The tall woman with a schoolmistress's aura made no impression on the overworked staff of the Los Angeles Knickerbocker Hotel when she booked a single room in the afternoon of November 15,1962. No one recognised her and she had signed in under an assumed name. All the bellhop remembered as he escorted her to the 14th floor is that she gave him a dollar tip as he put her small suitcase into the small cream painted room, and asked if he could open the window.
The significance of this last request was not long in coming. Ten minutes later Irene Gibbons, Hollywood's most gifted movie fashion designer, plunged 14 storeys to her death. She left behind a note which read: "I'm sorry, but this is the best way. I simply can't live without him."
The tragedy was the first indication most people in Hollywood had that Irene Gibbons had a secret affair. But it was not long before the gossip columns were pumping out the lurid details of the private life of a woman who most people thought lived entirely for her work. But the truth, it seemed, was very different. For ten years the quiet reticent Irene, designer to the stars, had been madly in love with Western superstar Gary Cooper. He had been married to his wife, Rocky, for 16 years and had just finished a torrid affair with actress Patricia Neal.
It was in 1952 that he first got to know Irene when he was starring in an MGM movie for which she was designing costumes, and slowly, secretly, they fell in love. Irene Gibbons, known in Hollywood as just Irene, spent the first 16 years of her life on the family ranch in Montana. After design school she opened a simple dress shop in Los Angeles. One day, by chance, Dolores Del Rio dropped in, bought several dresses and told her friends about the place.
Soon Irene had become fashionable and in 1938 was regularly designing for the movies, working mainly at Universal Studios, and in 1941 was appointed executive designer at MGM.
Over the years she dressed most of the top stars, including Marlene Dietrich, Elizabeth Taylor, Claudette Colbert, Judy Garland and Lana Turner and became a Hollywood celebrity in her own right. Later she worked with Doris Day and they became close friends. It was Doris who noticed that Irene, who had always been nervous and introverted, was drinking too much.
One day Irene confided to her friend that she was in love with Gary Cooper and that he was the only man she had ever loved. "He is still with Rocky but it isn't a real marriage," she said. "I'm just hoping that one day we can be together."
Then had come the terrible day for Irene when, in 1954, Cooper had become reconciled with his wife and moved back into her bedroom. But still he continued his affair, saying he was just waiting for the children to grow up before he left home and he and Irene could be together. But that day never seemed to get any nearer. Then, in 1958, Cooper, still lean, bronzed and fit, began to suffer ill-health for the first time in his life. The pain in the lower part of his back made it difficult for him to ride a horse — vital for a cowboy star — and he had a special saddle made which allowed him to sit with his legs straight.
The pain increased and when he arrived in London in 1960 to make The Naked Edge with Deborah Kerr, Cooper could hardly walk. Finally he agreed to take medical advice, cancer of the spine was discovered and he underwent two major operations. Back in Hollywood, unable to be at her lover's side, Irene Gibbons was beside herself with worry and grief. They met soon after Cooper returned to California and he told her that he had a year to live at the most.
"I just refused to believe it," she told a friend. "Coop was indestructible. He wasn't even 60 and looked less than 50. It just wasn't possible that this should be happening to him." But it was. Gary Cooper's last public appearance was at a testimonial dinner given in his honour in January 1961 where he was given a special Oscar by his old friend James. Irene Gibbons, sitting at a distant table, wept too. She knew that the time she had left with the man she loved was tragically short. Gary Cooper died in May 1961, six days after his 60th birthday and Irene was excluded from the family funeral. By now she had told Doris Day that she had nothing left to live for.
"That's crazy," said Doris. "You're the best in Hollywood. Every movie star needs you as a designer — and I need you as a friend." Irene stuck it out for another 18 months. Then she finished her last dress, for Elizabeth Taylor, tidied her apartment and drove to the Knickerbocker Hotel and her appointment with death.
"She simply couldn't live without Coop," Doris Day said later. While he was alive there was always hope in her heart that they might one day get together. Once he had gone, there was simply nothing left."