Charles Chaplin and Edna Purviance
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Charlie Discovers Edna
A Wonderful Bit of Chance and Speculation
Two Lives in Two Different Worlds
Written and Research By Linda Wada © – January 17, 2005
Released – September 10, 2006


Charles Spencer Chaplin was born in an exciting city for a performer. London, England was boiling over with entertainment at the time of Chaplin’s birth on April 16, 1889.

His parents, Hannah and Charles Chaplin were singers and lived the stage life of greasepaint and music halls. Attracted by the excitement and with a wish to break out of a life in common trades and poverty, the couple took their good looks and talents to the London stages.

The singers met with some success, but life on the stage was tougher than it looked from the cheap seats. The strain of performing every night was rough on a seasoned professional, and for two performers whose talents were good, but somewhat limited in depth, fortunes were brutal.

Charlie’s father was offered a gig in New York, while his mother continued to work in London. The marriage of Hannah and Charles Chaplin, Sr. was running aground even before Chaplin Sr. took sail from England.

Wheeler Dryden, later years. Photo: Research Collection copyrighted.

While her husband was away another man captured Hannah’s heart. Leo Dryden was a fairly successful London singer, and even offered Hannah one of his songs to sing, a special honor. He was so taken by ‘Lily Harley’ (Hannah’s stage name) that an affair ensued.

The fling was a disaster for Hannah. She gave birth to a son named Wheeler Dryden, but the baby meant the end of Hannah’s marriage to Charles Chaplin, Sr.

Charlie was only about three. He wrote that he never really knew his father at all, and was unaware that he had a younger brother Wheeler who once shared his home.

Thankfully, Charlie was not alone, for he had his older brother Sydney Chaplin to share these events. Sydney was from Hannah’s first failed relationship with a man name Hill, whose passing eye caught her youth and beauty.

Hannah, shaken and reeling from all that had happened, watched her son Wheeler taken away months later by his father Leo Dryden. Years would pass before she would see her son again, and the event started her mental decline.

Hannah and her two sons Charles and Sydney Chaplin continued on until one night she broke down on stage.

Nervous, timid, and voice cracking, she had to leave the center stage to escape the unruly crowd. Watching from the wings, young Charlie somehow found himself singing in her place to a cheering audience. That moment would rerun in Chaplin’s mind for a lifetime.

Hannah’s mental health deteriorated as stress and malnutrition, compounded by a family history of mental problems, all played a role in her downfall. Charlie and Sydney would spend years in and out of different schools and workhouses, the absolute bottom for any London family.

But his mother kept trying to keep her family together the best she could and entertaining them was her best gift.

Hannah would entertain Charlie and Sydney for hours as she acted out stories or played the parts of people passing by their garret window. Hannah played characters like a businessman down on his luck, a fancy-dressed chap heading for a date, a mother struggling with her kids as she headed down the street. Hannah poured out her heart for her enthusiastic audience of two, and left something of her instilled in both her sons, especially Charlie.

Those terrifying times left scars on Chaplin’s mind and body. He remembered how he was treated as a child, and his small physical size was from a lack of proper nutrition at a time he needed it for growing.

The lowest moment came when Sydney, working on a ship to send money home to his family, fell ill in another country. Hannah spent days waiting in vain for Sydney’s return until her world collapsed.

Charlie alone had to take his mother to the mental asylum Lambeth Infirmary, and there he said goodbye. Not only a goodbye to his mother, but goodbye to a world of darkness. Upon Sydney’s return, the lives of both would never sink to those depths again. (Years later Chaplin would bring his mother to the states to live out her life. Edna would care for her mother for most of Louise's life.)

During 1903 and 1904, life for both Charlie and Edna was on the upswing. Edna and her mother were on their own, running their business along Railroad Street in Lovelock, and the Chaplin brothers were trying their luck at getting work performing on the stage.

Louise did remarry in the fall of 1904. Robert Nurnberger was from San Francisco. He was known for his excellent work in well-drilling and plumping. It help create a freedom for Edna to spend her summers enjoying her childhood, with the stable income Louise and Robert earned. Also time to study music.

At the time, Edna was performing as well. She sang and acted, but was best known for her piano playing. Her performances were not for pay, but for FUN! She was not trying to make a living, and fame was not part of the aim.

Chaplin’s goal was not only to make a living on stage but to become the best. With the help of his brother, Sydney, Chaplin found work for one of the most-noted companies in London. Operated by Fred Karno, the Karno Company name was well-known in Britain, Europe, and the US.

As time passed, Charlie found himself successful at his craft, but not as successful as his brother Sydney. Charlie was asked to join the Karno Tour traveling in America. At the time, Charlie was the less valuable to Karno of the two brothers.

Rare image from "WOW WOWS" stage performance in the US. Chaplin is in the center in the light colored suit. research collection.

Chaplin set sail for the United States in September 1910. He would work in New York that fall, and started touring the Midwest and West in 1911.

Except for one break back to England in 1912, Chaplin spent the next three years traveling across America on five different tours with Sullivan and Considine, each taking months to complete.

For most weeks, the company would do a full week of shows, three times a day. Chaplin received great reviews at each whistlestop across America. Charlie also discovered that he loved the West, which had a 'newness' that was so different than London. But after three-and-a-half years of non-stop performing, Chaplin was ready for a change.

In 1913, Chaplin was on his last stage tour with Karno in the US.

He was seen by members of the Keystone Pictures during his tour. (Mabel Normand is reported in having convinced Mack Sennett to sign Chaplin.)

Chaplin signed a contract with Keystone Pictures September 25, 1913, in Portland, Oregon.

He finished the Karno tour by traveling to San Francisco, leaving the tour for good in November of 1913 after their dates in Kansas City.

The Karno troupe went back to London, and Chaplin took the train to Los Angeles.

That same year, Edna Purviance left her Lovelock home. She and her mother left for San Francisco in late July. It was not the first time for Edna in San Francisco. Her family visited often over the years. Her late stepfather Robert Nurnberger (he died after a long illness in early 1911) took her and her mother there in 1905. It left an impression.

Both her sisters also had homes in the Bay Area, which was filled with many family and friend connections from Lovelock. Many Lovelock residents called San Francisco their second home. The city was also the number one place to travel for medical needs.

Louise Purviance Nurnberger returned to Lovelock September 19, 1913 and announced that Edna was staying in the bay area to attend business college for the year.

Charlie Chaplin arrived in San Francisco for his week run with Karno at the Empress Theatre the first week in October 1913. For the first time, Edna and Charlie were in the same location at the same time, though I found no record of them crossing paths on this occasion. But the business school was not far from the theatre district.

Edna was finishing her business school training and had gotten a job as a secretary. (One writer has written in their book that she was a waitress at one of the local cafes. All I can say at this time, I found no evidence to support it from my research.)

The Victorian age of Edna’s mother was waning, and the Edwardian age was now in vogue. Life was unveiling modern options for women. In the U.S. women were fighting for the right to vote. Hemlines had shortened to above the ankle. Work after the school years instead of marriage was becoming acceptable. Smoking and drinking in public had become symbols of liberation for women. (Smoking is one vice that would affect Edna’s health in her later years.)

Edna must have felt comfortable living in an exhilarating place like San Francisco, discovering more about herself and the world around her. San Francisco in the early 1910s was the most important city on the coast.

Christmas 1913 found Chaplin in Los Angeles, after finishing his last Karno performance in Kansas City. In San Francisco, Edna was experiencing her first Christmas away from home.

By the next Christmas, Chaplin's image would be on billboards and movie screens, with his films playing in the same theaters he had appeared in with Karno’s stage troupe a year earlier.


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