Memoirs of King Kong Director and War Hero at Hoover

Tuesday, March 4, 2014
Merian Cooper in Polish uniform (Kenneth O. Shrewsbury Papers, Box 1, Hoover Ins
Merian Cooper in Polish uniform (Kenneth O. Shrewsbury Papers, Box 1, Hoover Ins
Merian Cooper in Polish uniform (Kenneth O. Shrewsbury Papers, Box 1, Hoover Institution Archives)
Merian Cooper after his escape from Soviet captivity, May 1920 (Kenneth O. Shrew
Merian Cooper after his escape from Soviet captivity, May 1920 (Kenneth O. Shrewsbury Papers, Box 1, Hoover Institution Archives
Dust jacket of Things Men Die For, by "C," with six illustrations by Van Werveke
Dust jacket of Things Men Die For, by "C," with six illustrations by Van Werveke, 1927 (Merian C. Cooper Papers, Box 1, Hoover I
Newly restored tomb of the US pilots of the Kosciuszko Squadron who died defendi
Newly restored tomb of the US pilots of the Kosciuszko Squadron who died defending Poland (Courtesy of Nicholas Siekierski)

Merian Caldwell Cooper would be a top candidate for the "Most Interesting Man in the World." Although Cooper is known for his 1933 production of King Kong, there were many more interesting episodes in his life in addition to that iconic movie. Indeed, in the words of the film historian Richard Schickel, “his career was larger than life.” Expelled from Annapolis in his senior year for advocating air power, a view the navy frowned on, in 1916 he joined the Georgia National Guard and served with General Pershing’s expedition against Pancho Villa. Transferred to the US Army Air Service, Cooper saw action in World War I over Germany, where he was shot down, seriously injured, and spent the last several months of the war in a German prisoner of war (POW) camp. From 1919 until 1921, Cooper worked with the American Relief Administration (ARA) and later volunteered for the US flight unit the Kosciuszko Squadron, part of the Polish effort to stop the Bolshevik advance into Europe.

After the Great War Cooper got a job as a crime reporter with the New York Times, sailed on a schooner around the world, and filmed documentaries in Southeast Asia, Ethiopia, Persia, and Turkey.  In addition to his Oscar-winning Hollywood directing career, he went on to help found Pan American Airways and, during World War II, served with General Claire Chennault's Flying Tigers, piloting supplies over the Himalayas into China. Cooper, by now a brigadier general, was part of General Douglas MacArthur's party aboard the USS Missouri for the Japanese surrender.

Cooper's Polish adventure began with Herbert Hoover's ARA.  After being released from the German POW camp and recuperating from his wounds, Cooper joined the ARA and was sent to Poland.  In the spring of 1919, he was put in charge of food distribution in the city of Lwów (now Lviv) in southeastern Poland.  Yearning to participate more actively in the restoration of the country and a chance to fight the Bolshevik menace from the east, he wrote to the Polish head of state, Józef Piłsudski, asking to be assigned to frontline service. That letter embodies Cooper's romantic spirit of adventure and sacrifice; in it he recalls his direct ancestor's service in General Casimir Pulaski's cavalry and Pulaski's death in the cause of American independence at the siege of Savannah in 1779.  Cooper, wanting to repay Poland for Pulaski's sacrifice, was thus sent to Paris to recruit a group of US combat pilots for service in Poland.  Cooper and the Kosciuszko Squadron, named after another Polish hero of the American War for Independence, General Tadeusz Kosciuszko, attacked and severely damaged Semen Budennyi’s Red Cavalry that was advancing against Warsaw, as noted by the Soviet chronicler of that campaign, Isaak Babel, in his famous collection of stories, Konarmiia.  Cooper was shot down twice, captured, barely escaped being executed, and eventually spent nine months in Bolshevik captivity. He managed to escape, along with two Polish officers, hop freight trains and walk over four hundred miles in eleven days to safety in Latvia.

For his exploits in Poland he received two of Poland’s highest decorations, the Polonia Restituta and the Virtuti MilitariCooper’s final contribution to Poland was a son, Maciej, fathered with an English woman living in Warsaw, Marjorie "Daisy" Crosby-Słomczyńska, whom he had met after escaping from Russia.  Maciej Słomczyński (1922-98) became a resistance fighter during World War II and later a translator of Shakespeare, Milton, and James Joyce into Polish, as well as an author of popular action novels. 

Merian Cooper wrote several books, including an early autobiography titled Things Men Die For (New York: Putnam, 1927), a bibliographic rara avis of the US book trade. The book is rare because Cooper, having second thoughts about releasing it for sale, bought up virtually the entire initial run of five thousand copies and had them destroyed.  We are not sure why, but no doubt it had much to do with his deep sense of honor and responsibility.  Among the many autobiographical vignettes included in the book, two focus on unnamed female characters, one of whom bears a considerable resemblance to Cooper's paramour, Daisy Słomczyńska, and the other, possibly a Polish intelligence agent, helped him during his Soviet ordeal.  Daisy was a married lady, and the other was presumably still involved in her dangerous work; after some reflection Cooper chose to do the honorable thing and scuttle the project. Several copies of the book, however, survived, one of which once belonged to Cooper’s father, finally appeared on the market and has been added to the Merian C. Cooper papers at the Hoover Archives.

The Hoover Archives also holds the scrapbook of another member of the Kosciuszko Squadron, Kenneth O. Shrewsbury.  His Polish album richly complements Cooper's papers and provides a detailed record of the heroic exploits of the adventurous American idealists in the Kosciuszko Squadron.

For additional information, contact Maciej Siekierski at siekierski [at] stanford.edu.