Cooper, Gladys (1888–1971)

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Cooper, Gladys (1888–1971)

English actress-manager and musical-comedy star, best known for her roles in drawing-room comedy, who was the most popular actress on the London stage by 1914 and darling of British "Tommies" as they went into battle in the First World War. Name variations: Dame Gladys Cooper. Born Gladys Constance Cooper in Lewisham, England, on December 18, 1888 (some sources erroneously cite 1890); died at her home in Henley-on-Thames on November 17, 1971; daughter of Charles William Frederick Cooper (a journalist who founded The Epicure magazine) and Mabel Barnett Cooper; married Henry Buckmaster (an actor), on December 12, 1908 (divorced 1922); married Sir Neville Charles Pearson (a magazine editor and publisher), on June 15, 1928 (divorced, October 1936); married Philip Merivale (an actor), on April 30, 1937 (died 1946); children: (first marriage) John Buckmaster (an actor) and Joan Buckmaster Morley (who married the popular character actor Robert Morley); (second marriage) Sally Pearson Hardy (who married the actor Robert Hardy). Awards: Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire (1967).

Made stage debut at Theater Royal, Colchester, England, as Bluebelle in Bluebelle in Fairyland (1905); London debut at the Gaiety Theater as one of the Gaiety Girls; played in The Belle of Mayfair and Babes in the Wood (1906); The Girls of Gottenburg (1907); Havana and Our Miss Gibbs (1908); The Dollar Princess (1909); Half a Crown (1911); The Pigeon and Milestones (1912); Diplomacy (1913); My Lady's Dress (1914); entertained troops in France (1914–16); on tour in scenes from Shakespeare with Ellen Terry (1918); Home and Beauty (1919); The Betrothal If, and The Sign on the Door (1921); The Second Mrs. Tanqueray (1922); Magda (1923); Diplomacy (1924); Iris (1925); The Last of Mrs. Cheyney (1925–26); The Letter (1927); The Sacred Flame (1929); Cynara (1930); The Rats of Norway (1933); The Shining Hour (1934); Othello (1935); Macbeth (1935); Call It a Day (1936); Dodsworth (1938); Twelfth Night, As You Like it, and A Midsummernight's Dream (all summer, 1938); Spring Meeting (1938–39); The Morning Star (New York, 1942); The Indifferent Shepherd (1947); The Hat Trick (1950); Relative Values (1951–52); The Night of The Ball (1955); The Chalk Garden (1955–56); A Passage to India (1962).


The Eleventh Commandment (U.K., 1913); Dandy Donovan (U.K., 1914); The Gentleman Cracksman (U.K., 1914); The Real Thing at Last (U.K., 1916); The Sorrows of Satan (U.K., 1916); Masks and Faces (U.K., 1917); My Lady's

Dress (U.K., 1917); Unmarried (U.K., 1920); The Bohemian Girl (U.K., 1922); Bonnie Prince Charlie (U.K., 1923); The Iron Duke (U.K., 1934); Rebecca (1940); Kitty Foyle (1940); (as Lady Nelson) That Hamilton Woman (1941); The Black Cat (1941); The Gay Falcon (1941); This Above All (1942); Eagle Squadron (1942); Now Voyager (1942); Forever and a Day (1943); Mr. Lucky (1943); Princess O'Rourke (1943); The Song of Bernadette (1943); The White Cliffs of Dover (1944); Mrs. Parkington (1944); Valley of Decision (1945); Love Letters (1945); The Green Years (1946); The Cockeyed Miracle (1946); Green Dolphin Street (1947); The Bishop's Wife (1947); Beware of Pity (U.K., 1947); Homecoming (1948); The Pirate (1948); The Secret Garden (1949); Madame Bovary (1949); Thunder on the Hill (1950); At Sword's Point (1952); The Man Who Loved Redheads (1955); Separate Tables (1958); The List of Adrian Messenger (1963); My Fair Lady (1964); The Happiest Millionaire (1967); A Nice Girl Like Me (U.K., 1969).

Gladys Constance Cooper was born in Lewisham, England, a then unfashionable southeast suburb of London, on December 18, 1888. Her father Charles William Cooper was a journalist who founded The Epicure magazine, her mother Mabel Barnett Cooper was a housewife. Raised in Chiswick in western London with her two younger sisters, Cooper appeared early in school and other amateur theatricals, beginning her professional career on her 16th birthday in the provincial town of Colchester, where she had gone with one of her friends who was auditioning for a part at the Theater Royal there. Struck by her fresh, blonde beauty, the management immediately hired young Gladys to play the title role of Bluebelle in a touring company of a Christmas "pantomime" (holiday musical extravaganzas popular in Britain), Bluebelle in Fairyland.

