- Historic Sites
JACKIE COOGAN REACHED THE PINNACLE OF SUCCESS AND STARDOM WHEN HE WAS FIVE. THEN HE SET THE HOLLYWOOD PATTERN OF PAYING THE PRICE FOR EARLY FAME.
December 2000 | Volume 51, Issue 8
In the early 1920s, however, the boy was living a charmed life. The press celebrated him as a dutiful son (if occasionally mischievous), a gallant boy who survived severe illnesses with smiling pluck, a budding philanthropist, and an ambassador of goodwill at ease with heads of state. On one cross-country publicity tour with his father when he was six, Paul Gilbert of the Chicago Post asked him what he’d been doing to amuse himself on the train: “He looked up at me with his big, brown, baby eyes,” Gilbert wrote. “‘Oh, I played poker and old maid and rummy,’ he piped, ‘and I shot craps, too.’” Coogan senior then “grabbed his little son by the coat collar and hauled him away. … ‘Honest,’ he said, ‘that kid gives me the cold chills. No telling what he’ll spill next.’”
A few days later in New York, Jackie shook hands with Mayor John F. Hylan before a crowd of 88,000 waiting to see the Yankees take on the Philadelphia Athletics. Then he came down with influenza. JACKIE COOGAN FACES DEATH WITH A SMILE THAT WON A NATION ran a headline. The United News reported: “As though some great statesman was ill in the Biltmore Hotel, reporters were congregated in the lobby, nurses are passing in and out of the suite, and doctors issue formal statements to the public from the sick room of Jackie Coogan.”
After he recovered, he made more movies, including Long Live the King , said to be the first million-dollar picture, and in August 1924 he set out on a 10,000-mile international tour, the “Jackie Coogan Million Dollar Near East Relief Milk Campaign,” to raise money, food, and clothes for tens of thousands of children left homeless by the Greek-Turkish War of 1922.
In Chicago, he was proclaimed mayor for 10 minutes; in Boston, Mayor James Michael Curley gave him a key to the city (he asked what he could do with it): in New York, 40,000 people cheered him in Prospect Park.
He sailed with his parents from New York on September 6, taking tons of canned milk, flour, corn syrup, and clothing for refugee children. “There were 300,000 people waiting on the dock at Southampton to meet me,” he recalled decades later. In Paris, 15,000 met him at the Gare du Nord; in Geneva, the League of Nations shut down so its staff could see him be received by its secretary-general; in Rome, he had a 20-minute private audience with Pope Pius XI. Then came a 15-minute meeting with Benito Mussolini, in his second year in power, who gave him an autographed photo inscribed “Al Piccolo Grande” (To the Little Great One).
Back home, Coogan made six more films in the next three years. One of them, Old Clothes , in 1925, featured the first leading role of a young dancer named Lucille LeSueur, whom his father had discovered and renamed Joan Crawford. In Johnny Get Your Hair Cut , he finally lost his childhood bangs.
He was entering his adolescence, an awkward age for any youngster but especially so for one whose popularity rested on being a cute kid. Sensing that movie audiences might prefer to see less of him on the screen now, his father went out with him on the vaudeville circuit.
It was an awkward period for all the Coogan family. In February 1928 Corabel Bernstein, the wife of the manager of Jackie Coogan Productions, filed a $750,000 alienation-of-affection suit against Jackie’s mother, accusing her of having become Arthur Bernstein’s lover. Coogan’s mother denied the allegations, and in time the suit was dismissed, but the Bernsteins also sued each other for divorce and split.
The talkies had arrived by then, but Coogan’s studio, MGM, no longer considered him star material. Paramount Pictures signed him to the lead in his first talkie, Tom Sawyer , in 1930 and in Huckleberry Finn the next year. Neither revived his popularity. By 1933 he had signed a contract to appear in a series of short features for the obscure Talisman Studio.
His college days were not much more successful. He had been privately tutored until the age of 10 and then sent to a military academy and prep schools until he was 16. He entered Santa Clara University in 1932, flunked out, and transferred to the University of Southern California. He spoke vaguely of getting a business or law degree, but he knew that in the 1920s his parents had purchased $1.5 million in Los Angeles real estate for him and that approximately $4 million he had earned as a child would be his when he turned 21.