One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley interviewed someone who’s now primarily known for his effect on California child labor laws. Knowing how difficult it was to make a chat with a six year old into an interesting article, she accompanied The Kid’s co-star Jackie Coogan and his mother on a trip to Venice Beach and described their adventures. Now that we know his parents spent most of the money he earned, some of the details in the article seem like red flags: they travelled there in “the big Packard limousine which Jackie gave his mother for Christmas,” and when he was asked if he likes school, he said “no ma’am, you don’t make any money there.”
But in 1921, Kingsley assumed they had his best interests at heart, and she reported that he had a wonderful day at the beach. He rode the roller coaster, the plunging lion and the merry go round, but his mother wouldn’t let him go up in the hot-air balloon. He got to visit with a particularly smelly goat and see the high-powered peanut roaster. He built a sandcastle and ate hot dogs and doughnuts for lunch. He also told her he had plenty of fun working on The Kid, running around the lemon grove next to the studio with Chaplin and studying the bugs and worms they found. She left her readers with this joyful snapshot of him:
“But most of all he loves riding on his one-boy power velocipede, camouflaged as an automobile. He’s a human dynamo, and the last I saw of him the other day as he swooped down the walk in front of his house, he was calling over his shoulder: “Gee, Hollywood’s the place!”
That’s part of the reason the public was so shocked when in 1938 Coogan sued his mother and stepfather to recover his earnings. After his success in The Kid, he went on to become one of the top box-office draws in Hollywood, starring in films like Oliver Twist (1922) and A Boy of Flanders (1924). But as he grew into a teenager, his career took a downturn. According to his biographer, fellow child star Diana Serra Cary, he’d been told that his father had saved his earnings and he had a million dollar trust fund, which would begin to be released to him on his 21st birthday. He received only a check for $1000 that day. He hated conflict, so he didn’t speak to his mother and stepfather (John Coogan had died in a car accident in 1935) about the fund until 1938, when, at the urging of his wife, Betty Grable, he asked and learned that there was no trust fund. John and Lillian Coogan had lived off of their son’s earnings, and he’d been lied to for years. He filed a suit against Lillian and her new husband for an accounting of his assets and to retrieve 4 million dollars of what he’d earned. After a long fight in the courts, in 1939 he settled for $126,000.
What the public hadn’t realized was that it was perfectly legal for his parents to spend his earnings: under California law a child’s wages belonged to their parents. The California Legislature quickly passed The Child Actor’s Bill, which made child performers’ earnings their property and requires parents to open a blocked trust fund account (which came to be called a Coogan account) where 15 percent of child performers’ gross earnings must be deposited. The law, which has been amended since then, currently also regulates schooling, work hours, and time off.
There are still a lot of problems with exploitation of children who work in entertainment (and of course, anything else). The other 85% of the money is supposed to be used to pay taxes, commissions, and other job-related expenses, but some greedy parents find ways to keep it for themselves. Just like Jackie Coogan, young stars like Macaulay Culkin and Gary Coleman ended up suing their parents for squandering their wages, according to the Hollywood Reporter. So stronger laws and better enforcement would be a really good idea. Furthermore, there are Coogan laws in only three other states: New York, New Mexico and Louisiana. In the rest, parents still own their child’s earnings.
Jackie Coogan went on to have an eventful life. He served in the Air Force as a glider pilot in World War 2, and when he returned, he became a television actor. After he played Uncle Fester in The Addams Family, he worked steadily until his death in 1984.
Diana Serra Cary, Jackie Coogan: The World’s Boy King. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2003.