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Of Mickey Rooney… And (Perhaps) You

| July 02, 2014
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                                                   Of Mickey Rooney… And (Perhaps) You 
                                                         Op-Ed Commentary & Opinion 

                                                                By DAVID W. LATKO 

                                                                                • • •

I confess to a certain guilty pleasure: when I get a moment away from the hurly-burly of my daily life in the financial-world trenches, I frequently escape to what seems a more simple, more kindly world in the movies of the 1940s.

In my own home, Turner Classics Movie Channel is never more than a controller-punch away from my TV screen. In today’s universe of full-color trials and tribulations, it is a (usually) black-and-white refuge that often eases my troubled mind.

Recently, TCM has been featuring a random lineup of films starring Mickey Rooney— mostly, since his acting career faded as the age-lines began to trace across his face, featuring a far younger Mickey than the one pictured in his obituary after his death on April 6 at age 93.

Few actors can rival the level of contagious energy —of sheer delight in life— that Mr. Rooney displayed on the silver screen.

For instance, when he shouts out “Hey kids, let’s put on a show!” to an adolescent Judy Garland —by the way, have you too ever wondered why back in the ‘40s so many family-farm barns seemed to harbor a full range of costumes, background sets, and even a long-unused stage?— I admit that I too am ready to join his crew of eager “amateur” thespians…

…and help save that aforementioned family farm from the mortgage-holding, foreclosing villains.

There’s a certain irony in those scenes, though: a sad foreshadowing of what happened in Mickey Rooney’s own (real) life.

According to most news reports, when he died Mr. Rooney left a total estate valued at… about $18,000. This, from a man who in his heyday was listed among the most popular —and well-paid— movie stars of the time.

Decisions, of course, have consequences.

Bad decisions often have bad consequences.

Mr. Rooney made more than his share, and suffered the painful results, of the latter.

According to the New York Times, “He earned $12 million before he was 40 and spent more.” At 21, he married Ava Gardner (divorced a year later); at 23, wed a Southern beauty pagent queen after knowing her for little more than a week (divorced again), and— well, no need to continue: he marched to the altar eight times in total, divorced seven of them, and was separated from his last wife at the time of his death.

Small wonder: he was also a wildly unsuccessful gambling addict; a man with a taste for hard liquor, frequently indulged; and an impulsive hot-head who seemed to crave trouble on its own terms.

Mr. Rooney famously declared bankruptcy in 1962, arguably the low point in his professional life (though not his personal life; more on this in a moment). Financially, he recovered somewhat through a comeback in stage and TV roles, but even darker troubles awaited over the horizon.

At age 68 —finally realizing that handling his own financial affairs was akin to putting a thirsty alcoholic in charge of a distillery— Mr. Rooney did what so many older people feel is a “solution”: he turned over control of his money and assets to a relative, to manage for him.

Sadly, I’ve seen this before; candidly, it seldom ends well— not even when that “manager” is the most loving, well-meaning family member in the world.

Between even what may be well-intentioned ineptitude, or their own (other) priorities, or —yes: sometimes— greed and the temptation to take a premature inheritance…

…well, as the Scriptures tell us, “all humans are, by their very nature, flawed.”

For Mr. Rooney —who had turned his financial security over to a step-son and his wife— the result came in the form of charges that included forcing him to turn over control of all assets, misappropriation of funds, and ultimately elder abuse: withholding of medicines and even food. In later testimony before the U.S. Senate’s Special Committee On Aging, Mr. Rooney related that he “felt trapped, scared, used and frustrated. But above all, I felt helpless."

Ultimately —and only after what must have been a painful and humiliating court fight— Mickey Rooney clawed back a couple of million dollars in settlement.

And subsequently lost all but $18,000 of that, if the news reports of his estate are accurate.

Perhaps Mr. Rooney had lost the ability to trust; perhaps he just didn’t know where to go for competent, professional, and honest money-management.

We’ll never know the answer, not for sure, because he now lives on only in the flickering images of his earlier successes on the screen.

I still enjoy those performances.

Despite that now, I find them tinged with a certain —no doubt unintended— quality of tragedy.

                                                                                                                                 — David W. Latko

David W. Latko is founder and president of the Frankfort, IL –based Latko Wealth Management. He has earned a national recognition for his insight and expertise in providing financial services tailored to the specific needs of each individual client.

Mr. Latko has appeared as a featured guest on such programs as the CBS Early Show, Your World With Neil Cavuto (Fox), ABC News, CNN and many more.

Mr. Latko is the author of the critically and professionally acclaimed books Everybody Wants Your Money (HarperCollins) and Financial Strategies For Today’s Widow (Simon & Schuster). His advice on “How To Choose A Good Financial Advisor,” excerpted from the chapter of the same name in Everybody Wants Your Money, has been widely quoted by investors and consumer advocates across the country.
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