Charlie Chaplins Wives
Mildred Harris, Lita Grey, Paulette Goddard, Oona O'Neil
Part 1 - Charlie's Ideal Part 2 - Chaplin's WivesPart 3 - Chaplin's Family
Copyright November 2003-2014
March 3, 2009 - Sydney Chaplin, Charlie Chaplin's son, has died at the age of 82.
Linda Wada - ednapurviance.org
Mildred Harris Chaplin
Charlie Chaplin thought seriously of marrying Edna Purviance, but instead he ended up marrying his first wife with almost no thinking at all.
Chaplin was at a party early in 1918 when he met Mildred Harris. Mildred was a child star from the age of 10 and was 16 when she met Chaplin. The young, single and successful Chaplin was a fine catch for any rising starlet.
Mildred made herself noticed by Chaplin, and Charlie couldn't overlook her beauty. They dated for several months and rumors of a marriage hit the local press during that summer. Denials were issued, but they did marry quietly on October 23, 1918. Mildred told Chaplin she was pregnant, but she really wasn't. But Mildred still would have Charlie's first child.
Being Mrs. Chaplin did create new film contracts for Mildred. For Chaplin, it affected his work. During the filming of Sunnyside, he suffered the most delays ever in finishing a film. He had problems fitting in his new married life, and Mildred had problems with Chaplin's 'single-mindedness' with his work.
Charlie and Mildred had one son, Norman Spencer Chaplin. Norman was born July 7, 1919, but the child died three days later.
The marriage died soon afterwards.
Mildred Harris Chaplin
|It is written that Normans death was one of the seeds that started Chaplins interest in creating The Kid with Jackie Coogan.
It was during the production of 'The Kid' that Mildred's and Charlie's marriage fell apart. The couple divorced on November 13, 1920, just before The Kid was released in early February 1921.
Harris would continue in the entertainment business for several more years, but drinking affected her health and her life was not a good one in her later years. She died on July 20, 1944.
It was at a club one night Mildred would meet Charlie's second wife...
(known name - Lita Grey Chaplin)
Lillita McMurray, better known as Lita Grey, was the flirtatious angel in The Kid'. She also played Ednas maid in The Idle Class . (Litas mother played alongside Lita as a maid in the same film.)
Lita wrote in her first book that she and her mother first met Chaplin when she was very young, while at a restaurant. Charlie and the crew were on a lunch break, when Lita's mother spotted Chaplin and introduced themselves.
In 1920, Lita was introduced to Chaplin again during the making of 'The Kid' by Charles Riesner, Chaplin's assistant director, who was the father to 'Dinky' Dean Riesner. The Riesners and McMurrays were neighbors. In Lita's book, Chaplin took an interest in Miss Lita during the making of this film. He ordered an artist friend to paint a portrait of Lita.
In 1924, Lita caught Chaplins eye once again during the preparation of The Gold Rush'. Lita invited her friend, Merna Kennedy, the future leading lady of the 'The Circus', to visit Chaplin's Studios. (Merna got 'The Circus' job through Lita suggesting her for the role.)
Chaplin was in the middle of a search for a new leading lady to replace Edna Purviance. Upon seeing Lita again, Lita's appearance fit perfectly Chaplin's vision for the dance hall girl in his new film. Lillita McMurray signed with Chaplin in March of 1924 and given her new stage name Lita Grey.
Lita Grey Chaplin
|Lita filmed several scenes in The Gold Rush and even traveled with the cast to Truckee, California for location shooting for the film. While only a few scenes were ever used in the film from that spring trip, Charlie's interest in Lita was sparked. A romance developed that summer, which led to marriage in Mexico on November 26, 1924. But this marriage was hastily arranged. Lita was pregnant. Once again, Chaplin trapped himself into a second marriage. The press was more invasive into his private life by 1924, and Charlie was getting older too. Lita was 16 and Charlie was 36.
Lita was dropped as the leading lady in The Gold Rush', because she was pregnant. Georgia Hale got the role instead and gained the distinction of being the first leading lady to replace Edna Purviance.
