Hello, everybody. Joe Morella and Frank Segers, your classic movie guys, here again to continue for one more day our look at cougars — older woman of Hollywood-past bedding and wedding young men.
Yesterday, we noted the surprising array of female stars who, in one way or the other, linked with young males — sometimes nearly a generation younger: Norma Shearer, Madeleine Carroll, Merle Oberon, Audrey Hepburn, Lucille Ball and Greer Garson.
And we suspect we are just scratching the surface. (If you can identify other cougars of Hollywood past, please let us know.)
It occurred to us that perhaps no other star quite qualifies in this department as prominently as one of our favorite actresses, Joan Crawford.
Joan must have had a thing for the number 4. Two of her four husbands — Douglas Fairbanks Jr. (No. 1) and actor Phillip Terry (No. 3) — were younger than she was by four years, each.
Each of her marriages lasted for just about four years. Pepsi Cola executive Alfred Steele, the actress’ last husband, lasted three years and three months until his death in April 1959. He was four years older than she was. (Husband No. 2, Franchot Tone, was Joan’s age.)
Several years, sometimes as many as 10, separated each marriage. Therefore, Joan had plenty of time to indulge her cougar instincts maritally unfettered. That’s where our “Jackie” comes in. We are referring to former Thirties child star, Jackie Cooper.
(That’s an adult Jackie with Joan in the photo above right. Note the caption on the shot on the left. Irony abounds considering today’s discussion.)
Born in Los Angeles in the early 1920s, Cooper from age 3 was dragged by his grandmother to various studio gates in quest of work as an extra. His mother, a rehearsal pianist for Fox Movietone Follies of 1929, managed to get her son a singing role when he was six. Cooper subsequently appeared in 15 Hal Roach “Our Gang” comedy episodes.
By age nine, he was popular enough to be elevated to star billing in 1931’s Skippy, a Paramount comedy based on a Percy Crosby comic strip about a mischievous doctor’s son who tries to save his friend’s mongrel from the clutches of a dog catcher.
The Skippy script was by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, who wrote All About Eve 19 years later. The director was Cooper’s uncle, Norman Taurog, who when faced with a recalcitrant child star — Jackie had refused to perform a crying scene — infamously threatened to shoot Cooper’s pet dog. (Taurog got the tears he was after.)
For his performance in the movie, the nine-year-old Cooper became the youngest nominee in history for a best actor Oscar, a record that still holds. Cooper referred to the Skippy experience in the title of his 1981 memoir, Please Don’t Shoot My Dog, written with Dick Kleiner. And it is from this well-written book that we learn about Cooper’s encounter with Crawford.
At the time, Cooper was 17. Crawford, fresh from her marriage to Tone, was 34. As he tells it, Crawford was friendly with Cooper’s mother, and allowed the teenage Jackie to play badminton on a court she had installed on her property.
Jackie recalled: “The court was right off the pool house, and one day, sweaty from an hour of exertion, I went to the pool house with Joan. I was thirsty, she poured me a Coke. As she bent over, I looked down her dress.
“‘You’re growing up, aren’t you?’ she said….I made a move toward her, and she stood up, looked at me appraisingly, and then closed all the drapes. And I made love to Joan Crawford. Or, she made love to me.”
The affair lasted for about six months on and off, after which Crawford bestowed a final kiss on her teenage paramour with the admonition, “put it all out of your mind, it never happened.” Cooper did exactly the opposite — he cherished the memory of the steamy encounter with the star until the day he died in early May of this year, at age 88.