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Howard Kissel

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Maria Cooper Janis

Posted: 01/13/12 10:45 AM ET

There are two Steinway grands in the living room of Maria Cooper Janis's Park Avenue apartment.

One belongs to her husband, the virtuoso pianist Byron Janis. That one is temporarily "out of order." The innards of its middle section, which regularly receive a grueling workout, have been removed for restoration.

The other piano has its own pedigree -- it belonged to Maria's parents, Gary and Veronica (Rocky) Cooper.

"If only that piano could talk," Maria laughs. Among the people who played and sang around it when she was growing up were such friends of her parents as Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland, Dinah Shore and Rosemary Clooney. After years of focusing on the Great American Songbook, this piano is now learning the classical repertory in which Janis has excelled since he was a child prodigy, a pupil of the legendary Vladimir Horowitz.

Her childhood took place in the golden age of Hollywood, but Maria remembers it for its lack of pretension. "My parents were very unusual -- they didn't give a damn about status. They had friends from all walks of life.

"Beverly Hills itself was less status-conscious. In those days there were no stores named for designers on Rodeo Drive. Maybe Saks or I. Magnin carried a few designer labels, but the shops I remember on Rodeo Drive were the Beverly Hills Camera Store and Nate and Al's, the quintessential delicatessen."

A dozen years ago Maria wrote about her father in Gary Cooper Off Camera: A Daughter Remembers. The book had extensive photographs of the Coopers' private life. She keeps the voluminous photographs her mother saved in huge portfolios under a plush sofa in the living room. As she was trying to put this collection in order she "realized one aspect of my father that hadn't been looked at was his sense of style, what he wore."

It was around that time that the noted men's fashion writer G. Bruce Boyer, a former editor at Town and Country, wanted to write a book on Cooper's classic sense of fashion. A mutual friend, Peter Levinson, an agent and an expert on jazz, brought the two together.

They collaborated on Gary Cooper: Enduring Style, an elegantly designed tribute to a Hollywood icon and his impact on the American psyche. It includes many never-before-seen photos from under the sofa.

The book has a foreword by Ralph Lauren, who says Cooper had "that ideal American look. Unstudied, yet refined. Natural and playful." Enduring Style also has an essay by Boyer, a condensation of the full-length book he originally envisioned.

One area Boyer had hoped to cover in that book was Cooper's architectural innovations. "You can trace the whole history of Southern California architecture through the three homes he helped design. He was at the forefront of architectural thinking.

"Southern California architecture from 1900 to 1970 was based on the hacienda idea -- with a courtyard that brought the outdoors indoors and the indoors outdoors. Cooper's innovations had to do with the materials. Initially it was terra cotta. But Cooper pioneered the use of high stress metal with natural stone."

The actor is better known for his rugged good looks and, off-screen, for the innovative way he blended classic and casual clothes.

Cooper is generally thought of playing all-American heroes, like the courageous World War I soldier, Sgt. York, the baseball champion Lou Gehrig in Spirit of the Yankees or Marshall Will Kane, the brave defender of an innocent Western town against lawless intruders in High Noon.

These were logical roles for an actor who had in fact grown up in frontier Montana, where he befriended the local American Indians. He retained such reverence for their values that late in life, Maria recalls, he underwent the grueling sweat lodge ritual, "something you don't do unless you're truly committed."

But Cooper also had an unexpectedly aristocratic background -- his father, a state supreme court judge, sent him to an English boarding school, where he shared the life of the privileged British upper class.

Maria is well aware of the many paradoxes in her father's character. He had an effortless masculinity, a far cry, she notes, from that of "the Rambos and Schwarzeneggers." But he also had "enormous feminine sensitivity. Maybe feminine is the wrong word. But he had a great sensitivity to more than meets the eye." (One of her favorites among her father's roles is the gentle patriarchal Quaker in Friendly Persuasion.)

"My father and Byron both have some kind of spirituality, understated but powerful, that drives their lives, some sense of connection with something bigger than you."

Sometimes Maria wonders if the heroic scale of her father's image is out of sync with American values today. A few years ago a friend who teaches film at a prestigious local university invited her to attend a class in which he showed the students High Noon.

She was dismayed to hear the students call the upright character her father played "a jerk."

"They wondered why he didn't just get on his wagon with his wife and drive out of town when the bad guys showed up. They thought he was 'selfish' to ask the townspeople to help him. They thought he got off on killing. They weren't interested in Morality, Courage or the idea of The Hero. Their overall response was, 'What's the big deal?'"

A few years later the teacher invited her again and she was relieved to find the students respond enthusiastically to the film.

"My father always said he wanted to play roles that showed the best a man could be."

She is aware that the world of her father and that of today are very different:

How a culture dresses says a lot about our value system. Looking at Leno and Letterman is distressing. They aren't sitting there in jeans and sweat pants, but most of their guests are.

We've lost something. Television brings entertainment into the bedroom or the bathroom. It takes the specialness out of it. We've lost the psychological impact of going out of your house to some public event, the sense of something special.

Boyer agrees with her:

The idea of elegance and glamour is no longer part of our vocabulary. Somewhere along the line we've lost a sense of occasion. It could be a wedding or a funeral, you'll see men in jeans and T-shirts. We can all wear everything all of the time.

These days we have no real fashion magazines as they do in the Far East. There are deluxe magazines in Tokyo, Hong Kong and Singapore that still take fashion seriously, that will devote a whole issue to how to wear tweed.

Instead we have men's magazines with a few pages showing young men wearing distressed jeans, who look like they've just gotten out of bed and are going to work in a garage in Brooklyn.

The only one of our movie stars with a sense of fashion is George Clooney. He's wearing a tie at least half of the time he's photographed, and he wears pants that you can tell have been pressed.