Vital Signs

Hollywood and the Convent

Biographers do much of their work in the study and the library, but they also get to some out-of-the-way places.  I’ve interviewed people in bars, nursing homes, and insane asylums, chased down wealthy informants in country houses and elegant apartments, poor ones in drafty cottages and cluttered flats.  Some welcomed me with a hefty drink, others couldn’t wait to get rid of me.  I am always passed on from one to the other by surviving family and friends.  They seem to enjoy participating, however reluctantly at first, in the search for one of life’s eternal puzzles: the heart and mind of another person.  They can’t help having partial views of their own, and they sometimes promote a barely disguised agenda.  The biographer, positioned uncomfortably as judge and appraiser of an important or even great man or woman, who must nevertheless have been fallibly human, finds himself balancing contradictory views of his subject.  When I was writing the life of Gary Cooper, his daughter Maria, an ardent Roman Catholic, suggested I accompany her on a visit to a Benedictine convent.  

Though I could not guess how this would further my research, it was an offer I couldn’t refuse.  I knew some jolly Irish priests in Montana and had once spent the night in a monk’s cell at St. John’s University in Minnesota, but my knowledge of conventual life was confined to...

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