Miriam Cooper (November 7, 1891 - April 12, 1976) was an silent film actress who is best known for her work with D.W. Griffith and her husband Raoul Walsh. After retiring from acting in 1923 she was rediscovered by the film community in the 1960s and toured colleges lecturing about silent films.
Miriam Cooper was born to Julian Cooper and Margaret Stewart in Baltimore, Maryland on November 7, 1891. Her mother was from a devout Catholic family who had a long history in Baltimore. Her Grandfather Cooper had helped discover Navassa Island and made his wealth from selling guano. Her father was attending Loyola University when he met her mother. Her parents had 5 children in 5 years (one died in infancy) including her sister Lenore and her brothers Nelson and Gordon. Cooper had a troubled relationship with her mother who she loved, but felt was cold to her. Once during her childhood her mother told her she hated her for looking like her father. Her mother remarried in 1914.
Her father left the family when she was young and lived in Europe. Her Grandmother Cooper supported the family until her death willing her fortune to Cooper's father. To that point the family had lived comfortably in Washington Heights. Cooper's father kept the money leaving the family destitute. They moved to Little Italy which Cooper despised.
During this time Cooper found solace by playing in an abandon Dutch cemetery. She would lie on the graves and daydream. To make her sister behave she also became a storyteller by repeating Edgar Allen Poe's poem "The Raven" saying it was named for her. Cooper cited these experiences as greatly influencing her acting later on as well as her Christian faith.
Never intending to be an actress Cooper originally had trained to be a painter. She attended St. Walburga's School with the help of the nuns who arranged her tuition. From there she attended an art school named Cooper Union with help from the parish. At the suggestion of a friend of her mother's Cooper posed for Charles Dana Gibson at the age of 21. It was the first painting Gibson had done in oils.
Soon after on a friend's suggestion Cooper went to Biograph Studios just to see what they were doing there. Cooper had only seen one flicker behind her mother's back and hadn't been impressed with it. Able to walk right up to the set the two girls watched the film, "A Blot on Scutcheon" being made. One of the assistants approached them and asked if they would like to be extras. They were given the option between 'page boy' or 'scullery maid' and Cooper not wanting to wear slacks eventually chose 'scullery maid'. Her friend backed out leaving Cooper who stayed for the pay which was $5 a day. Ford Sterling's wife Teddy Sampson tried to sabotage her make up, but Mack Sennett and Mabel Normand spotted her and helped her out making her look presentable. After shooting Cooper was asked to stay in costume as D.W. Griffith wanted a screen test of her.
Cooper never heard back from Biograph and interested in making more money she approached Edison and Vitagraph but was turned away. In 1912 Kalem hired her and used her as an extra. As her roles grew she was invited to join their stock performance company which was heading for Florida to film. Offered $35 a week plus expenses Cooper was initially hesitant to confess her career to her family but changed her mind when she returned home to find hand me downs from a very large recently deceased Aunt. Deciding she could no longer live this way Cooper announced her plans much to her mother's despair.
Filming took place in Jacksonville, Florida with Anna Q. Nilsson and Guy Coombs as the leads. Being the 50th anniversary since the Civil War the company made several Civil War themed shorts. For these films Cooper learned to play drums and ride horseback. Already able to swim these skills were utilized in several of her shorts.
As time passed Cooper's roles grew in size and she received favorable reviews. Feeling her roles were as big as Nilsson's (who was making $65 a week) and much more dangerous, she requested a raise. They fired her that weekend and she returned to New York where she returned to art school.
D.W. Griffith YearsEdit
After returning to New York Cooper decided once again to try D.W. Griffith. She went to the Biograph offices every day for a week but no one took notice of her. While leaving school one day she ran back into the assistant director who had helped her on her first day as an extra. He was excited to have found her as Griffith had been looking for her but since she did not have a telephone number they had been unable to find her. Her first day back at Biograph Griffith called her into his office 5 times and sent her away each time. The final time he asked her to rehearse a scene with Bobby Harron telling her Bobby was playing her sweetheart, a confederate soldier off to war. Pleased with what he scene Griffith told her they would leave to California shortly where he would make a picture about the Civil War. She would make $35 a week.
Cooper began work on several pictures for Reliance Majestic that were made while Griffith supervised and began preparations for "Birth of a Nation". She stated she didn't remember being in several films as she was never told what that what she acted in ended up in which picture. During this time she acted in one of Griffith's first attempts at a feature, "Home Sweet Home" though she also didn't remember anything about that film.
After working several months for the company Cooper's star was rising and she was given a star dressing room with Mae Marsh. She couldn't recall the start of "Birth of a Nation" other than Griffith announced he was making his civil war picture and they still did not use scripts. Cooper was given one of the leading roles as the eldest Southern daughter Margaret Cameron. As was standard at the time Cooper did her own makeup and hair.
