Nearly 19 years ago, in a motion picture called The Kid, a saucy, bright-eyed little ragamuffin, taffy hair rumpled untidily under a tattered caricature of a cap, scampered into the hearts of the world cinemaudience clinging to the threadbare coattails of Charlie Chaplin. The kid was Jackie Coogan. Before he was 10, Jackie was a corporation, Jackie Coogan Productions,
Inc., earning $1,000,000 for his two best years. Before he outgrew his small-boy roles (Oliver Twist, Peck's Bad Boy, Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn) his total earnings were estimated as high as $4,000,000.
Last week people had reason to recall the Kid again. For out of the liveliest family shindig Hollywood has staged since the Mary Astor case had come two amazing bits of news. The first was that out of his vast earnings Jackie Coogan had got virtually nothing. The other was that if his billowy, multichinned mother and his slick, slanty-eyed, beaky stepfather and former adviser, Arthur L. Bernstein, had anything to say about it, he never would.
Fortnight before, Jackie, at 23 a slight, blotchy-faced young man with a thinning patch of muddy blonde hair where once grew the Kid's famous Dutch-boy bob, had sued for an accounting of the great fortune he was sure he had amassed. From the San Fernando Valley mansion that Jackie's talents paid for, came the hurt and indignant cry of an outraged mother, the shrewd two-cents' worth of a storybook stepfather.
"Jackie has had all he is entitled to, and more," shrilled Lillian Coogan Bernstein. "He isn't entitled to that money. It belongs to us." Added Stepfather Bernstein: "The law is on our side. Lawyers tell his mother and me that every dollar a kid earns before he is 21 belongs to his parents. . . ."
This kind of talk was no news to Jackie. He heard it first nearly three years ago when, a few months after his father was killed in an automobile accident, he turned 21. Up to that day in October 1935, says Jackie, he managed to get along on a $6.25 weekly allowance. Day before his 21st birthday he got $1,000, heard his mother say next day, about the rest: "You haven't got a cent. There never has been one cent belonging to you. It's all mine." Year later Arthur Bernstein married Lillian Coogan. One day the Kid hauled off, knocked Arthur rump over teakettle. From that day on, the Coogan mansion was not big enough for both of them.
Meantime Jackie was trying, and failing miserably, to make a living as a grownup. He wanted to marry blonde, lissome Actress Betty Grable. Mrs. Bernstein telephoned Betty's mother. "If Betty thinks she's marrying a rich boy," she piped, "she is mistaken. He hasn't a cent. He's a pauper." Last November Betty married Jackie anyway, began to support him on her Paramount Pictures salary of $500 a week. Since then Jackie has earned exactly $1,000, the result of two weeks' work with his wife in Paramount's College Swing, released this week.