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The Kid

June 2024
13min read


Once he had been the most famous child in the world, praised by the Pope, celebrated by the League of Nations, loved by millions—even by the Sultan of Swat. “Other boys went to see Babe Ruth,” Jackie Coogan said. “But Babe Ruth came to see me.” This might have seemed preposterous, coming as it did from a bald, heavy, 58-year-old man with a weather-beaten face, bulbous nose, and droopy mustache. But it was the simple truth.

By 1923, when he was nine, Coogan was one of the biggest stars in Hollywood, more popular at the box office than either Rudolph Valentino or Douglas Fairbanks. Although a later generation would know him only as Uncle Fester in the 1964-66 television series The Addams Family , he had been the motion-picture industry’s first child superstar.

A cornucopia of products bore his name: coats, caps, shoes, dolls, toothbrushes. He received what then was the largest movie salary check ever written—$500,000. He lived in mansions, drank milk supplied by his own dairy ranch, rode in his own private railway car, and had a fleet of Rolls-Royces with special, upholstered, swivel rocking chairs installed just for him.


Yet Coogan’s story is for the most part one of lifelong struggle, with a dose of heroism thrown in.

John Leslie Coogan, Jr., was born in Los Angeles on October 26, 1914. His father, John, Sr., “Big Jack,” was a song-and-dance man, and his mother, the former Lillian Dolliver, had been on the stage since her own childhood. The Coogans naturally looked for ways to introduce their child into show business and were happy to allow “Broncho Billy” Anderson to use him in a Western in 1916, when he was 18 months old.

That might have been the beginning and the end of Coogan’s motion-picture career but for the chance decision of Charlie Chaplin, already a star, to go to Los Angeles’s Orpheum Theater one Monday night in 1919 and see what was on the vaudeville bill. A half-century later, Chaplin wrote in his autobiography: ”… I saw an eccentric dancer—nothing extraordinary, but at the finish of his act he brought on his little boy, an infant of four, to take a bow with him. After bowing with his father, he suddenly broke into a few amusing steps, then looked knowingly at the audience, waved to them and ran off. The audience went into an uproar, so that the child was made to come on again, this time doing quite a different dance. It could have been obnoxious in another child. But Jackie Coogan was charming …”

Chaplin decided to use the young performer in a movie, The Kid , in which his own tramp character discovers an abandoned baby. The picture, released in 1921, made Chaplin the most famous name in Hollywood, and it showered stardom on Coogan too. Seen today, The Kid still has the power to move. When child-welfare officials accost Chaplin in his tenement and grab Jackie to haul him away, the child’s pleading gestures, silent sobs, and clearly mouthed “Oh, Papa! Oh, Papa!” are truly stirring. Coogan’s performance was no lucky, one-shot effort; he was a genuine prodigy. After The Kid , he made one hit after another: Peck’s Bad Boy, My Boy, Trouble, Oliver Twist, Daddy, Circus Days . By 1922 his father had established his own company, Jackie Coogan Productions, to make his son’s movies.

The riches piled up. In June 1922, when he was seven, his parents went to the Los Angeles Supreme Court and, as one newspaper put it, “for the first time in American jurisprudence,” applied for legal sanction for their guardianship of their child’s burgeoning fortune. Jack Coogan, Sr., was named his son’s business manager, Lillian posted a $100,000 bond as the manager of her son’s “estate,” and the two parents posed for newspaper photographs on the courthouse steps.

It turned out to be largely a publicity stunt. Six months later, just four days before Jackie received a $500,000 check as an advance on a million-dollar contract to star in four movies, his parents quietly went back to the court and asked it to dismiss their guardianship petition. They claimed that they now planned “the creation of a trust for the investment and preservation of the estate of said Jackie Coogan.” As Coogan would discover 15 years later, it never happened.

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.


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.


While his lawsuit worked its way through the court, Coogan tried to earn money. He arranged to go on tour with Bob Hope and make fun of his predicament. Hope’s gag writers worked on sketches in which, for example, a panhandler would ask Coogan for a dime. “I haven’t got a dime,” Coogan would reply, “but I’ll give you my autograph.” The panhandler: “Gee, I’m sorry, I didn’t recognize you. Say, Jackie, I’ll buy you a cup of coffee.”


The attorneys for Coogan and his mother eventually hammered out a settlement that became final in February 1940: Each would get half of the $252,000 now left of Coogan’s childhood earnings. Years later he said that what he actually got was "$35,000, which included cashing in my life insurance policy.”

Nine months later, Betty Grable divorced him. By January 1941 he was back living with his mother and stepfather in an estate they had purchased with his money, sleeping in the bed that had been his since he was a child. His reconciliation with his mother lasted until her death more than 30 years later, but two future marriages would fail before he married Dorothea (“Dodie”) Lamphere in 1952; he remained with her for the rest of his life. He had four children.

In March 1941, now 26 and unable to get movie work, he volunteered for a one-year hitch in the Army. He joined up as a $21-amonth private.

An enthusiastic pilot since his teens, Coogan sought assignment to the Army Air Corps. Soon after Pearl Harbor, he was made a glider instructor, and two years later he volunteered to pilot one of the lead gliders on a nighttime air assault 165 miles behind Japanese lines in the all-airborne March 1944 invasion of north Burma. As a member of the 1st Air Commando Force under British Brigadier General Orde Wingate, he made seven sorties behind enemy lines. Casualty and cap- ture rates were high: Out of 100 glider pilots, 65 were killed; 15 were wounded and taken prisoner.