Cooper lived the role and found her only real difficult scene came acting opposite Henry Walthall who she found cold and difficult. After having troubles in rehearsal with the scene she also had trouble while filming. To get her to act upset Griffith took her aside and told her that her mother had passed away. Despite the trick Cooper was never angry with him for it. Cooper's sister Lenore visited her while filming and ended up as an extra playing Lillian Gish's maid in blackface. While having trouble funding the film Griffith offered Cooper a chance to invest in it, however Cooper had no money and said so. Had she invested Cooper would have made thousands back.
Cooper was too ill to see the picture when it premiered in Los Angeles. She finally was able to see it in April 1915 back in New York. On the advice of Norma Talmadge she asked to get her family in for free which the theatre obliged. Despite acknowledging the pictures racist tones Cooper never denounced it. She attended several revival screenings of it in her later years and stated that she was very glad her legacy would be that of a young girl on screen in the film.
Cooper was then given the role of 'The Friendless One' in "Intolerance". Cooper noted she played 'a fallen woman' not a 'prostitute' as some sources claimed. During the filming of the scene where 'The Friendless One' is conflicted with inner torment a photographer from "The New York Times" took pictures while Cooper acted. Stills were usually taken after scenes had been filmed. This was the first time they were taken during the actual filming. While Griffith finished "Intolerance" Cooper worked on a handful of shorts under other director's for Reliance Majestic. These were her final shorts.
In late 1915 Cooper began traveling between New York and California to spend more time with Raoul Walsh. The couple secretly married in February 1916 before Cooper returned back to California.
Cooper noted Griffith seemed to treat her different than other actresses by continually giving her bigger parts (Griffith was known for casting an actress as a lead one day and a bit role the next to keep egos in check). After returning to California Griffith called Cooper into his office giving her a leather bound copy of "Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam" telling her it was his next picture and he wanted her to play lead. Cooper was already tired of being separated from Walsh and after consulting with Mary Alden decided she didn't understand what the book was about and didn't want to make a picture out of it. Cooper quietly returned to New York and wired Griffith that she was leaving the company. Griffith wired back his congratulations, it was the last time they ever spoke.
Raoul Walsh YearsEdit
After leaving Griffith, Cooper received offers from Jesse Lasky and Cecil B. DeMille. However Cooper intended to retire and be a housewife and mother.. When Walsh was offered a chance to direct a film titled, "The Honor System" in Arizona he pleaded with Cooper to take a role in it. Cooper agreed for fear he would cheat on her and not wanting to be separated for a long period of time. Cooper made $1,000 a week for her role as Edith. Years later while being interviewed by Kevin Brownlow Cooper found Walsh's shooting script for the film on the back of an envelope. "The Honor System" opened in 1917 to good reviews (one calling it "Bigger than The Birth of a Nation") and good box office. 2 years later it was played for the Prince of Whales when he visited New York.
Walsh continued to ask Cooper's advice when dealing with the business moguls, usually asking her to speak with them as she had with Griffith before. After filming another film Walsh once again asked Cooper to 'temporarily return' to pictures until he was established. Cooper signed with FOX and made $1,200 a week. Her contract allowed Walsh to get top billing instead of her (it was traditionally either the director or the star).
In 1917 Cooper and Walsh began work on a film based on the Blanca De Saulles trial. Cooper bore such a resemblance to De Saulles that FOX wanted to leave her name off the credits to insinuate De Saulles played herself. Cooper refused. The film was also notable for featuring Peggy Hopkins Joyce as a courtesan though she didn’t realize it until the film premiered. The film was controversial and received what amounted to an X rating for its time as no children were allowed. The film is now lost.
After work on "The Prussian Cur" Cooper adopted her first son and tried settling back into a private life, shunning publicity. However in 1919 as Walsh began to look for new script ideas Cooper suggested the story "Evangeline", which Walsh asked her to lead in. Cooper refused until the studio sent a blonde to play the part. Walsh was annoyed and asked her once again, which she relented to. Cooper didn’t like the picture as she thought it was too innocent though it performed well at the box office and was one of her better known films. William Fox thought it was the best picture of her career. It is now lost.
With the success of Evangeline another film "Should a Husband Forgive?" was rushed into theatres. Walsh was excited with the success and wired Cooper that he would make her a big star, though she still wished to retire. Walsh signed with the Mayflower Corporation in 1920. Cooper joined him for the sake of her marriage, fearing more bouts of jealousy if she didn't. Their first film was "The Deep Purple".