It is ten times easier to play a good part than a poor one…. [Audiences] will rave about an actor or an actress who has a scene in which nobody could fail; but someone who is making an exceptionally good job of a thankless part gets very little credit.

—Gladys Cooper

Although her father deplored her going on the stage, Cooper persisted and, two years later, made her debut in London at the Gaiety Theater as one of George Edwardes' "Gaiety Girls," at that time, the most celebrated chorus line in Europe. In later years, however, Cooper apparently felt that this debut was insufficiently dignified for the serious actress that she had become and dropped all references to it in her biographical data. From the Gaiety, she soon began appearing in small roles in such Edwardian musical froth as The Belle of Mayfair (1906), The Babes in the Wood (1906), The Girls of Gottenburg (1907), and Havana (1908). It was in the latter musical comedy that Gladys Cooper made her name, and soon she was one of the most popular young actresses featured on the theatrical cards of the day. Before she was much past 20, she was starring in such productions as Our Miss Gibbs (1908) and the London staging of the American musical The Dollar Princess (1909).

The years immediately before the First World War saw a dramatic change in what was considered the ideal in feminine beauty. The late 19th century had appreciated the larger woman, exemplified in Britain by the voluptuous Lily Langtry and in the U.S. by the buxom Lillian Russell . The turn of the century brought in the Edwardian beauty, known in America as "the Gibson Girl" after the drawings of artist Charles Dana Gibson, who excelled in the depiction of the type; the cool, elegant, aristocratic beauty crowned with an air of haughtiness was modeled after his wife Irene Gibson . About 1910, however, the taste turned towards a softer, gentler, more demure look; the shy young maiden with soft, low-piled hair and large eyes modestly downcast, her face a mirror of child-like sweetness. It was to this latter type that Gladys Cooper belonged, and in Britain, with her blue eyes and golden hair, she came to epitomize the new style until, in turn, it, too, was swept away by the flappers of the 1920s, known in Britain as "the bright young things." In the decade that encompassed the First World War, then, Gladys Cooper was hailed as the ideal of English womanhood and her countenance became the standard against which the beauty of British women would be judged for years to come. She was the favorite "pin-up" of the British "Tommies" in France, and they were said to have gone into the trenches with her picture in their wallets. Her first name, Gladys, is Welsh, and her fame did much to popularize it in the England of her day.

For several years, it seemed that Gladys Cooper would become a permanent fixture in British musical comedies and operettas. George Edwardes, who produced such fare, early secured her under contract and would not release her to appear in straight plays even when other producers requested her services. In later years, Cooper attached enormous importance to her early career in musical comedy, asserting that it was a training unsurpassable in the development of grace, poise, and stage presence. Nevertheless, she was a highly intelligent woman and had aspirations to be something more than a glamour girl or even a celebrated musical comedy star; she wished to become a serious actress, and, in 1911, as soon as she was free of her contract with Edwardes, she appeared in her first non-musical, a farce entitled Half a Crown. The play only lasted ten performances, but a year later she was appearing as Ann Welwyn in The Pigeon by the popular and respected playwright John Galsworthy (1912), and then as Dora in an all-star revival of Diplomacy (1913) by the French playwright Victorien Sardou, a play that she was to revive with considerable success a decade later. Then, in Edward Knobloch's My Lady's Dress, she played the role of five different characters, a feat that earned her recognition as one of the most promising actresses on the English stage.

With the outbreak of World War I in 1914, Gladys Cooper went to France to entertain the troops with what was called a "concert party" headed by Seymour Hicks, a career move that did much to endear her to the young men of her generation. Returning to London and remembering her years tagged as a musical star, Cooper determined that never again would she allow herself to be typecast. "Familiarity," she later said, "breeds [theatrical] trickery but variety constantly calls for fresh effort and breeds versatility." Deciding that the best way in which to grow as an artist was to play as many and as varied roles as possible, she assumed direct control of her own career. Thereafter, associating herself with various managements, she undertook the production of classic and modern plays that gave her the range that she felt was necessary for her maturation as an actress.

