her best friend, Mother Dolores Hart, a Benedictine nun.  A niece of Mario Lanza and a popular starlet in the late 1950’s, Dolores had appeared in such Elvis Presley movies as Loving You and King Creole.  In 1963, at the age of 25, she had given up her career to take the veil.  As we drove along, Maria patiently answered all of my questions; but, though we both admired Gary as an actor, we were far apart in our assessment of his private life.  Maria still believed in Gary the Good and had enlisted Dolores as her ally; I thought that he must be more interesting than that.  In New York, I had also gone to see Pat Neal, who called Gary the great love of her life.  Through her, I had glimpsed another side of his character: his passionate nature, his awareness of being trapped in his star status, his resistance and eventual capitulation to a wife who was stronger than he was.  Pat had told me that their affair suddenly came into the open when she and Gary had driven out to Aspen, Colorado, where the Coopers had a house.  Rocky’s face was like stone, and 11-year-old Maria’s was stained with tears.  The well-brought-up little girl had looked at Pat with hatred and spat on the ground.  The child who adored her father had to turn his lover into a monster of depravity.

I knew the Benedictines to be devoted to worship and work, especially agricultural labor, but I was still surprised to see rosy-cheeked nuns in high rubber boots, their denim work-habits tucked up in their belts, herding cows and stacking feed, looking like illustrations in medieval texts.  The convent life is rigorous.  The nuns live strictly secluded, and every day they set aside the seven canonical hours—matins, prime, terce, sext, none, vespers, and compline—for prayer and devotion.  At the same time, far from practicing John Milton’s “fugitive and cloistered virtue . . . that never sallies out and sees her adversary,” they are in close contact with the outside world, offering a place of retreat and counsel.  In the summer, they put on plays, with local actors, inan outdoor theater on the abbey grounds.

No sooner were we through the gates than we ran into Dolores herself.  In her severe black robe and starched white coif, she was walking energetically along, her pretty face pink in the bright, cold air.  Lively, smiling a welcome, setting me at ease, she organized our afternoon.  Opening the outer folds of her habit, she took out a cell phone and pager, proudly exclaiming: “We’re all modern nuns here, you know!”  An hour later, we met Dolores in the wood-paneled parlor, a small space enclosed in wooden rails, with a perforated sliding panel in the door.  At first, she sat behind the bars, cut off from us in a holy space, as if she were in a confessional and we the sinners, on the outside.  But she soon opened the wicket gate and let us in.  As if to inspire her memories, she had brought along a handsome signed photo of Cooper and propped it up against the rail.  It was unnerving to sit in this tiny space with these two handsome women, each with the innocent-seeming, china-blue eyes so rare in adults.  Dolores looked at me intently, wisely.  We all looked at the photograph, summoning up whatever insights we could muster.

Dolores started the discussion by telling me about herself.  The same age as Maria, she had met the Coopers in May 1959 through the son of actor Joel McCrea.  When she first came to their house, she saw a man in old clothes kneeling on the ground with his back to her.  Assuming he was the gardener, she asked if the family were at home.  To her surprise, Cooper turned around and replied, “Yup,” and directed her to the door.  On later visits, he jumped up graciously to shake her hand and called her “Miss Dolores.”  He always seemed comfortingly familiar and normal, despite the unreality of Hollywood.  The Coopers treated the inexperienced Dolores like a daughter and taught her how to handle the sharks of the movie world.  By comparison to Gary, the athletic yet elegant Rocky seemed crisp and curt, strong and in charge, his wife and best buddy.

Rocky took Dolores in hand when they were visiting Paris.  Insisting that Dolores could no longer look like a Marymount schoolgirl and mistakenly assuming the studio would pay for her wardrobe, Rocky made her spend her last $800 on clothes and left her with no money.  But, like the malleable Maria, Dolores was glad to be guided by an experienced woman of the world.  When Dolores was dining in Paris with the Coopers, a Frenchman rudely asked, “I wonder which one is his wife?”  Borrowing his famous line from The Virginian, Cooper jokingly faced him down and said: “When you say that, smile.”  Dolores did not want to jeopardize her personal relationship with the Coopers by working with Gary, rejecting as too dangerous the part of his daughter (eventually played by Diane Varsi) in Ten North Frederick.  In 1961, she went to say goodbye to him when he was dying of cancer.  Reserved as ever, he did not talk about himself but asked about her work, maintaining his fatherly relationship until the very end.