Their next film was "The Oath" which Cooper took control of from casting to costumes. She said she loved everything about the film. However it received the worst reviews of her career and was one of Walsh's only silents to lose money. Cooper was deeply hurt by the failure. Their next film "Serenade" was fully under Walsh's control and was their most profitable. However Cooper hated acting opposite Walsh's brother George who she felt was stiff. Walsh agreed and they were never paired together again.
The duo's final film together was "Kindred of the Dust". Cooper felt it was mediocre but it did decent business. During filming she accidentally gazed into a stage light permanently damaging her eyes. Well into old age she suffered from this accident. "Kindred of the Dust" was the last film the couple did together, the last independent film for Walsh, and is one of Cooper's few surviving films.
As troubles in her marriage and finances began to appear Cooper found she resented the role of 'The Director's Wife'. On the advice of a friend she took to the stage for the first and only time, to disastrous reviews. Cooper decided she didn't like stage acting and began considering film offers again.
A little film company called 'D.M Film Corporation' offered her a role in a pictured title "Is Money Everything?". It only offered $650 a week and would film in Detroit, MI. However Cooper took it to help her financial situation. Cooper found it a horrible picture and found herself overwhelmed by her personal troubles.
After reconciling with Walsh, Cooper decided to keep at films. Her first back with Hollywood was for B.P Schulberg titled, "The Girl Who Came Back" in 1923. She was once again making $1,000 a week. The picture did well and was hailed as a comeback. Schulberg asked her to make 2 more pictures for him which she agreed. She also made 2 films for other companies. Her final one was a picture titled, "The Broken Wing" which also had her old friend Walter Long in a role.
Cooper was terrified of sitting in an airplane (a main plot point) and refused. She also found the director Tom Forman to be a drunk, and was upset that her final big scene he turned up to drunk to direct. When the picture premiered Cooper cried after viewing it feeling it was the worst movie she'd ever seen. She noted, "After 'The Broken Wing' I never wanted to make another picture. After all the times I thought I'd retire for good and then came back to films, I finally wound up my career in a stinker made by a drunk. What a hell of an ending."
After divorcing Walsh in 1926, Cooper never made another picture. She returned to New York and joined high society playing bridge and shopping most days. During World War 2 Cooper volunteered for Red Cross handing out doughnuts and writing letters for wounded soldiers. She attended Columbia University in the 1940s to study writing. She bought a farm Chestertown, Maryland hoping to be inspired. She wrote a novel and two plays, all of which were unpublished. The plays were based on two of her films and she sent them to FOX, but both were rejected. In the 1950s she moved to Virginia where she started a women's writing club. She continued playing golf, working for charity, and playing bridge.
In 1969 a man from the Library of Congress called her, surprise to find she was still alive. Soon after she began receiving calls from universities and film historians. She was invited to several colleges and screenings of her old films. In 1973 she wrote an autobiography, "Dark Lady of the Silents".
In 1970 after attending "The D.W. Griffith Film Festival" she had a heart attack which began a series of heart troubles which limited her in her final years.
Cooper died at Cedars Nursing Home on April 12th, 1976. She had been there since suffering a stroke earlier the same year. She was 84 years old. Her death left Lillian Gish as the sole surviving cast member of Birth of a Nation. She is buried in the New Cathedral Cemetery in Baltimore, Maryland under the name "Miriam Cooper Walsh" which she continued using long after her divorce from Walsh.
Cooper is primarily known today for her performances in "Birth of a Nation" and "Intolerance". Very few of her films are known to survive. Only 3 of her 40 shorts still exist, while only 5 of her 21 features still exist. Her only non Griffith features to survive are "Kindred of the Dust" and "Is Money Everything?". Neither have been released on DVD though there is a fan campaign hoping to do so via TCM.
Cooper got along well with D.W. Griffith saying he had been a perfect gentleman. However when they first arrived in California Cooper mistook his mannerisms as insulting (he had failed to return a hello to her one day). She complained to Mae Marsh who trying to win Griffith's favor told Griffith. The next day on set Griffith called Cooper "The Queen of Sheba". They worked out the misunderstanding but she recalled that much to her annoyance the nickname stuck for years afterwards. She claimed to have never been romantic with Griffith like Lillian Gish or Mae Marsh. However she did mention in her autobiography that he tried to kiss her once after offering her a ride home. After the release of "Birth of a Nation" Cooper's train stopped in Chicago where Griffith was staying. He sent her a telegram asking her to see him in his hotel room but Cooper was unable to reach him. According to her this stopped his romantic intentions with her. Though aware of Griffith's struggles later in life she hadn't seen him since the 1920s; though she did visit his grave during her visit to Kentucky for "The D.W. Griffith Film Festival".
