Madison Alexander Cooper, Jr., novelist and philanthropist, was born in Waco, Texas, on June 3, 1894, the son of Madison Alexander and Martha Dillon (Roane) Cooper. He entered the University of Texas in September 1911; after graduating with a B.A. degree in English in 1915, he returned to Waco to work in the family grocery business, the M. A. Cooper Company. He entered the first officers' training camp at Leon Springs, Texas, in May 1917, was commissioned a second lieutenant, and served in France during World War I. He was promoted to captain before his discharge and return to Waco in May 1919. He worked for the Cooper Company for ten years and then tried other business ventures on his own. Beginning in 1924, often anonymously, he sponsored many civic programs in Waco. In 1943, as a memorial to his parents, he set up the Madison Alexander Cooper and Martha Roane Cooper Foundation. In 1954, after a legal battle with J. R. Milam, Jr., Cooper sold his interests in the Cooper Grocery Company to Milam, and the business was renamed the J. R. Milam Company.
During the 1920s Cooper began writing short stories and sold a few. In the early 1930s, he took three correspondence courses in creative writing from Columbia University. He was known locally as a wealthy, eccentric, bachelor businessman and did not reveal his ambition as a writer, so that when his novel Sironia, Texas (which he worked on for eleven years), was published by Houghton Mifflin in 1952, it came as a surprise to most people. The two-volume novel was 1,731 pages long and made publishing history as the longest novel in English originally published in book form. It presents the life of a small Texas town from 1900 to 1921 and combines an impressive array of naturalistic social detail with the conventions of Victorian novels. The book involves eighty-three characters in twenty-one separate plot lines and traces the conflict between the town's decaying Southern aristocracy and its rising merchant class. Though Cooper denied any intended resemblance, some characters and events of the novel are composites of real people and events. For example, Cooper based his character Calvin Thaxton on Pat Morris Neff and the Southern Patriots on the Ku Klux Klan of the 1920s. The full extent to which Sironia is an exposé of real citizens of Waco is obscure, for, perhaps significantly, Cooper directed in his will that his literary files be burned unread. He received the Houghton Mifflin Literary Fellowship Award for the novel, and in 1953 the Texas Institute of Letters awarded him the McMurray Bookshop Award for the work. The novel was a New York Times best-seller for eleven weeks. The publicity subsided, however, and his second novel, The Haunted Hacienda (1955), the first volume of a planned trilogy, went largely unnoticed. In his later years Cooper also wrote book reviews for the Dallas Morning News.
He died on September 28, 1956, and was buried with Presbyterian rites in Oakwood Cemetery, Waco. He left his entire estate of almost $3 million to the Cooper Foundation, the income of which was to be used for the betterment of Waco. By 1984 the foundation held total assets of $6.2 million and had awarded 321 grants amounting to more than $4.9 million to various Waco projects.