We often hear stories of nice girls corrupted by Hollywood, but rarely of reversions to being nice girls.
Here’s one such story, brought to mind by a recent re-viewing of “The Fountainhead.”
It stars Gary Cooper as the uncompromising architect Howard Roark. His leading lady is Patricia Neal, in the film that made her career though it wasn’t technically her debut.
Her performance was fine, though the film is quite campy and the character of Dominique Francon I find ridiculous, since her philosophy is that even the slightest capitulation to the heart or to the flesh is enslavement. Thanks to her, whenever Mr. Teti, asks when dinner is, I tend to put on a deep, breathy voice and protest, "Those who eat because they are hungry are slaves!"
While Cooper and Neal as Roark and Francon were occupied on camera refusing to compromise their artistic integrity, the more interesting battle for the soul of man happened off-screen and over long years.
While filming, Cooper, married and 46, had an affair with the 21-year-old Neal, fathered her child, and pressured her into having an abortion.
This she regretted all her life, as a priest-friend reported on the occasion of Neal’s receiving a pro-life award in 2003 for decades of work opposing abortion and helping stroke victims.
One Monsignor Lisante described Neal to his audience as “a female Job” and indeed her list of sufferings is lengthy: a series of strokes once left her in a coma for a month; recovery was long and painful; she lost a daughter to measles; her infant son was hit by a car and left permanently brain-damaged (she cared for him the rest of her life). Another child battled alcoholism and addiction, and her husband, Roald Dahl, though he was good to her during her stroke recovery, eventually left her. Lisante revealed Neal’s reply when asked what in her litany of trials she would change if she could.
Her answer: she regretted only aborting her child with Cooper. "Father, alone in the night for over 40 years, I have cried for my child. And if there is one thing I wish I had the courage to do over in my life, I wish I had the courage to have that baby."
The best part of the story may be the role of Maria Cooper, Gary Cooper’s only child with his long-suffering wife, Rocky, in bringing Patricia Neal back to her Catholic faith.
As a teenager aware of her father’s misconduct, she’d once made a scene by spitting on Neal in public. Years later, however, Maria Cooper sought Patricia Neal out to forgive her, befriended her, and when they ran into each other in a Paris hotel after Neal’s husband had abandoned her, it was Maria who told her friend where to seek help and consolation: at the abbey of their mutual friend, former actress Mother Dolores Hart.
That was the start of Neal’s reconciliation with the Church –although she took her time about it! As Mother Hart told an interviewer last year, Patricia Neal was a frequent guest of the Regina Laudis Abbey and often said she wanted to become Catholic, but also admitted “I like being Catholic when I’m here, but not when I’m not here.” It took her until 2010 to “succumb.”
Just to round out the tale, Cooper, too, repented of that abortion and of his womanizing, converted to Catholicism, and made a strained marriage (he and his wife Rocky were separated for four years) into a good one. Maria Cooper’s 1988 memoir tells the story of her father’s gradual conversion to Catholicism while he was in his 50s. He started attending Mass with his wife and daughter occasionally, so clearly he was seeking. The instrument of his conversion seems to be the deep friendship he developed with a priest, whom he dubbed “Fr. Tough Stuff” for his homilies, but who spared the preaching when they were together and shared Cooper’s love of hunting and fishing.
I note in both Neal & Cooper the depth of suffering and repentance behind the tawdry headlines, as well as the power of forgiveness and rich friendship to shepherd “lost” souls back to Jesus. As Benedict XVI said recently to bishops:
“The courageous and integral appeal to principles is essential and indispensable; yet simply proclaiming the message does not penetrate to the depths of people’s hearts….What attracts is, above all, the encounter with believing persons who, through their faith, draw others to the grace of Christ by bearing witness to him.”