Charlie and Lita had two children during the marriage, Charles Chaplin Jr. on May 5, 1925 and Sydney Chaplin on March 30, 1926. But the marriage was doomed to fail from the start.
In late November of 1926, the already rocky marriage foundered and turned into a long, nasty public divorce for both Lita and Charlie. The divorce left many scars on both sides that never healed. Chaplin was still so emotional about the whole matter, he couldn't even write about it in his own book in 1964, except for a very brief mention. The main reason for the silence was in respect to his sons.
After the divorce, the couple managed to successfully raise their sons separately.
Lita would have many tough years after the divorce. At her lowest ebb, Charlie helped her by talking to her and instilling a belief to carry on, as she noted in her first book.
She recovered and managed to start a successful talent agency in her later years. She wrote two books about her life with Chaplin. The first one was My Life with Charlie Chaplin in 1966, and the second one Wife of the Life of the Party published in 1998.
As for their children, Charlie Jr. played with his father in the film Limelight as one of the clowns in the ballet scene. He wrote his own book on living with his father called My Father, Charlie Chaplin' in 1960. Charlie Jr. died on March 20, 1968.
Named after his uncle, Charlie's son Sydney played a lead role in Limelight as Neville the composer. Sydney would also play in the film A Countess From Hong Kong as Harvey Crothers. Sydney Chaplin still lives in California. He attends special festival events in honor of his father and can be seen in documentaries like The Unknown Chaplin - The Great Director'.
Lita Grey Chaplin died in 1995 at the age of 87. She lived the longest of Chaplin's wives and can be seen in interviews like 'Unknown Chaplin' series and the new Chaplin DVD collection featuring 'The Gold Rush'.
Chaplin marriage to Lita was his second failed marriage, but Chaplin's next marriage would be to a girl even Lita Grey Chaplin approved of and was grateful Charlie had met...
|Paulette Goddard (Chaplin)
Pauline Levy, better known as Paulette Goddard, met Charlie Chaplin soon after he returned from his World Tour in 1931-32. Paulette, a divorceé in her early 20's, would be the oldest of his wives and the only divorceé. Paulette was doing bit work in films when she met Charlie at a party given by a friend of Chaplin's.
A nearly instant friendship once again developed into a romance. Charlie bought a yacht during this period, and the couple would entertain friends on cruises often on weekends and holidays.
It was during this time Charlie started work on 'Modern Times'. His director's eye could see Paulette as his perfect gamine in his new film. 'Modern Times' would become her first major film role and made her a star.
After the release of 'Modern Times' the couple traveled to the Orient. It was during this trip the couple got married, at least that is what they said.
Paulette Goddard (Chaplin)
|There has always been some question to whether Charlie and Paulette were ever really married. The couple reported being married during their Orient trip, but apparently official papers of the marriage have never been seen.
The fact is, this was a happy union during the early part of their relationship in the 1930's. It was even reported that Lita Grey Chaplin herself was very pleased to see Paulette in Charlies life. Paulette became stepmother to Sydney and Charlie Jr., and she was the perfect one for that time! (Lita and Paulette met once at a birthday party and reportly got along fine.) Charlie Jr. and Sydney adored their step-mother. She was around when Charlie was not, as he was working late at his studio.
During their marriage, Paulette's success in 'Modern Times' led to other film roles during the 1930's, including 'The Women' . She even was in the running for the role of Scarlet O'Hara, in 'Gone With the Wind', but the marriage question haunted her in getting the role. (Paulette's Scarlet film test can still be seen in programs about 'Gone With the Wind' ). Vivien Leigh won that role instead.
Paulette's last film with Charlie was The Great Dictator in 1940. It was during the filming that friends around the couple could see the relationship was failing. While this marriage lasted longer than Chaplins first two marriages, it would not be a lasting one either.