Cooper got along well with most of Griffith's company including Dorothy Gish, Mary Alden, and Mae Marsh. She also was friends with Norma Talmadge, Mabel Normand, and Pola Negri. Though not close she was fond of Lillian Gish. Cooper didn't get along with Teddy Sampson and she greatly disliked Theda Bara who she felt was trying to still Raoul Walsh away from her during the making of "Carmen" and "The Serpent". In later years Cooper was good friends with Carole Lombard who she helped get some of her first roles. Cooper and Walsh were good friends with Charlie Chaplin in 1924. Chaplin was going through some troubling times and she found him gloomy and needy. She enjoyed him more once his personal life was back in order and he was much more cheery.
Cooper met Raoul Walsh in 1914 when she joined Griffith's California Company. After Mae Marsh turned Walsh down for an Easter Mass date Walsh and Cooper began dating in 1915. Walsh had been Griffith's assistant director and asked Cooper if she would speak to Griffith about making him a director. On her advice Griffith made him a director a few weeks later. After directing one picture for Griffith, Walsh was signed to Fox Studios which filmed in New York while Cooper still had to film in California. The couple married in February 1916 and Cooper left the Griffith company to join Walsh in New York. Cooper intended to quit pictures to be a housewife and mother.. However Walsh's gambling and cheating were big problems for her. One of the first nights she suspected him of cheating she swallowed a bottle of carbolic acid and had to have her stomach pumped. However Walsh continued to cheat during the marriage. As their successes grew more trouble arose from debts and Cooper's resentment from being known as the Director's wife, something she was surprised at as she had thought she never wanted the spotlight. After "Kindred of the Dust" Walsh admitted he didn’t think he loved her anymore. The marriage dragged on as both sides accused the other of cheating. Though the reconciled by 1925 Cooper was certain he was again cheating, this time with Ethel Barrymore who she confronted. Afterwards she threatened to divorce him. Walsh pleaded for forgiveness but Cooper found he was cheating with a young society girl who he was engaged to. The final moment came when Walsh began an affair with Cooper's friend Lorraine Miller. Cooper was furious and began divorce proceedings threatening to put infidelity as her reason. However in the days of morality clauses this could have caused Walsh his contract and William Fox talked her out of it. Instead she put 'irreconcilable differences'. The divorce was big news in Hollywood, with Gloria Swanson throwing Walsh a party, while Norman Kerry and Erich von Stroheim threw Cooper one. Not too long after Walsh married Miller.
Cooper desperately wanted children but was unable to conceive. Though she never learned the reason she suspected it had to do with her kidney illness. Her and Walsh adopted 2 boys: Jackie and Bobbie. After the divorce both boys lived with her until their teenage years. Jackie got in trouble with the law several times and Bobbie idolized him. At the advice of her preacher Cooper sent Jackie to live with Walsh. On a visit Bobbie idolized it so much he asked to live there as well. Cooper and Walsh had been suing each other during the 30s and Walsh later had the boys sue her as well. Cooper never heard from either of her sons again and was unsure if they were still alive as of the 1970s.
Films in bold still exist
- A Blot on the 'Scutcheon
- Victim of Circumstances
- Battle of Pottsburg Bridge
- Tide of Battle
- War's Havoc
- The Drummer Girl of Vicksburg
- The Colonel's Escape
- The Buglier of Battery B
- The Soldier Brothers of Susannah
- The Siege of Petersburg
- The Darling of the CSA
- Saved from Court Martial
- A Railroad Lochinvar
- His Mother's Picture
- The Girl in the Caboose
- The Pony Express Girl
- Battle in the Virginia Hills
- The Water Right War
- The Battle Wits
- A Race with Time
- A Sawmill Hazard
- A Desperate Chance
- The Turning Point
- The Battle of Bloody Ford
- A Treacherous Shot
- The Farm Bully
- The Toll Gate Raiders
- Infamous Don Miguel
- Captured by Strategy
- The Stolen Radium
- For His Master
- When Fate Frowned
- A Diamond in the Rough
- The Gunman
- The Dishonored Medal
- The Odalisque
- The Double Deception
- The Fatal Black Bean
- His Return
- The Burned Hand
- The Honor System
- The Silent Lie
- The Innocent Sinner
- The Woman and the Law
- The Prussian Cur
- Should a Husband forgive?
- The Deep Purple
- The Oath
- Kindred of the Dust
- Is Money everything?
- The Girl Who Came Back
- Daughters of the Rich
- Her Accidental Husband
- After the Ball
- The Broken Wing
- Miriam Cooper Dark lady of the silents; my life in early Hollywood Bobbs-Merrill (1973) ISBN 0-6725-1725-6
- Miriam Cooper at Find A Grave
- Template:Amg name
- Introducing...Miriam Cooper
- Miriam Cooper's Complete Filmography
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