Tragic Details About The Culkin Family

The Culkin family is a testament to the fact that child stardom can be a curse. The 1990 movie "Home Alone" was the biggest grossing comedy of all time for some decades, per Forbes. It made the 10-year-old Macaulay Culkin a huge star, and turned the Culkins into overnight millionaires. But the family experienced the dark side of that success, from intense pressure to legal disputes to fraught family dynamics. And the seven Culkin children felt firsthand, or witnessed secondhand, the dehumanizing and suffocating effects of fame.

Beyond the negative consequences of fame and fortune, the Culkin family had some run-ins with sheer bad luck in the form of tragic, fatal accidents. Along with the troubles of many child stars — including Macaulay's own friend Michael Jackson — the Culkin family's trials and tribulations raise questions about the ethics of child stardom. They also call into question the true price of the wealth and celebrity status that so many people idolize and chase. Here are the tragic details of the Culkin family saga.

The Culkin family is from humble beginnings

Kit Culkin and Patricia Brentrup settled in a two-bedroom, railroad-style walk-up on 94th Street and Second Avenue in New York City, per New York magazine. Roughly every two years, they would have a baby, until they had five boys and two girls sleeping in bunk beds in one room. "It was basically one long hallway separated by doorways with no doors," Macaulay Culkin told New York. "I guess we couldn't afford doors or something."

According to the Telegraph, Kit worked at a Catholic church, which allowed the kids discounted fees at the parish school, while Patricia worked for a telephone-answering service. "They were so poor I had to use my own money to make sure that he got to and from rehearsal," Billy Hopkins, a casting director, told New York. "Macaulay would crawl under the bleachers at the theater to look for change that had fallen out of people's pockets. They were like the Beverly Hillbillies."

Still, Patricia worked hard to give the kids some semblance of normal family life, such as a Christmas tree and family dinners together, per Vanity Fair. Those things held the family together for several years before Macaulay began earning millions. "We went through the hungry years, the struggling, and when we became successful I thought we'd just sit back, enjoy it and relax," Patricia told the Telegraph. "Instead, we were happier living hand-to-mouth, and that's what's so hard. We don't get to enjoy what the whole family worked for together."

Kit Culkin was an abusive father and partner

"Dear Father," Macaulay Culkin wrote in a letter to his father, Kit Culkin, which was featured in his 2006 book "Junior" (via Vanity Fair). "It didn't have to be like this. We could have stayed poor ... You showed me what it was like to be afraid ... You hurt people a lot, you know ... You made a lot of people cry. You made my mother cry." Kit "beat [the family's] spirits down," Macaulay told New York magazine, adding, "The one thing he taught me was how not to be, and how I don't want to be with my children. He was a bad guy."

The Culkin siblings' mother, Patricia Brentrup, detailed Kit's "reign of terror" in court affidavits after the couple separated, stating that he had punched her while she was pregnant and given her bruises and black eyes, per the Telegraph.

The family was a lot happier when Kit was away. "Sometime in the 90s, he went away and disappeared for two, three weeks," "Succession" star Kieran Culkin recalled to Vanity Fair, "and the babysitter remarked to my mom, 'You know what's funny is their father's been gone for three weeks, and not one of them has said, Hey, where's Dad?' Nobody cared, actually. My mom was the parent, so when he wasn't there it was nicer and better."

If you or someone you know is dealing with domestic abuse, you can call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1−800−799−7233. You can also find more information, resources, and support at their website.

The Culkin kids' acting careers were chosen for them

Kit Culkin was pushed toward child acting by his "ambitious stage mother," but his older sister, Bonnie Bedelia, reached a higher level of success, per the Telegraph. Decades later, Kit had a family of his own and needed money. The family's neighbor, Susan Selig, was a stage manager at the Ensemble Studio Theatre who needed a child actor, and Macaulay Culkin was the right age and gender for the job, per New York magazine. "We were too little to say no," Kieran Culkin told the Irish Times in 2003. "We didn't really know what we wanted at that stage."

While filming "The Good Son" in 1993, a 12-year-old Macaulay decided he needed a break. "I just said to Kit, 'Listen, I'm really getting tired and I'm not at school as much as I'd like to be; I really need some time off,'" he told New York in 2001. "He said, 'Yeah, sure,' and the next thing I knew I was on the next set doing the next thing, and it just kind of clicked in my brain: 'Okay. There's basically nothing I can do to make this stop.'"

The following year, Macaulay decided to quit acting. "He just wanted to be a kid, to have friends and hide from the spotlight," Emily Gerson Saines, the Culkins' longtime agent, told Vanity Fair. "Kieran was not particularly into it either. Neither Macaulay nor Kieran chose to act. It was, to a large degree, chosen for them."

Kit Culkin caused havoc as Macaulay's manager

In 1993, Premiere magazine named Kit Culkin one of the most influential people in Hollywood, as noted by the Telegraph. This is largely because he had earned a reputation as the most diva-esque stage mom in Hollywood. "I just remember him yelling his head off on the telephone to God-knows-who, every day," Macaulay Culkin told New York magazine. "He was a screamer, he was an intimidator."

