A Star Is Burned: Mickey Rooney's Final Days Marred by Bizarre Family Feud
Elder abuse, estranged stepsons at war, his eighth wife caught in the middle: Hollywood's original child star died with an estate and legal affairs in disarray.
An abbreviated version of this story first appeared in the April 18 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
When Mickey Rooney died April 6 at 93, his wife of 35 years, former nightclub singer Jan Chamberlin Rooney, learned about it from the media. "I haven't seen him since April ," she tells The Hollywood Reporter. "Someone from TMZ called me."
Rooney's death marked the end of not only the longest and most prolific career of a movie star in Hollywood history -- one spanning the silent era through MGM's golden age to the upcoming Night at the Museum 3 -- but also a bizarre family dispute that engulfed him, his wife and her two sons from a previous marriage, Chris Aber and Mark Aber (who goes by Mark Rooney), throughout his final years.
In February 2011, after a complaint was filed by Rooney's attorneys on his behalf, a Superior Court judge granted L.A.-based lawyer Michael Augustine temporary conservatorship over the actor and his estate and ordered Chris Aber, Rooney's personal assistant of 30 years, and his wife, Christina Aber, to stay at least 100 yards from the actor. Rooney's attorneys alleged that Chris Aber "threatens, intimidates, bullies and harasses Mickey" and refused to reveal Rooney's finances to him, "other than to tell him that [he] is broke." He and his wife were also alleged to have withheld medications and food from Rooney, leaving him "extremely fearful that Chris will become physically threatening against Mickey and may even attempt to kidnap Mickey from his home." The paperwork and subsequent filings suggested that Aber gained access to Rooney's finances through his work as a "producer" at Densmore Productions Inc., a production company Rooney formed in 1998, whereupon Aber issued himself majority stock, named himself treasurer and began pilfering substantial amounts of money.
Just a month after Augustine's appointment, Rooney, whom the conservator deemed "completely competent," appeared on Capitol Hill before the Senate Special Committee on Aging and gave emotional testimony about his experience as a victim of elder abuse. He stated that the Abers had made his daily life "unbearable," adding, "I felt trapped, scared, used and frustrated." And he emphasized to other victims of elder abuse, "Because of your love for other family members, you might feel hesitant to come forward, but I want to tell you this: You are not alone and you have nothing to be ashamed of." He continued, "If elder abuse happened to me, it can happen to anyone. I want you to know you deserve better."
Chris Aber insists Rooney's legal filings and congressional testimony were brought about at the urging of Chris' estranged brother, Mark, who, with wife Charlene Aber, moved from Florida to California and lived with the Rooneys shortly before the initial court proceedings. Chris Aber claims he discovered that his brother and sister-in-law were stealing from his stepfather, selling his possessions on eBay. "I caught him," Chris tells THR. "And then, in order to defuse [the situation], he got a restraining order on me and told Mickey that I did it." Despite Chris Aber's claims, Augustine, the conservator, approved Mark and Charlene Aber as Rooney's "caregivers," and it was in their Studio City rental property that Rooney lived for the last months of his life.
The feud between Chamberlin Rooney's sons runs deep. Chris refers to his younger brother, who was part of the group that interviewed and hired Augustine, as an "ex-heroin addict" (Mark once appeared on Geraldo to discuss his problems, footage of which Chris uploaded to YouTube) who "has never worked a day in his life." Augustine tells THR that Mark, who could not be reached for comment, cared more for Rooney in the last years of his stepfather's life than Chris ever did. "[Mark and Charlene] have done every conceivable thing for Mickey -- and mostly without compensation, because Mickey didn't have enough money. When Mickey had the money to pay them, he gave them a modest stipend." Most of the time, these last few years, Rooney was close to broke.
In October 2013, Augustine agreed to a largely symbolic settlement with Chris and Christina Aber whereby the abuse allegations against them were dropped in return for a "judgment" of $2.9 million -- acknowledged by the Abers as the amount Rooney was owed and by the conservator as being "unenforceable and uncollectible" from Chris Aber, who had declared bankruptcy a year earlier. (Augustine is still pursuing Chris Aber's homeowner's insurance company, suggesting that the policy Aber held covers this sort of behavior.) Augustine says, "We had evidence that he had stolen $8 million [over the years], but we knew that we were not going to collect it," adding, "Aber didn't sock money away, he put it up his nose." Chris and Christina Aber, however, admitted no wrongdoing in the court documents. "They couldn't prove one thing I did wrong," insists Chris, who said he would be happy to take a lie detector test. "They had to save face."
But Augustine says Chris Aber should consider himself lucky that he got off as easily as he did. "There are a few facts that Chris is conveniently omitting," he chuckles. "Like in 2004, Mickey had a tax return that showed $804,000 of income, and the next year something like $690,000 -- yet Mickey and Jan had to refinance their house to pay taxes. [Chris] Aber, however, had two Mercedes, a Porsche and two houses. I wonder how that happened?" He continues, "When we terminated his services, he short-sold one house and it went under, another was foreclosed and he moved into a rental property. Why did that all of a sudden collapse if he was the one earning all this money?"
While there is clearly no love lost between Augustine and Chris Aber, the latter's disgust is primarily reserved for Mark Aber. "My brother, whom [Rooney] died in front of, didn't even have the decency to call my mom [upon Rooney’s death]," he says, adding that Chamberlin Rooney, who has lived with him and his wife since July 2012, hasn't been allowed to see Mickey's body in the funeral home and has not been permitted to weigh in on burial plans, even though she and Rooney never divorced. "That's how evil these attorneys and my brother are."
Augustine counters that Chamberlin Rooney hasn't seen her husband in months because of a written agreement that he orchestrated -- and she signed -- to keep her away from Rooney following a series of incidents that led him to believe that she was being physically abusive toward her diminutive husband. While living with Chamberlin, he asserts, "Mickey had a tooth knocked out, he had a black eye, he ostensibly fell down the stairs. So Mickey, I felt, was physically in peril." He continues, "In July 2012, I moved Mickey away. All of a sudden, Mickey's appearance and everything about Mickey improved. He started working again and he was doing much better." Litigation ensued and ultimately, court documents show, Chamberlin Rooney agreed to live elsewhere in return for $3,000 a month in support from Rooney.
Nevertheless, Augustine says he will not fight to keep Chamberlin Rooney away from her husband's funeral. "There will probably be a family-only ceremony, to which she will be invited, along with his [biological] children [and Mark and Charlene Aber]." And what about Chris and Christina Aber, if they wish to attend? "I would say no. Jan, yes, but Chris and Christina are thieves. You want to quote me on that, be my guest. They can sue me. F--- 'em." He continues, "They're not in the same category as a wife of 30-some years. She made a bad choice but, in her defense, it's pretty difficult when you're between your son and your husband."
Chris Aber, meanwhile, volunteers that he, his wife and his mother are in emotional and financial ruin as a result of the fighting. "I can't even afford to go out to dinner. I'm working at a grocery store," he says. "I tell my wife: 'I'm sorry; you can't go to Taco Bell today. I don't have enough money.' " Adds Chamberlin Rooney, between sobs, "I was going to try and meet with [Mickey] this week and see if I could talk to him about coming to some kind of conclusion. [But] he's gone now."
On Tuesday, it was revealed that Rooney, in a will updated less than a month ago, left his entire estate to Mark and Charlene Aber, with no appropriation for Chamberlin Rooney or Chris and Christina Aber. Its value: a mere $18,000.