Merian Caldwell Cooper was born in Jacksonville on October 24, 1893. He was the youngest of the three children of John C. Cooper, an attorney, and the former Mary Caldwell. The family lived at 334 East Monroe Street between Market and Liberty streets. He was only 7 ½ years old when the Great Fire of 1901 roared through town and destroyed just about everything, including his family’s home. This cataclysmic event left a big impression on the young boy. After the Fire, his family rebuilt their home one block away at 326 E. Market Street across from St. Johns Cathedral. He lived there and attended Duval High School. This was just about the time the silent movie industry was in its heyday in Jacksonville, and this exposure to the glamour and excitement of movie making also had a profound influence on him. He went on to become one of the greatest adventurers this city and perhaps this country have ever known. Not to mention being the father of a 30-foot-tall gorilla.
This rare photo at right from the Jacksonville Historical Society’s Archives shows Merian C. Cooper as a teenager in downtown Jacksonville. He was good friends with the T.V. Porter family, and this snapshot (and the one below) shows him standing in front of the Porter home on Julia Street between Ashley and Church. This home still exists and is now the office of KBJ Architects. The caption on the photo indicates his friends called him “Coops”.
Merian left Jacksonville to attend the U.S. Naval Academy, but he left there under unfavorable circumstances in his final year. He then joined the National Guard, hoping to get to fight Pancho Villa.
According to the biography, Living Dangerously: The Adventures of Merian C. Cooper, Creator of King Kong by Mark Cotta Vaz, Merian led a larger-than-life career that was “like a man living his own movie.”
Among his many exploits, he:
- Flew over Europe as an aviator in World War I and, after many missions, was shot down in flames (he refused to bail out and abandon his observer/bomber) and was presumed dead. Gen. John J. Pershing signed his death certificate.
- Instead of coming home after WWI, he formed the Kosciuszko Squadron within the Polish Air Force to battle the Bolsheviks because he “burned to fight for Poland,” remembering the aid Poles had given the American colonies during the Revolutionary War.
- Was shot down again and again believed dead. He spent harrowing months at hard labor as a prisoner of the Communists, facing threat of execution three times.
- Returned to the United States after nearly four years’ absence and almost immediately went on an expedition to then mysterious Abyssinia (now Ethiopia), a voyage that began his long moviemaking partnership with Ernest Schoedsack.
Made two arduous expeditions with Schoedsack to Persia (now Iran) and Siam (now Thailand) — the second of which included an elephant stampede and the capture of a man-eating tiger. The trips resulted in highly praised silent documentaries, Grass and Chang.
Their collaboration extended into fiction films with exotic or mysterious backgrounds, the most famous of which was KING KONG (1933), a classic in the fantasy-horror field. Before beginning the picture, Cooper told star Fay Wray, “You are going to have the tallest, darkest leading man in Hollywood.”
- He campaigned for the adoption of Technicolor (in the mid-1930s) and promoted Cinerama in the 1950s, co-producing the first film ever made in this new cinematic medium.
Cooper succeeded David O. Selznick as vice president in charge of production at RKO Studios in 1933, and three years later he became vice president of Selznick International Pictures.
When World War II came, Cooper, though approaching 50, got back into uniform. He took part in planning for Jimmy Doolittle’s B-25 raid on Tokyo in 1942 and flew numerous missions himself. He joined Claire Chennault’s famed Flying Tiger fighters in China. When the Japanese surrender came, there he was, on the deck of the USS Missouri. Cooper retired from the service as a US Air Force brigadier general.
In 1947 he formed Argosy Pictures with John Ford, one of the greatest directors in the history of the cinema. He collaborated with Ford in producing some of Hollywood’s greatest Westerns and went on to make Little Women, Northwest Passage, Fort Apache, Quiet Man and many others. He had a hand in making Mighty Joe Young, a 1949 film with strong traces of King Kong. In 1953 he received an Academy Award for his innovations and contributions to movies. He was also nominated for the Academy Award for producer of the Best Picture in both 1933 and 1952.
In the 1950s and ’60s he was a big crusader in fighting communism, backing the now disgraced efforts of Senator Joseph McCarthy to root out traitors in Hollywood and Washington, D.C. Among other things in his career he was a newspaperman in four different cities, a pilot, an explorer in the Middle East, an airline director, an Air Force general, and a movie executive. He married a movie actress, invented John Wayne, arranged Katharine Hepburn’s first screen test, teamed Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire, raised a family, and died peacefully at 78.