Southampton's 20th Century Influencers: Gary Cooper, Hollywood Icon

1894 Birds Eye View of Helena, Montana

The actor we all know as Gary Cooper was born Frank James Cooper on May 7, 1901 in Helena Montana approximately 2,300 miles from Southampton. If was born so far away, why would we care to talk about him here at the Southampton History Museum? That is because his presence as a mega movie star was felt all over the country and more specifically because while he could vacation anywhere in the world, he spent a huge portion of his adult life here in our small Village. Before getting into the his direct connection with the area, lets go over his life.

Frank "Gary" Cooper in 1903

Cooper's father was Charles Henry Cooper and his mother was Alice Brazier, both English immigrants. His father first came to the United States in 1884 and became a lawyer. He returned to England to marry his wife on March 24, 1894 but they both came back to the United States. They would have two sons together, Frank and Arthur. In 1906 they would purchase the Seven-Bar-Nine cattle ranch near Craig, Montana.

In 1909 Alice would take her sons back to England as she felt it important to give them an English education. Frank would attend the Dunstable Grammar School where he would study English, Latin, French and English History until 1912 when the family would move back to the United States. A few years later when Frank was 15 he would be in an automobile accident injuring his hip. He was given misguided doctor's orders to use horse back riding as a method of healing his hip which would give him his characteristic stiff and off-balanced walk.

Dunstable Grammar School and Gary with his parents Alice and Charles as an adult

1922 Grinnell College Photo - Gary is second from the left in the top row

It was around this time when Cooper would leave high school in pursuit of becoming a full time cowboy. But in 1919, the same year his father was admitted to the Montana Supreme Court, at his father's wishes he returned to school. It was then when Frank's English teacher Ida Davis would push him into the dramatics which Frank grew to enjoy. But his bigger passion was drawing which would see Frank take up some college courses while still in high school. Cooper would eventually enroll in Grinnell College where he would study art and funnily enough upon trying out for the school drama club would be turned down. He would abruptly leave school to pursue an art career in Chicago in February of 1924.

Art by Gary Cooper for the Nov. 2, 1924 Helena Independent

Later that year Frank would return to Helena, Montana to work for local newspapers drawing political cartoons. That same year his father would resign from the Supreme Court after inheriting properties in California which would prompt the family to leave Montana to maintain. Cooper would accompany his father and mother to California where he would get into being an extra and stuntman in the burgeoning film industry since Frank was such a skilled horseback rider. He took the work as a means to help pay for more art classes. While working he met fellow Montana cowboy and stuntman Jay "Slim" Talbot who would help Cooper secure more work in the film industry. Cooper was however known to have said that stunt work was "tough and cruel" as men were paid $5 to throw themselves form horses to the ground and were often injured in the process.

Cooper's film career began during the silent film era. His first few parts were not exactly starring roles. His film debut came as "Extra" in 1925's Dick Turpin. His second film saw him as "Ride" in The Trail Rider (however not the titular Rider) and then his fourth film Riders of the Purple Sage saw him again play "Rider". While these were all Western films, Cooper was also in The Eagle as "Masked Cossack" and the ironic Ben-Hur as "Roman Guard". While his first year was fairly uneventful, he did manage to sign a deal with Samuel Goldwyn Productions for $50 a week on June 1, 1926. Today that would be approximately $812.

Some of the film's Cooper has parts in during 1925