Beginning in 1917, she and Frank Curzon, a noted London producer, launched the production of a series of old and new plays in many of which Cooper herself starred, such as W. Somerset Maugham's Home and Beauty (1919), Maurice Maeterlinck's fantasy The Betrothal, Lord Dunsany's If and The Sign on the Door by her good friend Channing Pollock (all in 1921). Shortly thereafter, she managed to wring additional mileage out of such theatrical antiques as Hermann Sudermann's Magda, a play over 80 years old but which had some theatrical curiosity in having been an Ibsenesque "problem play" written some 30 years before Ibsen virtually created the genre. In so doing, she challenged comparison with no less than Sarah Bernhardt, Eleonora Duse , and Mrs. Patrick Campbell , all of whom had essayed the role a generation and more before. Cooper then revived The Second Mrs. Tanqueray by Sir Arthur Wing Pinero, which had passed as a rather daring "modern" drama when it was first performed in the 1890s. This vehicle served Cooper for an impressive 221 performances in 1922 and, for the first time, earned her wide critical recognition as a dramatic actress. In 1923–24, she delighted London theatergoers in Peter Pan at the Adelphi Theater, becoming the first Peter to "fly" in through the window (on a suspension wire), a feat now taken for granted. She then revived Pinero's Iris (1925) and also produced a number of other contemporary plays, especially Frederick Lonsdale's The Last of Mrs. Cheyney, which ran for almost a year (1925) and in which she starred opposite Sir Gerald du Maurier. In time, Cooper became celebrated for her ability to turn a good play into box-office gold, and, over the years, just about every practicing British playwright of her era came to write plays expressly for her.

An astute business woman and a good judge of what would work on the modern stage, Cooper, together with Curzon, now assumed the management of The Playhouse Theater in London, where she would produce eight plays in the next eight years, the first being Somerset Maugham's The Letter, a melodrama set in Malaya, in which she played the adulterous and murderous wife Leslie Crosbie, a role reprised on the screen by Bette Davis in 1940. One of Cooper's greatest successes, this production ran for 338 performances and established her as the leading actress-manager in English theater. Somerset Maugham was so impressed with her production of his drama that he immediately gave Cooper the first option on his two new plays The Sacred Flame and The Painted Veil, the first of which she both staged and played in in 1929. This was followed by her production of H.M. Harwood's and R. Gore-Browne's Cynara (1930). Cooper enjoyed being a manager, reveling in the conferences and the decision-making that went with the work. "Being a manager alters an actress' whole point of view," she once observed. "She stops reading scripts to find parts and [instead] reads to find plays. Her own part becomes a secondary consideration. As a producer I have often cast myself for parts that no [other] manager would have engaged me for."

Frank Curzon died in 1927, but Cooper continued to manage The Playhouse Theater alone until 1934, when a combination of factors, not the least of which were the enormous work involved, the distraction from her acting, the needs of her children, the increasing competition from the talking films, and the Great Depression, caused her to cease operating her project. Her years as a manager stood her in good stead as an actress, however, long after her years at The Playhouse had come to an end. She learned, for example, that it was important to open a play during a "good" season, when one critical success was following another, for the sense of the critics and of the audience that they were in the midst of a glittering season rubbed off on every other production that opened. If a season was seen to be poor, one's own production, even if good, could be greeted as just another mildly interesting feature in an otherwise lackluster year.

In 1933, Raymond Massey, best remembered for his film role as Abraham Lincoln, who had directed the New York production of The Sacred Flame, brought to Cooper's attention the dramatization of The Rats of Norway, a novel by the youthful Keith Winter that had created a stir when it had first appeared in 1932. Cooper was extremely impressed by Winter's work, especially by what she called "his comprehension of women's psychology." Impressed, as well, by the play's theatrical possibilities, Cooper staged The Rats of Norway in London with herself, Massey, and a youthful Laurence Olivier in the cast. Although it received mixed reviews, it was one of the successes of the season. The following year, Cooper again appeared with Massey in the London production of Robert E. Sherwood's Acropolis, which was considerably less successful. At this time, however, Keith Winter approached Cooper with a second play, The Shining Hour. After consultation with Massey, who agreed to appear with her in the drama together with his wife, the actress Adrianne Allen , Cooper decided to do the play. On the advice of Noel Coward, however, she and Massey opted to premiere the work in New York.

Gladys Cooper arrived in New York for her American debut in the spring of 1934, together with Keith Winter and the entire cast of The Shining Hour, which had already been rehearsed in London. The play was both a critical and popular success and the New York critics, agreeing that Cooper was worthy of her reputation, were soon comparing her to the celebrated American actress, Katharine Cornell , a comparison that would be made over and over.

