Star sheds light on elder abuse
WASHINGTON — The final performance of a great little man began with kisses blown from a wheelchair. It was two hours before curtain time, and the still-twinkling star — one of the young kings of Hollywood when Hollywood itself was young — was helped into his seat at the centre of a long brown table and he hunched there, studying his script, rehearsing his lines.
Mickey Rooney, 90 years old.
“I wrote this myself,” he told the few of us already in the room. “I wrote this from the heart.”
This was in a stately conference hall in an office building of the United States Senate. Outside, dozens of people already had lined up, eager to witness how the witness would perform before the Special Committee on Aging.
“Did you come here just to see him?” I asked the first person in line, who was a social worker from New York City named Judy Weisberg. At 73, Weisberg was a generation younger than the much-beloved actor in the wheelchair.
“I would have come anyway,” she replied. “This issue is very important to me.”
The issue, as painful and pervasive as any on the Senate calendar, was the physical, psychological and financial abuse of older citizens. Suddenly, and very sadly, the man-child on film 70 and more years ago, who had been the very emblem of boyish, small-town, middleAmerican energy, exuberance and pluck, had become famous in his final days as a pitiable victim whose stepson (by his eighth marriage) had pirated his credit cards, purloined his passport, and imprisoned him in his own house
Last week, a California judge ordered the alleged offender to return Rooney’s documents and to keep away from his property. But the ruling came too late to recover hundreds of thousands of the dollars Rooney earned romancing Judy Garland on the big screen — and marrying Ava Gardner in real life — while millions of bobby soxers swooned.
According to papers filed in the California case, the stepson “has blocked Mickey’s access to his mail and will not provide Mickey with any information about his finances, other than to tell him that Mickey is broke.”
“I just remember him as a funny little kid goofing around with Judy Garland,” Weisberg said. “I don’t understand how this could have happened to him. Obviously, he was a person of means.”
Weisberg told me she had spent a dozen years as a case manager in a nursing home, and that she had seen her share of failing elders being demeaned and exploited by the people who should have honoured them the most. Her own daughter, an employee of the General Accounting Office, had helped prepare the special committee’s report.
“Are you afraid that she will do the same thing to you when you are older?” I asked her.
“We’re not that kind of family,” Weisberg answered. “But every family says that.”
The committee’s report estimated that one out of seven older Americans is the object of some form of abuse. (No one knows how many other cases go unreported out of debility, dementia or fear.) The committee chairman, Herb Kohl, 76, of Wisconsin, said that he soon would be introducing a piece of tough legislation he labelled the “End Abuse Later In Life Act” to militate against this scourge. But first he introduced Mickey Rooney.
Without the wheelchair now, the movie star moved to his place. But instead of sitting down, he turned to face the audience, as he had a few thousand times before. Hushed at first, everyone began to applaud. “You’d think I was important,” Mickey Rooney said, wiping tears.
His testimony, delivered with as much energy and passion as the child star could muster, had been handed out in advance. As I followed along, I saw with delight how the old ham ad libbed and altered his script — “my fans,” for example, became “people who liked my pictures.”
“Over the course of time, my daily life became unbearable,” he told us. “Because it seemed to happen out of nowhere. At first, it was something small, something I could control. But then it became something sinister that was completely out of control. I felt trapped, scared, used and frustrated. But above all, I felt helpless.” Then he improvised this thought: “When a man feels helpless, it’s terrible. And I was helpless.
“If elder abuse happened to me, Mickey Rooney, oh God, willingly or unwillingly, it can happen to anyone. I’m just a man, doing a job, like you are. Myself, who I am, what I hope to be and what I was, was taken from me. And I’m asking you to stop this NOW.”
I pondered this: a 90-year-old man still hoping.
A couple of the senators tried to ask questions, but it was clear that this was more than the witness could oblige. So they thanked him and the wtiness got up and — again refusing the wheelchair — he saluted and waved and, for perhaps the final time, exited the public stage. Then he stopped. “It will happen to you,” Mickey Rooney cried. “Somebody will take your money. It will happen to you.”