She well knew the reason for her gravity, which hovered about her despite her bright smile and easy laugh. Cooper was born and raised in Liberia, which had erupted in demonic civil war when she was 12 years old.
By the time she and her two older brothers escaped to America four years later, in 1993, Cooper had personally endured more hardship and witnessed more horror than most people do in a lifetime.
In a sense, all MacDella Cooper has ever wanted was to be a normal person leading a creative and productive life. Until recently, it seemed she had more than achieved those goals—first as a fashion model with an appearance in Glamour; then as a fashion coordinator, organizing photo shoots for the Ralph Lauren division of Jones New York; and since 2004 as founder of the MacDella Cooper Foundation (MCF), devoted to lifting Liberian orphans and abandoned children out of poverty and neglect.
The 32-year-old’s harrowing adolescence and later accomplishments led NJM to assign a profile of her this spring. The piece was nearly completed when, in late May, the New York Daily News broke the story that Cooper had borne a child out of wedlock with the chairman of Citigroup, Richard Parsons, 61, who is married and has three children. Neither Parsons nor Cooper have spoken publically about the matter. The newspaper, though, referred to “…a source, who said Parsons will support the child and has set up a trust fund for her education.” To NJM, Cooper declined to comment except to confirm that the baby, Ella, turned 1 in May. Photos and information on the MCF website show that Parsons gave the keynote address at the foundation’s 2007 Sharing the Light gala and also attended the ’08 gala.
Just that fast, normalcy seemed to evade Cooper again. This time it did not turn her world upside down, as it did in June 1990, when the battle between Liberian forces loyal to autocratic president Samuel Doe and those backing rebel leader Charles Taylor reached the capital, Monrovia.
“My front yard became a battlefield,” Cooper, then 13, wrote years later in her journal. “They shot at each other for hours…Bombs started to come in from all directions. My next-door neighbor’s house was hit. His 3-year-old daughter (Ellen) was killed instantly.”
Until then, Cooper and her family had led privileged lives as members of Monrovia’s professional class. Her stepfather, attorney J. Benny Debblay, was the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Her mother, Caroline Debblay, was a registered nurse who assisted surgeons. A chauffeur delivered Cooper and her brothers to a Baptist private school each day.
Part of the family’s position came from their status as Americo-Liberians—descendants of freed slaves who emigrated to Liberia in the 1820s, during the administration of American president James Monroe (for whom Monrovia was renamed in 1824). Cooper’s biological father, Jawolo Cooper, a radiologist, is also Americo-Liberian. He left Caroline when she was pregnant with MacDella, later moved to the United States and became a citizen.
When the Liberian hostilities first broke out, in 1989, Cooper’s step-father “did not believe that the war would last more than a week,” Cooper wrote in her journal. Nonetheless, he sent his own children with Cooper’s mother, who had an American passport, to the U.S. “As we waited,” Cooper wrote, “…electricity, water, and gas were shut down. All the supermarkets and outdoor markets were closed. As the rebels advanced, more people started to flee, yet we chose to stay.”
The morning after the front yard battle, Debblay told Cooper and her brothers, Harry and Valentine, that he was going to introduce himself to the rebel leaders and explain the United Nations’ neutral role. The three teenagers waited for him to return, but he was never seen again. After many weeks, finally out of food, water, and money, they joined the refugee stream.
“We walked days and nights,” Cooper wrote. “Sometimes we came across people that gave us food and gave us a place to spend the night. Sometimes the rebels gave us a ride to the next town.” Since Charles Taylor, the rebel leader, was the son of an Americo-Liberian, the three were sometimes treated more leniently at checkpoints. Still, nearly every checkpoint involved an interrogation. Food was scarce. “I got so hungry that I could feel my ribs sucking in,” Cooper wrote. “…I ate things that I would have never eaten otherwise. They made my brothers and I sick.”
After six months on foot or by whatever means, the three wound up at a refugee camp in Ivory Coast, 500 miles from Monrovia. “My mother sent us money to rent an apartment,” Cooper says. “We moved in with one of my mother’s cousins.” In 1993, Jawolo, by then a citizen, was able to secure visas for them. They flew into Newark Airport the day after Thanksgiving. “Of course, we had no idea what Thanksgiving meant at the time,” Cooper says. “We were just happy for all the leftover turkey.”
The teens moved in with their mother in the Garden Spires housing project in Newark, where drugs and violence were rampant. Cooper entered Barringer High School, where during her first week, a student was shot in the hallway. “I thought, This is crazy,” she says. “I escaped a civil war, and these kids are shooting each other for no reason.”
Cooper began modeling at Barringer fashion shows. A photographer there put together a portfolio for her, which got her in with a small modeling agency in Newark. Cooper worked local runway shows and was a ring girl at kickboxing matches at the Robert Treat Hotel.
Graduating third in her high school class, she won a full scholarship to the College of New Jersey. In 1997, during her sophomore year, she pledged a sorority. The intensity of the rush ritual, though superficial, brought back memories of her country’s ordeal, in which 250,000 people were killed, 1 million were displaced, and 200,000 children were orphaned.
“I was trying to be as normal as possible, but I realized I couldn’t,” Cooper recalls. “I thought, What the hell is wrong with me? Why did I have this crazy life experience?…I wanted to shut the whole world off.” She did just that, curling up in bed for a month. Finally, she sought counsel at the Baptist Church across the street. She quit the sorority and reinvested herself in her church and her studies. John Pollock, chairman of CNJ’s communications department, remembers Cooper. “I was immediately struck by her, not just her beauty, but her presence,” he says. “She had a maturity double that of most other students.”
By the time Cooper graduated in 2001, she was modeling in New York and had appeared in Glamour. Then landing the job of fashion coordinator at Ralph Lauren, she says, “I went from being an abandoned war orphan to being a high roller in the international jet-setting scene.”
But something about that didn’t sit right. “My soul was longing for something more,” she says. “At the end of 2003, early 2004, I started noticing more and more images of the devastation in Liberia. I was seeing myself in those images. I saw 13-year-old MacDella staring at me. She was not going to allow me rest until I did something about the situation.”
Cooper and her mother had been sending food, clothing, and supplies to Liberia for years, but now Cooper wanted to up the ante. “I realized I had forgotten where I’d come from. I came to realize I was abnormal for a reason. I was blessed. I survived.” To help those less fortunate, Cooper quit the fashion business and launched the MacDella Cooper Foundation in 2004. Since then, the nonprofit has raised about $250,000 to renovate five orphanages and donate food, clothing, and supplies. More than 500 kids receive aid from MCF, which also pays tuition for about 85 of them. “We work with orphanages around the country,” Cooper says.
In March, Cooper, who lives in Manhattan, returned to Monrovia with an architect in tow. There she met with the U.S. ambassador, local officials, and engineers to discuss plans to build a live-in school campus for 200 children now in a disheveled orphanage. A month before the trip, the foundation had raised $60,000 of a projected $550,000 cost for the campus.
“Amazing,” she says. “I found the peace and joy my soul was longing for in a rundown African orphanage.” The recent unwanted headlines don’t diminish that, they just challenge her to again find that elusive sense of normalcy.
Ian T. Shearn, a former reporter for the Star-Ledger, lives in Hillsborough.