One notorious incident came after Macaulay finished filming his role in the 1993 movie "The Nutcracker." The movie's producers ran a series of test screenings for young audiences and decided to add extra narration to clear up confusion, and Kit fiercely rejected the idea. "He called me and sent a letter saying we can't use the narration or we can't use Macaulay's name; he won't promote the movie," Arnon Milchan, a producer, told The New York Times. "It was completely hysterical." After weeks of pushback from Kit, the producers decided to go ahead with the narration anyway. "My reaction was: 'You know what? It's over. Goodbye. I can take so much blackmail, so much extortion,'" Milchan said.

"Oh he was a real pain in the ass to work with," Kieran Culkin told the Irish Times about his father. "He would say: 'I can shut this production down any time I like.' He just loved to throw that weight around."

The Culkin kids were dragged into their parents' heated custody battle

In the 1990s, Patricia Brentrup and Kit Culkin separated after 20 years together. Brentrup brought a lawsuit against Kit for custody of their seven children, as reported by the Telegraph. Kit moved out of the family apartment but stayed in the building, renting a one-bedroom apartment nine floors above. As reported by UPI, Patricia received sole custody of the kids. Kit was not allowed visitation rights with his older children after the teenaged Macaulay and Kieran indicated they did not want to see him.

During the custody suit, Macaulay finally learned that his net worth was around $50 million, per New York magazine. "My father would hide newspapers from me so I wouldn't read the stuff about him or find out how much I was making," Macaulay told New York. "I can understand why they did that; they didn't want me running off to my friends saying, 'I just made $8 million!'"

"His main concern was that he could be our manager," Kieran told the Irish Times of his father's motivations. "He was OK with losing custody, if he could still be our manager."

A teenage Macaulay Culkin sued for control of his finances

Following his parents' custody battle, a teenage Macaulay Culkin decided to seek control of his finances. "I learned how to read court papers at 14," he told New York magazine in 2006. According to People, Macaulay sued to remove his parents as his legal guardians, and his $17 million fortune was ultimately placed in the hands of a family accountant until Macaulay turned 18. "It's always misconstrued, that I 'emancipated' myself from my parents," Macaulay told Esquire in 2020 I legally took my parents' names off of my trust fund and found an executor, someone who would look over my finances, just in case anyone wanted to stick their f***ing pinkie in the pie."

According to the Telegraph, Kit Culkin and Patricia Brentrup had taken the standard 15% management fee out of Macaulay's paychecks, receiving a total of $7.5 million over four years. But their financial situation took a nosedive once Macaulay retired from acting. Part of Macaulay's motivation for the lawsuit was to win the ability to withdraw money to buy a new apartment for his mother and siblings and to pay their school and legal fees.

"That's kind of something that's up in the air in my brain," Macaulay told New York in 2001, "whether parents should be earning money from their children in that kind of way. That's something for future generations of child actors to figure out, whether parents should be creating that dynamic."

Fame was dehumanizing for Macaulay Culkin

"It's hard for me to remember a time when people weren't staring at me for one reason or another," Macaulay Culkin told New York magazine in 2001. "When I was 9 years old, I got recognized wearing a ski mask. Maybe it's the lips. I couldn't hide from the world at all."

As the star of "Home Alone," a young Macaulay was constantly bombarded with cameras and crowds. At 12, while getting changed on the set of "Home Alone 2," hundreds of people began shaking his trailer, terrifying him. On another occasion, he was walking down the street, hiding underneath a hat, when a woman grabbed the hat off his head and said, "Yeah, it's him," per Vanity Fair. Countless run-ins like this bred paranoia. "That was too much for me to handle," he told The Guardian. "I didn't have any friends. I was one of those kids who lock themselves in a room and drown themselves in television." When he was 20, he told New York magazine he was "a self-diagnosed agoraphobic."

Kieran Culkin did not reach the level of childhood fame that Macaulay did, but he noticed the toll it took on his older brother. "[Fame is] not a nice thing," he told Vanity Fair. "I think well-adjusted, smart people that experience it first- or secondhand would not pursue it. I'll totally take personal happiness over success, absolutely. If I'm miserable, then what's the f**king point?"

A fatal fire started in the Culkin family's apartment in 1998

On December 23, 1998, a fire started in the Culkin family's 19th-floor apartment in South Park Tower on Manhattan's Upper West Side, as reported by The New York Times. Patricia Brentrup lived there with several of her children, including Kieran Culkin. According to New York Daily News, the fire started when paper ignited near a space heater. The New York Times reported that the wall-mounted space heater had short-circuited. As the blaze grew, Patricia evacuated the building with her children, but allegedly left the door to her apartment open, thereby unleashing the fire into the hallway and stairwell. The fire took over the stairwell and killed four people on the floors above.

Patricia was subsequently met with an $80 million negligence lawsuit. Although Macaulay Culkin was not living in the apartment building at the time, he was implicated by the media and sued for $113,000, though the case against him was ultimately dismissed. "They made it seem like I was running around the house naked spitting vodka on the walls and throwing matches everywhere," Macaulay told New York magazine. "I wasn't even there."