“Yes,” I said, “but what about Gary’s moral character?  He was an inveterate ladies’ man.  How do you reconcile this side of his nature with your favorable view of him?”  Dolores viewed Cooper’s affair with Patricia Neal as a protracted struggle that ended when he decided that he didn’t want to break up the family, valued his old way of life, couldn’t bear to lose Maria, and—finally—wanted Rocky more than any other woman.  She frankly acknowledged his many adulterous affairs, but charitably resolved the moral issue.  She explained that Gary had an extraordinary capacity for love: He could love many women intensely and more than one woman at a time.  He inspired love in others, and this often caused great difficulty.  He resolved these emotional conflicts through the Church, which provided a religious context and allowed him to achieve a “eucharistic love” that was purged of the physical element.

According to Maria, her father rarely discussed his conversion with his family, and neither she nor Rocky put pressure on him to become a Catholic for their sake.  He had never gone to church, apart from Mass at Christmas and Easter, and always looked on religion as their affair.  But one Sunday, instead of reading the newspapers in bed, he suddenly decided to go to Mass with them.  Maria may not have known that the original impetus had come from Rocky, who, as Fr. Harold Ford later told me, “never let up until he finally became a Catholic.”  One Sunday, Rocky had announced to Ford, a young priest at the posh Beverly Hills Church of the Good Shepherd (also known as Our Lady of the Cadillacs): “I want to make my husband a Catholic.  What can we do about bringing him into the Church?”  Ford instructed him in the Faith.  Cooper, who certainly wanted to please Rocky and Maria and draw the family together, was baptized as a Catholic in April 1959.

Cooper’s story would turn up again in Mother Dolores’s life.  Pat Neal had gone on to marry and have a family.  In the 1970’s, she suffered a crippling stroke; a year or so later, her husband, Roald Dahl, left her for a younger woman.  By chance, she had run into Maria, who told her about the abbey and suggested she go there for counseling.  She had come to the convent and worked through the anger of her loss.  Invited to stay, Pat lived there for several months and wrote her autobiography, As I Am (1988).  Dolores cemented the reconciliation between Pat, Rocky, and Maria.  Four women, it seemed, had contended for Gary’s soul, and I now sat in the dim parlor with four bright blue eyes looking into mine.

As a special honor, I was whisked off in the afternoon gloom to an audience with the lady abbess, who lived on the top floor of a beautifully designed modern building.  She sat in the lamplight in a huge chair, her feet on a low stool.  Dolores, who preceded us, knelt and kissed her hand.  Ancient of days, the abbess (who must have been feeling the cold) wore a woolly cape over her habit and thick stockings and sandals.  Her wrinkled face was deep in shadow, and she seemed to live in a private world of her own.  We sat in some upright chairs in a circle before her.  Directly behind her, on one wall of the octagonal chamber, hung a four-foot photograph of the rough and even brutal Gen. George Patton (complete with silver revolvers).  The abbess told us the emotional story of how the great general had liberated her convent during the Normandy campaign and how, inspired by gratitude, she had founded the abbey in America.  

I was mystified by this strange interview, punctuated by awkward silences, and wondered what it could possibly have to do with Gary Cooper.  When I asked what the actor meant to her, she insisted, in her strongly accented English, “Ve muss enfluenze the Yoos”—and I thought she was bent on forcible conversion of nonbelievers.  In fact, she was talking about the moral example of one of his films.  She had shown his idealistic and exemplary film High Noon to local delinquent youths.  I later realized that the lady abbess, who had counseled Pat Neal herself, understood the devastating effects of physical passion.  By now, I had consumed several cups of tea and could think of nothing more spiritual than the men’s room, presumably in short supply in this building.  By special dispensation, Mother Dolores allowed me to use the ladies’.

I followed Maria to vespers in the modern chapel, as brightly lit as the abbess’s room was dark.  The nuns filed in behind a grille and chanted their plainsong.  I felt dizzy and drowsy, overcome with the warmth of the chapel and the oddness of my situation, and decided to slip away and lie down for a few minutes.  

I had arranged to meet Maria and another guest, a New York theatrical agent, for dinner in a local restaurant.  It was blandly old-fashioned, with mashed potatoes, soft rolls, and jello for dessert, but our conversation was lively, and I was wide awake again.  It was close to ten o’clock by now, and Maria and I repaired to the white clapboard guest house on the abbey grounds.  It looked like a shabby old boarding house, with flowered wallpaper, creaky wood floors and roller blinds, and the heat blasting from dusty old radiators.  There were several weekend guests: people in search of calm and reflection and nuns’ parents come for a visit.  We settled down in the living room to a serious discussion, which lasted until well after midnight, of Cooper’s conversion to Catholicism two years before his death.  

Regina Laudis—with no cruelty, hysteria, or unwelcome intruders—was very different from my expectations.  The pace of our visit was surprisingly frenetic, as I had gone from one encounter to another.  I had no time for contemplation, no chance to absorb the experience or take a walk in the surrounding woods.  The convent—connected to an unbroken tradition that went back to the Middle Ages—had the self-enclosed quality of a world within the world and retained all of its mystery.