There are reports of Chaplin trying to save the marriage, and he even introduced Paulette as his wife at a New York City speaking event. This was reportly the first time Chaplin publicly referred to Paulette as his wife. Shortly afterwards, Paulette answered questions in the press saying they were indeed Charlie Chaplin's wife. Not for much longer, however.
Paulette received her divorce from Chaplin on June 4, 1942 in Mexico. Paulette would continue in films well into the 60's. For a brief time, she even married Burgess Meredith.
Paulette and Charlie remained distant friends over the years, but rarely saw each other. She even married and ended up living in Switzerland, but never met Chaplin while living there. But like in all the other cases, each succeeding wife would meet the previous. She did meet Charlie and Oona by chance in Paris and they had a pleasant lunch together. The last time she would see Chaplin, apparently, was in New York in 1972. Charlie and Oona were in America for the last time, since 1952, for Chaplin to receive his special Oscar award. She manage to push her way through a crowd to talk to him for a few minute, but their time was short.
Paulette Goddard died on April 23, 1990, at the age of 75. Of all his wives, she had the most successful film career and was remembered for her work, and maybe more so than being Mrs. Charles Chaplin.
Paulette in the end, wanted a career, Chaplin wanted a wife. He would find that wife while looking for yet another leading lady to replace Paulette...
|Oona (ONeill) Chaplin
Oona O' Neill was looking for a change in her life. At about the age of 17, she made a trip from New York to Califorina in 1942 to see her father and to try her luck in Hollywood.
Oona's visit with her father who was the famous playwright Eugene ONeill did not go well. The relationship was a poor one from the beginning. Her film career did not develop either. Instead, she would make headlines in becoming the fourth wife of Charlie Chaplin.
Many people had this marriage written off before it even started, but they did not know Oona O' Neill.
The couple met in the fall of 1942. Chaplin was looking for an new leading lady for his latest film 'Shadow and Substance'. A talent agent who knew Chaplin introduced the couple at a private dinner. Chaplin thinking Oona too young for the part didn't engage her at first, but Oona showed interest instead and even showed up at the studio one day asking for Mr. Chaplin.
Oona (O'Neill) Chaplin
|Chaplin signed up Oona and for the next few months she was involved in acting lessons for the part. But instead of acting, a romance developed. Chaplin was reportedly shy about involving himself with yet another young girl, but it was Oona who really showed a deep feeling for him that made him at ease with the decision.
Chaplin placed the film project on the shelf and planned for a quiet wedding instead. On June 16, 1943, the couple married in Santa Barbara, California. And this time the age difference did turn heads. Oona was 18 and Charlie 54. Even with the age difference, the couple had a special bond that would last a lifetime.
The couple spent a great deal of time together. Even Charlie's sons were very taken by their new step-mother. She may have been 18, but she was very mature for her age and had a calmness about her that aided her in this new married life.
The couple would go through some of the most troubled times Chaplin experienced in the States. The Joan Berry lawsuit, the public's dislike for the new directions of his films, and Chaplin's left-leaning politics were all haunting him publicly. In contrast, his private life could not have been better.
'Limelight' in 1952 became a family affair for Charlie, as his oldest and youngest children were all in the film, including his half-brother, Wheeler Dryden as the doctor. It is even reported that Oona appeared briefly, doubling for Clarie Bloom in a scene that needed to be taken after the production had wrapped.
With the film done, Chaplin decided to premiere 'Limelight' in London and show 'his London' to his wife and young family for the first time. Chaplin got all the proper papers he needed to go on the trip and the government officials wished them a great journey!
In September, 1952, Charlie, Oona, and the three children left New York for London. But two days out to sea, the news arrived on ship that Chaplin was being denied re-entry to the United States.
Ready to fight the US government decision, according to 1952 New York Times reports, the family lived in hotels and stayed with friends for the rest of 1952. But Chaplin had enough with court battles and chose instead to buy a lake side home in Switerland in January 1953. Oona especially wanted to be settled for the birth of their fourth child.