Patricia and her children then moved into the apartment Macaulay shared with his then-wife, Rachel Miner. "It was a nice Christmas other than the fact that all their presents got burned ... and their house," Macaulay said. "It made me feel good that we brought it all together and made it work. It was awful, of course — people died — it was awful."

Macaulay Culkin was arrested for drug possession in 2004

In September 2004, a 24-year-old Macaulay Culkin was pulled over in Oklahoma City, as reported by CBS News. He was accompanied by a 22-year-old friend from New York in the driver's seat, who was driving 70 mph in a 60-mph speed zone and made an "improper lane change."

During the traffic stop, police officers searched the car and found a bag containing marijuana and $3,000 in cash. They also found a cigarette box full of rolled joints, making 17 grams total, according to the police report. Macaulay reportedly produced an additional bag of medication from his pocket, which contained 16 milligrams of prescription drugs intended to treat anxiety and seizures.

Macaulay was arrested for "possession of a controlled dangerous substance without a valid prescription and possession of marijuana" and briefly held in the Oklahoma County Jail. He was ultimately released once he paid his $4,000 bail.

Macaulay Culkin was pulled into Michael Jackson's court case

When Macaulay Culkin was a 9-year-old rising star, he got a call from Michael Jackson, who invited the Culkin family to visit his California estate, Neverland Ranch, per New York magazine. Neverland was every child's dream: it had a private zoo, a Ferris wheel, a movie theater, a carousel, and go-carts, per ABC News. Macaulay began spending all of his vacations there and built a friendship with Jackson based on a shared understanding of childhood fame, arrested development, and pushy stage fathers who grew abusive.

"We had very similar experiences in childhood," Macaulay told New York. "It's not like I can just bump into people on the street and say, 'Oh! You too!' It doesn't happen that often. Michael's still a kid. I'm still a kid. We're both going to be about 8 years old forever in some place because we never had a chance to be 8 when we actually were. That's kind of the beautiful and the cursed part of our lives."

Following the 1993 child molestation case raised against Jackson, Macaulay expressed regret at never speaking up and defending his friend. He got his chance during Jackson's 2005 trial. On the stand, he confirmed that he and his siblings would often sleep in the same bed with Jackson, but fully clothed with the door unlocked and their parents on site, per CNN. He vehemently denied allegations from Neverland staff that Jackson had touched him inappropriately.

If you or someone you know may be the victim of child abuse, please contact the Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline at 1-800-4-A-Child (1-800-422-4453) or contact their live chat services.

Two of Kit Culkin's daughters died young

In 2000, Kit Culkin's 30-year-old daughter — and the Culkin siblings' half-sister — Jennifer Adamson died of a drug overdose, per the Hollywood Reporter. It was not the last tragic death that would befall the Culkin family. On December 9, 2008, 29-year-old Dakota Culkin was crossing Lincoln Boulevard in front of Brennan's Irish pub in Marina del Rey, California, when she was fatally hit by a car, per Vanity Fair.

Following Dakota's death, a grief-stricken Kieran Culkin gave up his role in "Scott Pilgrim vs. The World." He was later asked to reprise it, but before accepting he warned the director, Edgar Wright, that he had dyed his hair green and gained weight from all the alcohol he'd been drinking since his sister's death.

"She was the funniest person in the family for sure and had a really dark sense of humor," Kieran said of Dakota to the Hollywood Reporter. "[Her death is] the worst thing that's ever happened, and there's no sugarcoating that one. Each one of us handled it very differently. I think everyone was just torn up inside ... It's always going to be devastating. I still weep about it out of nowhere. Something funny she did will pop in the head and make me laugh, and then I'm weeping. Sometimes it's knowing that she's not going to meet my kids and they don't get to have her, and it's hard to describe what she was like."

Multiple Culkin siblings are estranged from their father

Following the trial in which Macaulay Culkin sought control of his finances in the mid-1990s, Kit Culkin disappeared, per New York magazine. But first, he stole all of Macaulay's movie memorabilia, including costumes and photos. "What happened was that my father just was not around one day," Macaulay told The Guardian in 2000. "He just upped and left without explaining himself to anyone."

In disappearing, Kit was essentially walking out of Macaulay's life forever. "[I] don't really have any desire to [see him]," Macaulay told Larry King in 2004 (via CNN). "People are like, 'Oh, isn't it sad that you don't see your father anymore?' [But] he's the only father I knew, and he wasn't like taking us to ... baseball games or anything like that."

By 2001, Kit was broke and living in a two-bedroom condo in Arizona with his new partner, who told New York magazine that Kit would sometimes shut himself in a room to watch his kids' movies. According to the Hollywood Reporter, he traveled to see Kieran Culkin in the Broadway play "This is Our Youth" in 2014. It was the first time they had seen each other in 17 years, and they reportedly haven't spoken since. "F**k him," Kieran told the Hollywood Reporter in October 2021. "I don't care." A decade later, Kit was living in Grants Pass, Oregon. When asked about Macaulay by the Daily Mail, he said, "I don't consider him a son anymore."