Thursday


When Jackie Coogan and Betty Grable's love cost $4 million!


Jackie Coogan and Betty Grable

He had been the richest child star in movie history. Now at nearly 21 and still a major Hollywood figure, Jackie Coogan couldn't take his eyes off the shapely blonde sitting at a nearby table in the canteen at RKO Studios.

Betty Grable, 19 and still an unknown starlet, couldn't take her eyes off Jackie, either. Within minutes Jackie had moved to her table and introduced himself. That afternoon they slipped away from the studio and went to the beach.

It was the start of one of Hollywood's most passionate — and brief — love stories, with all the ingredients of a block-busting weepie including parental disapproval, a sensational court case, a runaway marriage and finally a heartbreaking divorce which made headlines around the world.

Both the youngsters had shrewd and manipulative mothers with the same Christian names. Lilian Coogan was in charge of her son's $4 million fortune until he was 21 and determined that no gold-digging girl would get her hands on it.

And Lilian Grable, desperate for her daughter to be a big star, knew that being involved with Jackie Coogan would turn Betty overnight into a household name.

But Mrs Grable also wanted to put off the marriage, at least until Betty had become an established star in her own right.

She told reporters: "It isn't that Jackie isn't ready and able to support a wife — he wanted to carry her right off on a honeymoon around the world.

"They are both very young and both have a lot to do in their careers before they settle down and raise a family. Mrs Coogan agrees that they should get to know each other for a while before they dash into marriage."

But the youngsters didn't listen. Despite warnings from the parents and from RKO the couple fled secretly from Hollywood to Reno in November 1938 and married by special licence. Then they came home to face the music.

It was loud and discordant. Although Jackie was now 21, his mother refused to relinquish control of the $4 million fortune and Jackie, who hadn't made a movie for two years, was now penniless, leaving his bride to set up home in a rented Beverly Hills mansion and foot all the bills.

Luckily she could afford it — her career had soared, with starring roles in box office hits like Give Me A Sailor, with Bob Hope and Man About Town with Jack Benny.

Meanwhile Mrs Coogan consolidated her claim on Jackie's fortune until he had no alternative but to sue his mother and stepfather in a series of sensational court cases.

He lost — there was no law which could force his mother to hand over the money Jackie had earned as a child and he had to accept a derisory payment of less than $100,000.

But as Jackie rode around in a rusty old car while his parents took over his three Rolls-Royces, his wife was rocketing up the ladder of fame.

Soon there were problems in the marriage. "I don't like having to ask my wife for money," Jackie Coogan complained. "I've never known what it was like to be poor."

There were squabbles about the charge accounts Jackie was running up and Betty imposed strict spending controls. A friend who visited their home in West Hollywood reported that the couple had practically no furniture, rode bicycles everywhere and that the fridge was empty apart from massive amounts of dog-food for Betty's Great Dane.

"Betty was hoping to shock Jackie into getting a job and bringing some real money into the house, but he spent all day playing cards and moaning about all the millions he had lost.

"She couldn't rely on Jackie. If he went round the corner to buy a magazine he might not come back for two days. Then he would be surprised that she was angry."

Betty told her mother: "I love Jackie but he's like a child. He has no sense of responsibility. He thinks Hollywood owes him a living. And he's always having rows with people who could help him."

One of his most unfortunate encounters was with MGM boss L.B. Mayer who offered him a seven year contract. After a quarrel over terms, Mayer shouted: "I'll make sure that you don't work in this town again for a very long time."  

He was as good as his word. Jackie Coogan wasn't offered another Hollywood movie for over seven years.

Betty and Jackie divorced in July 1939 after a marriage lasting less than a year and Betty married bandleader Artie Shaw.

Later she said: "The marriage was a nightmare. One day I came down for breakfast to find men moving out the furniture to settle Jackie's debts. I had to eat my cornflakes standing up. Jackie was impossible, but I never really stopped loving him."

So it was fitting that when Betty Grable, "the girl with the million dollar legs", died of cancer in 1973, Jackie Coogan was at the graveside with a single red rose in his hand. 

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