For the next few months, life was very quiet at home for the Chaplin family. Charlie made have not been the perfect father at times, but he provided for all his children well. To be fair, it must have been hard to be a father during the 1950's, 60's and 70's, when you were born in 1889. And it must have been hard for the children as well.
During Chaplin's life he had 11 children born between 1919 to his youngest in 1962. Two died during his lifetime. Most of his children grew up during the 50's and 60's.
To his kids, he was Dad, but to the world he was still 'The Little Tramp'. This silent-era film figure was a bit too distant for the children, and Charlie did not talk much about his early film days to his children. Maybe it was losing that life, the way he did, was just too hurtful to relive.
Many famous people would visit their home over the years, a real who's who. But even in Switzerland, business still had to be settled with their Hollywood home and studio property. For this Oona was a great help, and we have her to thank for helping save Chaplin's lifetime of film work.
On her solo trip back to America, Oona closed up their Hollywood home and the Chaplin Studios. All his lifetime work at the studio was packed up and shipped to their Switzerland home, with the help of the Chaplin Studio employees, who were still working for him. Their Hollywood home was sold with their belongs either kept and shipped or disposed. Oona made it through the trip with no officials questioning her, even after finding out others were being questioned by the FBI, including former Chaplin's wife, Lita Grey Chaplin, who proudly had nothing to say to them. Chaplin was a nervous wreck throughout the whole ordeal and was very happy to see Oona's return and his work saved.
Charlie created a special film vault at their Switzerland home to store all his valuable film stock. This vault is the main source for all of Chaplin's copyrighted films we enjoy so much today.
Later, Oona even gave up her American citizenship. She had few ties to the States, but would return to help her family when needed. She had her mother and brother with whom she kept in contact.
As for Charlie, he would only return once to the States in 1972 to receive his special Academy Award Oscar with Oona at his side all the way. All the people who worked with Chaplin showed up in either New York or Los Angeles to see him, including his former co-stars Jackie Coogan, Clarie Bloom and Georgia Hale. Edna Purviance would have been there too, if she were alive. (She had died 24 years earlier in 1958.)
When he received the Oscar that night, he had Oona by his side, like she was from the start of their marriage. He pointed at her in gesture that it was Oona that made it possible for him to be there on that night. Oona gave him strenght, where his was failing.
The U.S. trip was a very emotional trip for both. So emotional for Chaplin, he couldn't bear to walk on his old Chaplin Film Studio grounds again. He went to the studio on a Sunday and stopped by the original gate entry. He looked in from the gates, but the menories must have been many. All his wives and his first close love, Edna, were all there in the 34 years he worked there, but that time was gone. All that was left was the building and menories he created on film.
That was the last time Chaplin saw his studio.
Chaplin gained new energy from this American travels and went back to Switzerland where he created his second book 'My Life in Pictures'. He was able to talk about his second marriage more in this book, but mainly in pictures.
Oona was there in London to see him receive his English knighthood in 1975. A great honor! But his old energy was gone. He asked not be photographed while struggling to enter his car. The man who once could move with great ease, was no more.
In 1976, he restored the last of his classics and one of his favorite films 'A Woman of Paris'. It was Edna Purviance's first starring role. Chaplin and Edna got great reviews, but in the end, it was the little fellow people wanted to see, not the great director. He created a music score for it too, like all his other classics. His health was failing a great deal by this time, and the music does show it, for it does not have the same voice as his earlier work.
As always, Oona was never far away. Sitting in a corner knitting she would be asked by Charlie about this scene or that. She became his personal advisor, and he always listened. Charlie would even look for her, even if she left the room for even a short while. She was his energy, his youth. She was everything he wanted in a wife, and more. It has been said, that Oona would laugh loudly at his jokes, whether she heard it before, or not. If he was looking to find his first love he lost with Hetty Ketty, he found her in Oona.
His last year with Oona was as quiet as the first months in Switzerland. He would watch films, take drives, do walks, see visitors and attend family outings. But by November 1977, Chaplin stayed home for good. Oona worked hard on caring for him, until her health was called into question by their own children.
But the end was nearing for 'the little fellow'.
