The Kid

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That sense of security was shattered forever on May 4, 1935, when, five months before his twenty-first birthday, he barely escaped death in a car crash that killed his father and three friends on the winding San Diego-Imperial Valley Highway. After a trip to Mexico, Coogan’s father was driving the group back to the family ranch when he swerved to avoid an oncoming car, lost control, slammed into a canyon wall, and plunged over a 45-foot embankment. Trent ("Junior") Durkin, a 19-year-old costar of Coogan in Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn , was killed, as were Robert J. Horner, 25, a radio actor and writer, and Charles Jones, 24, foreman of the Coogan ranch. Coogan’s father lingered for a half-hour as Jackie, who had been thrown from the rumble seat, wept beside him. Coogan suffered two broken ribs, bruises, and the loss of the man who had been his best friend. He would always be convinced that had his father lived, the subsequent legal battle over his childhood fortune never would have occurred.

 
 

He turned 21 in October 1935, an event celebrated by a party for 200 at Hollywood’s Coconut Grove nightclub and then another party hosted by the singer and starlet who would become his first wife, Betty Grable. They announced their engagement two months later and set out on a 30-week vaudeville tour with the 17-piece Jackie Coogan Orchestra.

They had not been back in Los Angeles long before Coogan’s mother, 18 months a widow, married Arthur Bernstein. The next year, in November 1937, Coogan and Grable were married. Although they both had roles in College Swing , a movie then in production, Grable was the breadwinner. She paid for their wedding reception and covered the cost-of their modest home. She later would say that Coogan’s mother had viewed her as a gold digger and warned her own mother: “If Betty thinks she’s marrying a rich boy, she is mistaken. He hasn’t a cent. He’s a pauper.”

Abashed at becoming a has-been while his wife’s career was taking off, anguished at seeing his mother and stepfather live sumptuously on the money he had earned as a child, and repeatedly spurned when he asked for the millions he believed he was due, Coogan finally filed suit against his mother in April 1938. The case dragged on for 18 months, through many painful depositions, affidavits, and hearings. Asserting her devotion to her son, whom she called “a bad boy,” Coogan’s mother wept copiously on the witness stand. She regained her composure, however, when asked if all the money he had earned was hers. “I believe that is the law,” she said.

And she was right. In California the income of a child belonged to the parents. Worried about bad publicity from this revelation, the motion-picture studios assured the press that no current child stars—not Shirley Temple, Mickey Rooney, Jane Withers, Deanna Durbin, or Freddie Bartholomew—would suffer Coogan’s fate. Assemblyman Chester D. Garmon of Sacramento asserted that the state legislature had “inexcusably fallen down in providing safety to earnings amassed by minors.” He pledged to introduce legislation to “prevent another situation similar to that which now faces Jackie Coogan,” and in 1939 the legislature enacted what became known as the Coogan Law, requiring that up to half the net earnings of a minor be set aside in a trust fund or other savings plan.

In his lawsuit, Coogan alleged that his father had always assured him that his earnings were being held in trust for him, something his mother now vigorously denied. She signed a sworn deposition insisting “there was never a promise in any way, shape or form,” but she had to backtrack quickly when Coogan and his attorneys unearthed his parents’ petition asking the court to dismiss the “guardianship” of his wealth because they planned “the creation of a trust” for it.

Public opinion stood firmly in Coogan’s corner. The Los Angeles Times observed that the notion that Coogan “should have no right to a penny of these earnings and no more voice in their disposal than a trained dog seems almost as fantastic as the earnings themselves.” The veteran actor Wallace Beery told the court that Jack Coogan, Sr., “not once, but many times … told me that he had never used or intended to use a cent the boy earned. Every penny … was being put away and saved for him.”

That, unfortunately, turned out not to have been so. When a superior court judge appointed a receiver, John E. Biby, to make the first thorough accounting of what Coogan had earned as a child and what was left of it, initial reports came out that the millions he had earned had shrunk to $500,000. “Gee,” Coogan said to reporters, “that’s quite a difference, isn’t it?”

It was worse than that. In the final 21-page report, Biby found that of the $3,012,422 Coogan had earned between 1923 and 1936, all that was left was $250,000. The biggest debtor to Jackie Coogan Productions had been his late father, who owed the corporation $84,948.40 at his death. Coogan’s other’s assets amounted to $39,443.57, just $519.57 of it in the bank.