It was now, in mid-life, that Gladys Cooper undertook her first Shakespearean roles. Wisely, she chose to make her debut in New York, where the local critics had less emotional involvement with the Bard, playing at the Plymouth Theater opposite Philip Merivale, her future husband, in Othello and Macbeth in 1935. In assaying the roles of Desdemona and Lady Macbeth, Cooper had the advantage of having seen Othello only once (in the Paul Robeson version in London in which Peggy Ashcroft had distinguished herself as Desdemona), and Macbeth not at all, so that, uninfluenced as well as unintimidated by the interpretations of her predecessors, she simply played the parts as she thought they should best be played. Although neither production satisfied the critics, Cooper managed to garner good personal reviews especially for her sleepwalking scene in Macbeth. Cooper worked well with Merivale and enjoyed working in New York, so much so that she took a house in Darien, Connecticut, for the run of the plays. True to her determination never to become typecast, Cooper immediately followed her Shakespearean adventure with an appearance with Merivale in a modern British play, Dodie Smith 's Call It a Day, which was staged by the Theater Guild in the seasons of 1935–36 and 1936–37 and which ran for 194 performances on Broadway. Now wed, the Merivales took an apartment on Park Avenue for themselves and Cooper's daughter Sally from a previous marriage. Returning to London, Cooper and Merivale appeared in the London production of Dodsworth (1938), based on Sinclair Lewis' 1935 dramatization of his 1929 novel. The couple then appeared together that summer doing Shakespeare in the open-air theater in Regent's Park, with Cooper starring as Olivia in Twelfth Night, as Rosalind in As You Like It, and as Oberon in A Midsummer Night's Dream. Returning to New York, Cooper now chose a modern play as her vehicle, Emlyn Williams' The Morning Star.

In 1938, Gladys Cooper and her husband formed a managerial partnership, together with the London producer Lee Ephraim and the American performer Georgie Jessel, to produce Spring Meeting in New York, a play that had had a most successful run in London. The play opened that fall and ran through the season into 1939. It was at this time in her life, however, that Gladys Cooper made another abrupt career move. Suddenly becoming serious about work in motion pictures, she decided to settle in California. Cooper had made her first British talking film as early as 1935, but now, from 1940 through the 1950s, she became a regular in American motion pictures. Highly esteemed for the quiet elegance that she brought to her characterizations, she was much in demand to play society women, both English and American, both virtuous and villainous, moving effortlessly from one studio to another—United Artists, Warner Bros., RKO, MGM—although most of her films were made for the last two. Her appearances in Rebecca (1940), in which Judith Anderson and Joan Fontaine also appeared, and That Hamilton Woman (1941) were well-received, as was her brief but important role in The Song ofBernadette (1943). Her greatest success was as Bette Davis' possessive and domineering mother in Now Voyager (1942), for which she was nominated for an Academy Award for the Best Supporting Actress of the year. Cooper's last important appearance on the screen in her later years was as the mother of Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady (1964). Her last American film, The Happiest Millionaire, would be made in 1967.

Having returned to postwar London in 1947, Cooper resumed her career on the stage as Melanie Aspen in Peter Ustinov's The Indifferent Shepherd (1948). A number of modest successes followed, among them her role as a lady cricketer in Thomas Browne's farce The Hat Trick (1950), but it was in Noel Coward's Relative Values (1951), that Cooper was "discovered" by a new generation of London theater audiences. In 1953, Gladys Cooper starred in Wynyard Browne's A Question of Fact and, two years later, returned to the New York stage for the first time since 1943 in the role of Mrs. St. Maugham in Enid Bagnold 's popular play The Chalk Garden, which had served as a successful vehicle for both of her great contemporaries, Peggy Ashcroft and Edith Evans . Cooper received enthusiastic reviews for her performance, one of the memorable events of the season. She marveled at the warmth and affection of her reception in a city where she did not consider herself to have had much of a following. Back in London, she appeared in a number of other plays, then returned to New York one final time in 1962 for the role of Mrs. Moore in a stage adaptation of E.M. Forster's novel A Passage to India, a role immortalized on the screen in 1984 by Ashcroft.

Cooper excelled in drawing-room comedy but handled herself equally well and often quite brilliantly in Shakespeare and Shaw. "Earnestness," "consistent insight," "extraordinarily vivacious," "resplendent" were typical terms with which her various appearances were greeted by the critics, who, while they were not always satisfied by her choice of vehicles, were almost always enthusiastic about her performances. Indeed, her talents were not only recognized by the critics and her peers but also attracted the attention of Queen Elizabeth II , who, in 1967, awarded Cooper the coveted title of Dame of the Order of the British Empire, an honor accorded to relatively few ladies of the theater, and which placed Gladys Cooper in the highest theatrical rank among such major British actresses as Ellen Terry, May Whitty, Sybil Thorndike , Ashcroft, and Evans.

