Many great estates in Beverly Hills, Bel-Air, and Holmby Hills were with handsomely landscaped grounds, and then gave the architect a free hand. Sometimes, clients collaborated—or interfered—with the architect, bringing their own vision, tastes, and requirements to the project.
But only once did a major movie star play an architect in a film and later collaborate on a shared architectural vision for a new estate. That movie star was the legendary Gary Cooper. The film was The Fountainhead (1949), from Ayn Rand’s novel, in which Cooper played uncompromisingly idealistic architect Howard Roark. In real life, Cooper’s new estate was a close collaboration with the Modernist architect A. Quincy Jones.
For once, an architect and Hollywood client didn’t create an estate that evoked a different time or place, whether an idealized Spanish Andalusian, Old England, or dressed-up Colonial America. Nor did they aspire to build one of the super-sized ranch houses so popular in the Westside’s best neighborhoods in the west. This time, the architect and client created a home and grounds that were distinctly of their time and place, and yet timeless. They created an estate that celebrated earth, light, and privacy. And the renewal of Cooper’s battered marriage.
Gary Cooper, born in 1901, was originally named Frank. In 1906, his father In 1924, Cooper’s parents moved to Los Angeles and he—having failed to Cooper quickly discovered that he could make $10 to $20 a day as a movie That year, he also changed his name. “Nan Collins, my manager, came.“ The newly minted Gary Cooper, “Coop” to his friends and peers, advanced to bit parts and a few larger roles in the seven films he made in 1926, including The Winning of Barbara Worth, for which he had been hired as a stuntman. When one of the supporting actors had to back out at the last minute, the director gave the role to Cooper.
That was his big break. Paramount signed him to a long-term contract and cast him in six movies in 1927, including, at the urging of actress Clara Bow, with whom he was having an affair, her movies it and Wings. He made eight films in 1928, starring in most of them.
Then came The Virginian in 1929, Cooper’s first all-talking movie. “That was the big one,” he said. “You had to survive the transition to talking pictures. The Virginian put me over the hump and made millions.”
Suddenly, after thirty-one movies and at twenty-eight years of age, Gary Cooper became a major movie star. He worked in prestigious films opposite high-powered leading ladies, including Marlene Dietrich, Joan Crawford, and Carole Lombard. He worked with the best directors. He was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actor three years in a row, for Sergeant York (1941), The Pride of the Yankees (1942), and For Whom the Bell Tolls (1943), and won for Sergeant York.
His close friend, Bing Crosby, named his first son after him. Cooper was the unwitting inspiration for the pulp magazine hero Doc Savage. Irving Berlin even saluted him in his song “Puttin’ on the Ritz”: “Dressed up like a million-dollar trouper, trying hard to look like Gary Cooper . . . super duper!”
Many of the movies Cooper starred in during the 1930s and 1940s are considered classics today: Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), Beau Geste (1939), The Westerner (1940), Meet John Doe (1941), Ball of Fire (1941), and of course, The Fountainhead.
Cooper was also famous for the movies that he turned down: Alfred Hitchcock’s Foreign Correspondent (1940) and Saboteur (1942), and George Cukor’s A Star Is Born (1954) with Judy Garland. Most famously, Cooper was producer David O. Selznick’s first choice to play Rhett Butler in Gone with the Wind (1939).
Cooper, however, was horrified, declaring, “Gone with the Wind is going to be the biggest flop in Hollywood history. I’m glad it’ll be Clark Gable who’s falling flat on his nose, not me.”
Still, the roles Cooper chose brought him great success, and wealth. He bought a Bentley. He collected art. He bought a ranch in Encino where he grew corn and avocados. He bought a vacation home in Sun Valley, Idaho. His neighbor?
Famed writer Ernest Hemingway, who insisted that Cooper call him “Papa” and who wrote the character of Robert Jordan in For Whom the Bell Tolls for Cooper. (Cooper would star in the film adaptation.) Cooper was also a close friend of Pablo Picasso, to whom he gave a six-shooter . . . and shooting lessons.
A conservative Republican, Cooper testified in 1947 as a friendly witness before the House Un-American Activities Committee. His testimony was so entertaining that he won frequent applause from the audience, and he was given a standing ovation when he concluded. Cooper’s charm and his skill, however, had disguised the fact that he hadn’t named names during his testimony. Not one.
He would go on to befriend blacklisted screenwriter Carl Foreman, who wrote High Noon (1952), a western allegory about the Hollywood blacklisting that brought Cooper his second Academy Award and revived his fading career.
In the midst of all this fame and fortune and controversy was Cooper’s troubled marriage. In 1933, he had married Veronica Balfe, whom Cooper called “Rocky.” She was a New York socialite who had a brief acting career under the name Sandra Shaw. Her father was a millionaire and the governor of the New York Stock Exchange, and her uncle was famed MGM art director Cedric Gibbons, who had introduced her to Cooper.
“Rocky is the ideal girl for me,” he declared. “She can ride, shoot, and do all the things I like to do.” Cooper was Episcopalian. Rocky was Roman Catholic. They would have one child, a daughter, also Catholic, to whom Cooper was devoted. The Coopers lived on a four-acre estate in Brentwood. The Bermuda-style house, which had been designed by Roland E. Coate, had a sunken living room and a wood-paneled library displaying paintings by Georgia O’Keeffe and Max Weber. Behind that lovely façade, however, was an ugly truth. The great American icon, Gary Cooper, was a serial philanderer, and everyone in Hollywood knew it because Cooper liked to boast about his conquests. In the 1930s, gossip columnists called him “Paramount’s paramount skirt-chaser.” He had affairs with virtually every actress with whom he worked: Marlene Dietrich, Carole Lombard, Ingrid Bergman, and Grace Kelly.
In 1931, while traveling in Europe to recuperate from exhaustion and poor health, Cooper had a torrid affair with Countess Dorothy di Frasso, an American-born socialite who had an open marriage to an Italian count. The countess took it upon herself to polish the lanky movie star into a sophisticated bon vivant who would know how to address a prince or a pauper, and how to dress very well indeed.
Usually, Cooper was the “love ’em and leave ’em” kind of adulterer. One affair, however, was so passionate, so long lasting (five years), and so heavily reported that Cooper’s teenage daughter actually spat in the actress’s face . . . in public. Because Rocky was Catholic, she wouldn’t give him a divorce, but she couldn’t tolerate this latest affair, either. In May 1951, Cooper moved out of their Brentwood home. In July 1954, Cooper and Rocky reconciled. As a symbol of their new start, the couple built a new home. Earlier, on February 8, 1953, Cooper had purchased one of the few remaining empty lots in Holmby Hills, a two-acre parcel on Baroda Drive north of Sunset Boulevard, for $35,000.