After Six Glowing Years as TV's 'Kitten' and 15 in the Abyss, Lauren Chapin Is Born Again
Lauren Chapin grew from a bouncy 9-year-old into a budding teen playing "Kitten," the youngest child of Robert Young and Jane Wyatt in Father Knows Best, one of America's favorite sitcoms of the '50s. By the time the series stopped shooting after six seasons, in 1960, she was earning $1,000 a week and the future seemed rosier than her cheeks. But the roses quickly withered, and for the next 15 years Lauren stumbled through a nightmare alley of broken marriages, drug addiction, jail sentences and dashed hopes. Only now, at 35, has she again found happiness, this time as a mother and a born-again Christian.
The problem was that she was typecast as an adorable adolescent, unable to find work, and "feeling really self-conscious and getting pimples. I wasn't prepared for the real world out there." Haphazard tutoring during her TV years (the rules for child actors are more stringent now) left her unprepared for public school, and at 16 she dropped out of Pasadena High to marry classmate Jerry Jones. Before long her use of benzedrine diet pills mountained into a 60-pill-a-day habit.
Then eight miscarriages during her five years of marriage "really got me into heavy drugs," says Lauren. "I don't remember my mother ever kissing me, and I wanted kids of my own to love. I really felt inadequate as a woman." By the time she was eligible for her $90,000 TV earnings, held in trust, her mother, an alcoholic suffering from TB, had sued her for the money. Lauren settled the case out of court and emerged with just $19,000.
Divorced and depressed, she ricocheted through jobs as an airline stewardess, an insurance claims examiner, a cocktail waitress and carhop—and "10 years of hell." On the streets she got into speed, acid and eventually heroin addiction. While on drugs one night, she sought to exorcise her demons with a meat cleaver and was found by the police "wandering down Hollywood Boulevard, delirious and with my left hand almost severed. They took me to the hospital and managed to save my hand, but I have no feeling in it."
A forgery charge led to the first of her visits to jail and the California Rehabilitation Center for narcotic addicts. It took a year to kick her habit. "I saw these people walking around wearing diapers and baby bonnets and sucking from bottles," she remembers, "and I thought, 'Oh my God, I'm in the nuthouse, and I'll never get out.' But they train you to give up all your identity and go back to the beginning. A lot of people don't make it, but the ones who do make it for life."
A romance begun at the state hospital produced Matthew, now 8, the first of Lauren's two illegitimate children (her daughter, Summer, was fathered by another lover six years later). While caring for her son, Lauren contracted viral encephalitis, an inflammation of the brain. After dropping to 97 pounds and narrowly escaping death, she moved in with older brother Michael and his wife, Caroline, in Irvine, Calif. Caroline's "spiritual, Christian" ways impressed the Catholic-born Lauren, and she began regular Bible reading.
While searching "for a church where I would feel comfortable, where I wouldn't feel like it was going to fall down on me because of my past," she walked into the Eagle's Nest, a non-denominational assembly of born-again Christians in Irvine. "When the pastor said, 'Now if anybody here wants to give their life to the Lord, please stand up and come to the altar,' I didn't hesitate," she recalls. "That was it."
Lauren lives with her two children across the street from her brother and attends Eagle's Nest services three times a week. Now back to 110 pounds (she's 5'2"), she works in a brokerage house and, off-duty, gives lessons in natural childbirth at her home.
Apart from a few acting jobs—including a cameo role in the 1980 TV movie Scouts Honor starring Gary Coleman—show business remains a memory more than an aspiration. "God made me go through all of this to get back to Him," she says of her past troubles. "If I could be on television again, I would pray for a series like Father Knows Best, one that has no violence, no sex, and that shows nothing but purity and love."