“He had some horrific war experiences,” recalls John Astin, who played Gomez in The Addams Family and heard Coogan’s war stories while traveling on promotional tours with him. “One time he had a crash. He was in the front of the transport glider, of course, and everyone that he was flying with was shoved up against him. He was sort of at the bottom of the pile. The Japanese soldiers came in and bayoneted everybody in the plane. And Jack was the only one that they missed. He lay alone at the bottom of this pile of dead and dying men, and eventually he got out and escaped. But he was plagued with nightmares much of his life. I know that when we were together, he would sometimes wake up with a nightmare, and all he needed was somebody to just speak to him. Then he would snap out of it and go back to sleep.”

Coogan won several decorations, received an honorable discharge in 1944, and went to work participating in War Bond drives. He had no plans to return to show business once the war was over, but that was all he knew, so when a friend needed a replacement act at a Hollywood nightclub, he took on the job, and soon he was in New York, working the nightclub circuit and appearing in plays and on early live television.

In the 1950s and early 1960s, he had some well-publicized run-ins with the law for possessing marijuana (then a scandalous offense) and was known to have developed difficulties with alcohol. But he persevered. He was nominated for an Emmy for playing a comic cook in “Forbidden Area,” a Playhouse 90 production in 1956. He took character parts in such movies as The Joker Is Wild , with Frank Sinatra, and The Actress , with Spencer Tracy, was a frequent guest on Red Skelton’s comedy show, and starred in two little-remembered TV series before landing the role as Uncle Fester on The Addams family .


He wanted that job badly. He rarely went for auditions, but this time he did—and was rejected. As his daughter Leslie told Stephen Cox, the author of a 1991 book about the series, he then “went home, got in a costume, shaved his whole head, did his makeup the way he pictured it would be—because he was an Addams fan from the cartoons. He went in with the high-pitched voice, the makeup, and costume all on his own. The producers sent everyone else home. It was a bit humiliating to him, I think, that he had to prove himself, but he obviously wanted the role.”

It proved a mixed blessing. His daughter recalled that there were times when he hated it: “He had been doing the part for a while, I guess, and he came home crying—sober. He said, ‘I used to be the most beautiful child in the world and now I’m a hideous monster.’ ... It hit him. He let go of it later, but it really had to do with his lost childhood. Later, he came to cope with the Fester character and loved doing the show.”

Indeed, long after the program’s two seasons had ended, he and Ted Cassidy, who played Lurch, the butler, kept making personal appearances together, sometimes at circuses. In a pitch-dark hall packed with 30,000 fans, Coogan would ride a motorcycle into the center ring, his bald head gleaming, a lightbulb in his mouth. He had gone a long way from The Kid , from private audiences with the Pope, from keys to the city, but he had survived.

He had a brief reunion with Charlie Chaplin in 1972, when the 82-year-old comedian returned to the United States for the first time in 20 years to accept an honorary Academy Award. Surrounded by other celebrities, fans, and the press, the onetime co stars could only exchange awkward pleasantries, but Dodie Coogan would not forget the aged Chaplin whispering in her ear, “Remember, your husband’s a genius.”

His last movie job was a small, supporting role in a 1980 feature titled The Escape Artist . On the set, his path briefly crossed my own.

As a Baltimore newspaperman, I decided to spend several days watching the movie being made, in Cleveland, and write a piece about its director, whom I had known in college at Johns Hopkins. The film told the story of a teenage boy who sets out to follow in his late father’s footsteps as a magician. I knew that the stars of the film were to be Raul Julia, Teri Garr, Joan Hackett, Desi Arnaz, and the 15-vear-old Griffin O’Neal, but I did not know until I got to Cleveland that Jackie Coogan, then 65, would also appear in it.

The Coogan I met was a heavy set, chain-smoking man with a deeply lined, jowly face. He was entirely bald but for a fringe of gray and brown hair. I had lunch with him, and he seemed happy to talk about a long-lost Hollywood that really was like a small town in which major stars could casually stroll along the streets and in which he was one of them.

After lunch, we returned to the set, where technicians were setting up the next scene. Griffin O’Neal—bright-eyed, auburn-haired, freckle faced—was scurrying around, practicing card tricks, joking, and laughing. When The Escape Artist came out, in 1982, O’Neal received excellent reviews, but life turned grim for him shortly thereafter.

By 1983 he was enrolled in a private drug and delinquency program; in 1986, at the helm of a small speedboat, he was involved in an accident that took the life of one of his best friends, Gian Carlo Coppola, the son of the director Francis Ford Coppola. O’Neal was found innocent of manslaughter charges but was given 18 months’ probation, ordered to perform 400 hours of community service, and later jailed for 18 days after he failed to do it.

All that was far in the future as Jackie Coogan and I stood by ourselves, off to the side of The Escape Artist set, watching O’Neal cut up for the technicians and support personnel. Coogan, who would die of a heart attack in 1984, gazed steadily at the handsome, laughing youngster. In a low, weary voice that no one but I could hear, he muttered: “Enjoy it, kid. You think it’s going to last forever.”

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