Percy Crosby was worth more than three million dollars in 1932. He had the very successful comic strip, Skippy, that had been turned into a best-selling book and a movie that launched Jackie Cooper’s career.
Skippy, Inc. was created to license Crosby’s creation. Licensees included Standard Oil, General Mills, Paramount, and Milton Bradley. Percy Crosby owned a gold mine comparable to that of, say, Charles Schultz. But somehow Crosby’s creation was stolen by a peanut butter company and he died penniless in an asylum in 1964. His daughter has waged a decades-long battle for justice but so far, has been unable to prevail.
Newspaper comic strips were hugely important in the 1920s and Crosby’s Skippy was one of the most widely read. The news corporations used their contracted comics to sell advertising. Want Skippy to promote your local car dealership? Send us a cheque.
In 1933, the Rosefeld peanut butter company began bringing out s Skippy brand without sending a cheque to the Hearst Syndicate. When Rosefeld attempted to register Skippy as a trademark, Crosby sued them and won. But Rosefeld ignored the court’s decision and continued to produce Skippy peanut butter.
Why didn’t Crosby take further action? Perhaps he thought that his legal victory was enough, since he had blocked the trademark. Perhaps he was unaware of Rosefeld’s continuing the product. Rosefeld was small potatoes, after all. Or perhaps Percy Crosby was unable to deal with his great success and began to fall apart.
1934 was a big year for Crosby. He signed a seven year contract with Hearst, called the “longest and largest” at the time. His licensing fees and payments for the Skippy radio show were bringing in huge sums of money. The comics publisher M.C.Gaines (William’s father) put together a Skippy comic book. Half a million comic books were given away by Phillips Toothpaste to those who wrote into the radio show and requested a copy. But, also in 1934, Crosby became “jittery” according to FBI reports. He believed that he was being followed and that his life was in danger.
Whether or not Rosefeld was following Crosby, they do seem to have suggested to the IRS that Skippy, Inc. was a tax dodge. By 1936 tax auditors were “swarming like hornets” over the offices of Skippy, Inc. Although Crosby proclaimed his innocence, the IRS slapped him with a $47,000 lien and he had to sell property to pay the bill. One of these properties was a publishing business, Freedom Press, that Crosby had set up to promote his political ideas.
Thought of as a progressive, or even socialist, Crosby’s cartoons supported building up American armed forces and attacked Franklin Roosevelt. The strain of being a progressive who drew a salary from William Randolph Hearst must have created more than a little cognitive dissonance. Crosby believed that the IRS judgment was punishment for his anti-administration stance, and especially a 1937 cartoon he had done attacking Roosevelt’s attempt to pack the Supreme Court.
Crosby’s relationship with his wife became rancorous. He had married Agnes Locke in 1929, shortly after a divorce from his first wife, Dale who contined as an executive at Skippy, Inc. In 1931 the couple moved into an 18-room mansion near Maclean, Virginia. By 1936 they were constantly fighting. After one battle in 1939, Crosby stormed out of the house and drove off in his yellow Packard 8. When he returned, two weeks later, the house was deserted. Agnes filed a restraining order against Percy and he never saw his four children again.
Percy Crosby moved to New York. He was drinking heavilly by 1940 when he married Carolyn Soper. Dale Crosby was dismayed by the failure of her ex-husband’s legal firm to protect him and, in 1942, brought an action against them. At some point Percy decided to go after Rosefeld again. In 1944 he served Rosefeld with a Cease and Desist order. Rosefeld’s attorney contacted the IRS again and Crosby was hit with a $43,000 lien for back taxes. In 1946, all of Crosby, Inc.’s assets were frozen by the IRS.
These were tough years for Percy Crosby. Wartime paper restrictions had hit the comics industry hard and the Skippy strip was cut back. The estate in Virginia was sold to pay alimony to Agnes. Then, in 1945, Crosby was unable to negotiate a contract with the King Syndicate and the Skippy comic strip ceased publication in December. During this time, Crosby became “like a hunted man”. He was convinced that his phone was tapped and his mail was being read. In 1948, after an apparent suicide attempt, he was taken to Bellevue Hospital. In 1949, Crosby was delared mentally incompetent and committed to the Kings Park Psychiatric Center.
Five days after Crosby was taken to Bellevue, Rosefeld filed an application and received a trademark for “Skippy”. Rosefeld claimed that no other person had a right to the name. Rose Stein was the lawyer chosen by Carolyn Soper to represent Crosby’s interests. But Stein was secretly an agent of Rosefeld. She settled with the IRS and became effective CEO of Skippy, Inc. In 1955, Skippy peanut butter was sold to Best Foods, which was bought up by the Corn Products Corporation in 1958 and eventually became part of the Unilever conglomerate. Crosby died in 1964. His death prevented Rose Stein from signing over all rights for Skippy to the Corn Products Corporation which she was preparing to do that very day.
Joan Crosby Tibbetts learned of her father’s death after her husband heard about it on the news. She had been unaware that he was incarcerated since her mother had kept any mention of him from the children. She was appointed guardian of Crosby’s estate in 1965 and immediately began a long legal struggle with the corporate giants who owned Skippy peanut butter. Joan has been constantly frustrated by legal chicanery. For instance, Rose Stein claimed that a great many papers had blown out an open window. And the records of the original 1934 Federal case against Rosefeld were “accidentally destroyed”. Nevertheless, she has kept up a steady fight with an occasional victory. Joan has documented her battle on-line, prevailing over attempts to have her website taken down. In 2008 she published Skippy Vs. the Mob (currently out of print), reprinting a long story where Skippy takes on a neighborhood gang leader modeled on Al Capone. The book also includes an article by Joan on the battle over the Skippy name.
In 2004 the US Supreme Court refused to hear the case, effectively closing off the last available legal tactic. Joan Crosby Tibbetts has pledged to fight on in the court of public opinion. She is 78 years old.