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


I remember driving across northern Nevada and wondering how a girl from Lovelock got to the silver screen as leading lady for one of the most famous figures in film. What was in her past that led her in a direction that crossed paths with Chaplin?

What you are about to read is the result of several years of research on Edna’s and Charlie’s lives. I have combined known and published information with new research personally uncovered. The story starts with a comparison of two lives and ends with a delightfully speculative but well-grounded new ‘theory’ about how Charlie discovered Edna.

Edna Purviance as teenager
Edna in her late teens. Photo: Hill Family Collection copyrighted.

Much is known about Chaplin’s life, but little has ever been known about Edna’s. In her history are perhaps the biggest clues about why the pair had such a remarkable creative and personal relationship. For Edna, there is too much to cover in one article. I will try instead for a revealing snapshot into her early life in Nevada and how her experiences prepared her for Chaplin.

When Charles Chaplin auditioned Edna Purviance, her beauty was the attraction. As their relationship developed, what sustained and supported Chaplin was Edna’s personality.

How did they first meet? Was it just as Chaplin wrote, or as Edna told? Or were more than a little circumstance and happenstance at play?

When Chaplin became aware of Edna, he arranged for an ‘immediately’ (his word) meeting with a girl he had never seen or met. Only days later, she was embarking on a new life as a film star. That chain of events is simply amazing on the surface!

Edna at the time of her discovery was a beautiful girl who worked as a secretary, a typical job for a woman in her day in San Francisco. She could have easily married and started a family, but that was never in the cards for her. The stories say that Chaplin took a girl without performing experience and molded her Svengali-like into his leading lady. While part of this story is true, much of it is not.

Charles Spencer Chaplin was born in London to Charles, Sr. and Hannah Hill Chaplin who were singers on the London stage. Olga Edna Purviance was born six years later in Paradise Valley, Nevada to Madison Gates and Louisa Davey Purviance. Edna’s father was a grain miller but also managed two saloons during his life. Paradise was a small but active farming community in a pretty desert farm valley in northern Nevada.

Chaplin’s parents’ lives were in London. Edna’s family was more restless, and moved to Lovelock, Nevada, when Edna was three-years old. Madison staked his family future on the fortunes of the town, and he felt an excitement in Lovelock he had not found anywhere else.

While Charlie had all of London outside his door, Edna’s family home was only a block from the Locklock Train Depot, and there Edna could step aboard the fastest and most direct transport between the east and west coast, and see the ‘world.’ The San Francisco – Oakland Bay Area was practically a second home for many people living in Lovelock, and that included Edna and especially her sisters Bessie and Myrtle.

Photo taken from the railroad bridge by the Lovelock Depot. Looking south. Photo: Hill Family Collection copyrighted.

For Edna Purviance, that train line represented freedom – a constant reminder of a life of adventure down the tracks.

Many famous people of the day traveled via train in view of Edna’s Lovelock home - even the President of the United States. Travelers and celebrities would stay in new hotels Lovelock boasted in the vibrant 1910s. Mining interests from
around the world also made their way to this Nevada town. Commerce provided a livelihood for Edna’s family through their hotel and saloon and made for a stable income.

There are several accounts about how Charlie and Edna met, but the fact there are differing stories is mysterious.

Chaplin himself in his 1964 book ‘My Autobiography’ wrote the most cited version:

In January 1915, Chaplin finished his first film under his Essanay contract in Chicago, but for a list of reasons returned to California. Upon arriving at the Essanay Studios at Niles, California, he was still in desperate need to find a leading lady. Chaplin wrote:

‘...I went with G.M. Anderson to San Francisco to look for a leading lady among the chorus girls of his musical comedy, and although it was nice work, none of them was photogenic. Carl Strauss, a handsome young German-America cowboy working with Anderson, said he knew of a girl who occasionally went to the Tate’s Cafe on Hill Street. He did not know her personally, but she was pretty and the proprietor might know her address.’

‘Mr. Tate knew her quite well. She lived with her married sister, she was from Lovelock, Nevada and her name was Edna Purviance. Immediately, we got in touch with her and made an appointment to meet her at the St. Francis Hotel. She was more than pretty, she was beautiful. At the interview she seemed sad and serious. I learned afterwards she was just getting over a love affair. She had been to college and had taken a business course. She was quiet and reserved, with beautiful large eyes, beautiful teeth and a sensitive mouth. I doubted whether she could act or had any humor, she looked so serious. Nevertheless, with these reservations, we engaged her. She would at least be decorative in my comedies.’

There are people who question Chaplin’s version of this meeting. Even Edna Purviance’s own quoted version of this meeting varies greatly from Chaplin’s.

In May 1916, Edna’s interview with Fred Goodwins for ‘Pictures and Picturegoer’ magazine recalls a different tale. (See the Silent Ladies & Gents site under the Taylorology – Taylor 72.)

"When I left high school I became secretary to a firm in San Francisco, and it was there that I acquired the speed at typewriting that I used in that picture we were in together"--she meant "The Bank"--"but the humdrum life of an office didn't seem to satiate my inborn spirit of freedom--love of adventure I suppose you'd call it- so one day I turned up my position and became a lady of leisure once more.

"Time kind of hung on my hands, and one day I thought it would be fun to go out to Niles"--the Essanay head studio near San Francisco--"and see them taking pictures, so I called up a girl chum of mine and we went.

"When we got there, they were very kind to us and let us wander around the plant, and then I noticed what a crowd of girls was there. I asked one of the gentlemen what they were all doing, and he said: 'Why, Mr. Chaplin has got five hundred of them to choose his new leading lady from; these are some of the applicants.' While we were watching, a little man with dark curly hair, who had been walking among the girls, looked over at me, and pointing in my direction called out: 'That's the type I want!' I was scared at first, and when the young man who was with him came over to me, I asked him who the little man was. 'Why, that's Charles Chaplin, our comedy star,' he answered; 'he wants to see you about the position.' 'Position?' I said. 'Yes, Miss,' he answered; 'he wants you for his leading lady--just to try-out, you know.'

"So that's how I met Charlie. I was not one of the applicants, but the idea of acting in pictures with the comedian I had laughed at so often appealed to me as a huge joke, and I decided that I'd try everything once-- like the Kaiser," she added artlessly.

During my research of Edna, I learned she loved telling great stories and good jokes! The idea that she was selected out of a group of 500 girls seems like one of them!

Later, through Edna's family, I learned that Edna had a strong distaste for the limelight. There is evidence that even the studio had a difficult time getting Edna to talk about herself.

Much of this account was likely a creation of Fred Goodwin inspired by a few facts supplied by Edna. Her version about being selected from 500 girls has a grain of truth, but not in the matter she described.

While Chaplin’s background has always been well chronicled, Edna’s life was never fully explored. She was the miner’s daughter, a secretary, and the daughter who helped her mother run a boardinghouse, and I found evidence of all of these. What was unknown was that Edna had an amazing family background, filled with successful family members who helped shape the future for which she seemed destined.


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