As an actress, Dame Gladys Cooper is remembered not so much for her ability to master a play or a role but rather for her ability to select the roles that were perfect for her and which permitted her to excel. Though she attempted to grow as an actress and to expand her horizons, as her appearances in Shakespearean comedy and tragedy attest, she was less versatile than Ashcroft and less inclined to challenge herself. As the years passed, however, and the Edwardian period from which she had sprung became clouded with nostalgia, Dame Gladys Cooper attracted increasing affection as one of the last famous representatives of her era and one of the last theatrical links to the age of Terry. Audiences flocked to see her perform, and she became increasingly revered by the British. "Retire?" she is quoted as having said in her later years. "Whatever for?"

Only towards the end of her life did Cooper become involved with television, and her last role was that of the mistress of a gang of sophisticated international jewel thieves on the American TV series "The Rogues" in 1963, in which she played with David Niven, Charles Boyer, and Gig Young. Reviewing the series for The New York Times, Jack Gould wrote that her "portrayal of the doyenne of cultural rascality is an absolute gem."

Gladys Cooper married three times. Her first marriage to an actor, Henry Buckmaster, on December 12, 1908, ended in divorce in 1922 but left her with two children, son John Buck-master, who later became an actor, and daughter Joan, who married the popular character actor Robert Morley. During her second marriage to Sir Neville Charles Pearson, magazine editor and publisher, on June 15, 1928, she had a daughter Sally, who married the actor Robert Hardy. A devoted mother, despite the demands of her career, Cooper brought her youngest daughter to America with her on both of her first two appearances in New York. In October 1936, she divorced Pearson and on April 30, 1937, wed Philip Merivale in Chicago; the marriage lasted until his death in 1946.

Cooper had homes in both England and California and communicated between them regularly. She evinced no snobbery in connection with performing in the U.S., a country that she claimed to love, and cheerfully worked in New York and Hollywood as easily as she did in London. Her pastimes included gardening and traveling, and she enjoyed overseeing the construction of her homes. She had a fondness for Welsh corgis, a breed of dog made fashionable by the queen, had a taste for yogurt, and loved to drive, once motoring across the United States from coast to coast. Like many theater people, she was quite superstitious, carrying with her all sorts of good luck charms from her earliest years on the stage and, following British theatrical custom, always traveling with a large wicker hamper in which she kept her costumes.

Cooper was 5′5″ and weighed approximately 112 pounds, but, slim and perfectly proportioned, she gave the impression of being taller than she actually was. Her eyes were a deep blue, and she held her aristocratic head with its rather prominent nose characteristically high, her chin jutting forward. No one played the English grande dame better than she. On stage, she was noted for her glamorous wardrobe and was often cited as one of the most beautifully dressed women, but in private life she cared little for clothes and dressed simply. In later years, she preferred pastel colors that she believed best set off her delicate beauty, a beauty that aged gracefully and remained with her until the end of her life. Bright and alert, Gladys Cooper never lost her interest in the theater or in current events. She talked easily and gave a good interview. A religious woman and a true Edwardian until the end, she deplored the decline in morals, standards, and taste in the modern world, especially in the theater and films, and openly joined the chorus of protests that accompanied the advent of Jesus Christ Superstar, a production that she detested. Scorning retirement, Dame Gladys Cooper worked continuously and was planning a tour of Canada in The Chalk Garden, when she fell ill with pneumonia. Ten weeks later, she died in her sleep at her home in Henley-on-Thames on November 17, 1971, just a few weeks before her 83rd birthday. Gladys Cooper had written her own memoirs as early as 1931 but in 1953 was the subject of a more up-to-date biography by Sewell Stokes for which Somerset Maugham wrote the preface.


Current Biography. NY: H.W. Wilson, 1946. Philadelphia Free Library, Theater Collection. Stokes, Sewell. Without Veils. London, 1953.

suggested reading:

Cooper, Gladys. Gladys Cooper. London, 1931.

Wyndham, H. Chorus to Coronet. London, 1951.

Robert H. Hewsen , Professor of History, Rowan University, Glassboro, New Jersey

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Cooper, Gladys (1888–1971)

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