Widely acclaimed as one of the great beauties of the stage, British actress Gladys Cooper had the added advantage of great talent. Daughter of a London magazine editor, she made her stage bow at age 17 in a Colchester production of Bluebell in Fairyland; at 19, she was a member of the "Gaiety Girls," a famous and famously attractive chorus-girl line. Graduating to leading roles, Cooper was particularly popular with young stage door johnnies; during World War I, she was the British troops' most popular "pin-up." Switching from light comedy to deep drama in the 1920s, Cooper retained her following, even when leaving England for extended American appearances after her 1934 Broadway debut in The Shining Hour. She made subsequent New York appearances in Shakespearean roles, thereafter achieving nationwide fame with her many Hollywood film appearances (she'd first acted before the cameras way back in 1911 in a British one-reeler, Eleventh Commandment). Now past fifty but still strikingly attractive, Cooper was often cast as aristocratic ladies whose sharp-tongued cattiness was couched in feigned politeness; her film parts ranged from Bette Davis' overbearing mother in Now Voyager (1941) to the hidden murderess in a Universal "B" horror, The Black Cat (1941). Returning to the London stage in 1947, Cooper remained there for several years before returning to Broadway in The Chalk Garden(1955). New York was again regaled by her in 1962 when she played Mrs. Moore in A Passage to India (the role which won Peggy Ashcroft an Oscar when Passage was filmed over 20 years later). The years 1960-1964 were particularly busy for Cooper on TV and in films; she won her third Oscar nomination for her role as Prof. Henry Higgins' mother in My Fair Lady (1964), starred as the matriarch of a family of genteel swindlers on the TV series The Rogues (1964), and even found time to co-star with a very young Robert Redford on a 1962 episode of The Twilight Zone. Made a Dame Commander of the O.B.E. in 1967, Cooper had no plans for slowing down in her eighties, even though she was appalled by the "let it all hang out" theatre offerings of the era. Cooper was planning to tour in a Canadian revival of Chalk Garden in 1971 when she contracted pneumonia and died in November of that year.
by Hal Erickson biography