Gary Cooper, Ernest Hemingway, and Our Lady of Fatima

K.V. Turley

 K.V. Turley is the Register’s U.K. correspondent. He writes from London.

“In the designs of Providence, there are no mere coincidences” — Pope St. John Paul II

Ernest Hemingway (l) and Gary Cooper (r) in Silver Creek, Idaho, January 1959. Sources differ on whether the woman in center is Clara Spiegel or Bobbi Powell.
Ernest Hemingway (l) and Gary Cooper (r) in Silver Creek, Idaho, January 1959. Sources differ on whether the woman in the center is Clara Spiegel or Bobbi Powell. (photo: Ernest Hemingway Photograph Collection, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library, and Museum, Boston / Public Domain)

On May 13, 1981, in St. Peter’s Square, an assassin’s bullet aimed at the heart of Pope John Paul II was mysteriously diverted. The Pope would later note of this moment and the connection he perceived with the apparitions at Fatima: “In the designs of Providence, there are no mere coincidences.” 

On May 13, 1961, 50 years after the first Fatima apparition, Catholic convert Gary Cooper was about to die. Pope Pius XII, known as “the Pope of Fatima,” played a part in the American movie star’s conversion to Catholicism. It was in June 1953 while visiting Rome to promote the film High Noon that the Cooper family was granted an audience with the Pope. At that time Cooper was not religious, never mind Catholic; but his wife, Veronica “Rocky” Balfe, was a devout Catholic. 

Perhaps it was because of Veronica’s faith that the couple’s marriage had endured so long, despite Cooper’s many, and at times public, infidelities. One of these affairs nearly destroyed their marriage.  When Cooper had finished working on The Fountainhead (1949), he seriously considered leaving his wife for his then co-star, Patricia Neal.  

Undecided, he sought advice from an old friend, Ernest Hemingway. Cooper was surprised when the many-times-married-and-divorced writer withheld his blessing. Soon after, Neal and Cooper ceased their affair.  

The years that followed the Neal affair were difficult ones for Cooper. The papal audience in 1953, however, proved a turning point, if not quite the end of the actor’s difficulties. The meeting with the Supreme Pontiff greatly impressed the movie star. Eventually, Cooper met a priest who equally impressed him and under his influence the actor found faith.   

In 1961, he needed that faith for it was in that year, aged 60, that Cooper was diagnosed with cancer.  

According to Hemingway’s biographer A.E. Hotchner, as Cooper lay dying he reached over and picked up the crucifix upon his bedside table. As he did so, he said, “Please give Papa [Hemingway] a message. It’s important and you mustn’t forget because I’ll not be talking to him again. Tell him … that time I wondered if I made the right decision [speaking of his conversion to the faith],” the actor moved the crucifix closer to his cheek, “tell him it was the best thing I ever did.”  

Hemingway had become interested in the Catholic faith following a period of convalescence after being wounded in Italy during World War I. His second marriage, in Paris on May 10, 1927, was to a Catholic, Pauline Pfeiffer. At that time the writer embraced his wife’s faith.  

On July 2, 1961, Hemingway shot himself, just a few months after his friend Cooper. 

The circumstances of Hemingway’s death — whether his shooting was accidental or deliberate — remain the subject of debate. What we do know, however, is that, like Cooper, Hemingway was buried according to the rites of the Catholic Church, which he had been received into decades earlier.  

What is less well known, perhaps, is that Hemingway’s conversion to Catholicism was in part due to the apparitions at Fatima. The events in the Portuguese village had occurred shortly after the American writer’s arrival in Europe. Hemingway considered the apparitions as incontrovertible evidence of the truth of the Catholic faith.  

Hemingway’s friend George Herter was to say that the writer’s Catholicism “came mainly from the apparitions of the Virgin Mary.” He recalled how Hemingway had told him “several times that if there were no Bible, no man-made church laws, the apparitions proved beyond any doubt that the Catholic Church was the true Church.”  

Hemingway, like Cooper, is also said also to have had a great affection for Pius XII. Mary, Hemingway’s daughter remembers how, when in 1958 there would be frequent radio bulletins giving updates on the health of the dying pope, her father, following each bulletin, would make the Sign of the Cross.   

Patricia Neal, whose affair with Cooper Hemingway had disapproved of, suffered much in her private life.  She was gifted, however, by an unlikely friendship with Cooper’s daughter, Maria. It was Maria who suggested Neal seek counsel in her difficulties from a former actress-friend who had chosen a very different path than Neal. The former Hollywood actress in question was Dolores Hart. She was by then a Benedictine nun at the Abbey of Regina Laudis (Queen of Praise) in Connecticut, where she remains today.  

While working in motion pictures Dolores Hart had befriended the Cooper family and had attended Cooper’s funeral in May 1961. Throughout the requiem Mass, she held a relic of St. Thérèse of Lisieux that had belonged to Cooper and that had been given to her by the late actor’s wife, Veronica. A year later, Hart would shock Hollywood by leaving movie stardom for a cloistered life.  

In March 2010, with the help of Maria Cooper Janis and Dolores Hart, now Mother Dolores, Neal was received into the Church. A few months later she died. She is buried at the Benedictine monastery of Regina Laudis, where she had come many years earlier seeking counsel and peace.   

Pope St. John Paul was right, of course. There are no coincidences in the spiritual life.