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Hollywood in the Hamptons

As summer party season begins, the gracious Maria Cooper Janis, daughter of actor Gary Cooper, talks to Pamela Fiori about a life in entertaining.

Gary Cooper and Maria Cooper Janis picnicking on the dunes in Southampton, circa 1950.

“Murder’s Row” at the Southampton Beach Club included “ladies who lunch” Anne Ford and Rocky Cooper, 1940s.

A photograph taken at an Arabian Nights-themed costume party attended by (from left) Dick Harris, Anne Ford, William McKnight, Jean Clark and Henry Ford, early 1950s

Veronica “Rocky” Cooper in an abandoned boat on Shinnecock Beach, circa 1951

Gary and Maria Cooper Janis at the Southampton Beach Club sitting in a car loaned by the Automotive Museum, circa 1947

Maria Cooper Janis would be the first to admit she had it easy growing up in Los Angeles. She was an only child—but not a lonely one. Her parents, actor Gary Cooper and his wife, Veronica (known as Rocky), coddled her, included her on outings, took her on trips. She was spoiled, to be sure, but not as much as she might have been, growing up during Hollywood’s golden age. Those who know Cooper Janis usually sum her up in two words: lovely and unaffected.

Among the things she picked up from her parents was a flair for entertaining. In the 1950s, the Coopers did a great deal of that at their home in Holmby Hills, with such glamorous guests as Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland, Jimmy Stewart and Elizabeth Taylor. After dad Gary died in 1961, Cooper Janis’ mother married a prominent plastic surgeon, John Converse, and the family moved to Manhattan. Most of their entertaining took place not in New York City but at the house they built on Southampton’s Lake Agawam.

Today the home belongs to Cooper Janis, whose life is anything but laid-back. Married for the past 48 years to classical pianist Byron Janis, she’s collaborated on his autobiography, Chopin and Beyond, and produced a documentary about him; she accompanies him on tours as well. She’s also written two books on her famous father—Gary Cooper Off-Camera: A Daughter Remembers and Enduring Style—and is a painter of portraits and still lifes.

And, fortunately for us, she still finds time to open up her family’s Southampton home for a few lucky guests.

Southampton has something of a fancy reputation. How would you describe this home?
It’s a simple H-shaped house, not grand in any way. In the middle of the “H” is a large living and dining room looking out onto a big lawn that leads down to the lake. I’ve spent a lot of time here, both before and since Byron and I were married in 1966.

The Hamptons is a far cry from L.A. Apart from all the movie-star guests, were there differences in the way your mother entertained out there and here?
My mother was a wonderful hostess, and she brought all her Hollywood skills to Southampton. She was always imaginative—like the time she gave a Fourth of July party and hired a troupe to reenact the signing of the Declaration of Independence. She was also athletic: A lot of activities took place on the water—we had two boats—and, in the winter, when the lake froze over, she’d give skating parties. There was a lot more ice back in the ’60s and ’70s.

Now the house is yours and Byron’s, and it’s you who does the entertaining. Did your mother’s gifts as a hostess rub off on you?
My mother passed on a lot of wisdom to me. For starters, she taught me that a dinner party should consist of no more than 10 or 12 people, maximum. Otherwise, there’s no chance to interact. She also advised mixing it up by inviting a few couples who know each other, plus some new blood.

Was there a dress code back then?
Not really. People instinctively knew what to wear, and didn’t have to be told. Of course, because it was the Hamptons, they could be slightly more casual; still, the women always liked to dress up.

What about nowadays?
It’s even more casual today, although the people we invite somehow know how to dress—blazers for men, for example. Byron always wears a tie, however, because it makes him feel more comfortable. And the women still like to dress up. If the guest list is, shall we say, more artistic—writers, painters, musicians—we allow for that.

Would anyone dare show up in shorts and flip-flops?
Heavens, no. Never.

Do you have any special dishes up your sleeve, so to speak, for easy entertaining?
If we’re going to a concert then coming back for a late supper, I can whip up a good moussaka in advance and serve it with a green salad. Easy.

How do you plan a menu in these days when so many people have strong preferences?
You mean, when someone’s a vegan, or allergic to this or that? You’ve got to have two, maybe three options. It’s not so hard when you can include salads and grains—I like to combine white and brown quinoa with peas and dried cranberries. It’s delicious.

Do you ever have weekend guests?
Seldom, but when we do, we’re very up-front about not expecting them to join us for meals unless they want to. We like them to be independent—because, frankly, we want the same freedom for ourselves.

One last question: Do they expect Byron to play the piano for them?
[Pauses, then smiles.] They hope.