It is rather irony that Chaplin would die in the early morning hours of the one holiday that was the saddest from his childhood. During the annual family holiday gathering in 1977, Charlie died on Christmas Day.
In Los Angeles, flowers were left at the gates of the former Chaplin Film Studios and even on Chaplin's mother's gravesite. (Charlie's mother lived her last years in the 1920's in a house Chaplin brought for her in the Los Angeles area.)
Oona never got over the death of Charlie. She tried to start a new life and even lived in New York City for a while. But her whole life centered around Charlie, and life without him just didn't seem possible for her. Living with Charlie was never easy for Oona, but living without him was agonizing. If there was one fault in the marriage, it maybe that Oona didn't develop more of her own personally outside of the marriage. If she had, maybe she would still be with us and her children today.
Oona died from cancer on September 27, 1991. It was just before the release of the film Chaplin for which she gave permission to use Charlie's book as source material for the film.
The couple had eight children: Geraldine, Eugene, Victoria, Annette, Josephine, Michael, Jane and Christopher Chaplin. While all the children went on to lead successful lives of their own, to most people, Geraldine Chaplin is the best known in the acting world. Her first major role was in 'Dr. Zhivago'. She even got to play her own grandmother (Charlie's mother, Hannah) in 1991 movie 'Chaplin'.
The Chaplin family is currently creating a lasting tribute to their parents by turning the family home in Switzerland into the Chaplin Heritage Center . (The final name of the center is still being decided.) They plan to have it open to the public in the future.
After three marriages that didn't work out, Charlie's final marriage realized his ideal girl and love of his life in Oona O'Neill. While Edna was Chaplin's ideal girl on the silver screen, it was Oona who became his ideal girl in real life.
And it will always be Oona Chaplin who will always be remembered as Mrs. Charles Chaplin.
For more information about Chaplin's Family, continue to:
Part 1 - Charlie's Ideal Part 2 - Chaplin's WivesPart 3 - Chaplin's Family
Copyright November 2003 - 2010 - Linda Wada
Editing - Wes Wada
Special knowledgement to the books 'Chaplin, His Life and Art' by David Robinson, 'My Autobiography' by Charles Chaplin, 'My Life in Picture' by Charlie Chaplin, 'My Life with My Father' by Charles Chaplin Jr. and 'My Life With Charlie Chaplin' by Lita Grey Chaplin.
And to Garen Ewing's - 'A Woman of Paris' - Charlie Chaplin first United Artist Film starring Edna Purviance.
Over 100 photos, including 50 never published production stills from The Sea Gull
from the personal collection of Edna's family - Hill Family Collection!
"I sometimes decry the decline of professionalism in various disciplines
including publishingbut I can’t think of a better argument for
breaking down the barriers of traditional publishing..." - Leonard Maltin, Film Critic and Author
2009 San Francisco Examiner "Best Recent Film Book List"
"THE SEA GULL is an important contribution to film history,
and worth buying for the stills alone. The look of the film,
revealed in these marvellous photographs, makes it all
the more tragic that it was destroyed." - Kevin Brownlow
"Thanks for sending THE SEA GULL so promptly. It's a fascinating piece of research
- particularly since von Sternberg has been almost a lifelong interest.
My most sincere congratulations." - John Baxter, author
"It is beautiful, informative and edifying all at once." - David Toll, Nevada Writer
"I congratulate you on a very interesting and attractive book..." - Kate Guyonvarch, Association Chaplin
First book to feature Edna Purviance and about Charlie Chaplin's lost film production
Directed by Josef von Sternberg. Available for ordering at our shop
at ednapurviance.com. Also learn more at Edna's Place
PLUS! Check out the following:
Garen Ewing's Charlie Chaplin UK DVD and VIDEO Guide!!
ALSO! My first interview with Garen Ewing, about The Rainbow Orchid
AND! Garen's release of The Rainbow Orchid from Egmont UK!
Edna Purviance Hollywood Walk of Fame Petition Drive
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