Portraits of Charlie Chaplin’s Wives

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Charlie Chaplin was a prolific member of the film community. He was not only a creative and innovative director but an entertaining actor and inventive writer who was responsible for hit after hit during the silent era and beyond. But like most successful artists his love life and the scandals surrounding it put a stain on his personal legacy and became increasing fodder for gossip columnists and fans alike.

During his life in the spotlight and four marriages, he was constantly followed by rumors that his preference for the company of young girls went beyond paternal instinct or mere friendship. It was this tendency that would cause Chaplin intense scandals with two out of his four wives being under 18 at the time of the marriages and with biographer Joyce Milton even claiming Chaplin was one inspiration for the character of Humbert Humbert in Vladimir Nabokov’s controversial book Lolita. However, although Chaplin’s marriages were mostly short and unamicable he was, in many cases, the driving force behind the career’s of each of his wives and produced exceptionable work with them. Below are short descriptions of each of the Mrs. Chaplin’s and their relationship with the film legend.

1. Mildred Harris

Perhaps Chaplin’s love life was doomed from the start considering his first marriage sprung out of wedlock. At the age of 29, Chaplin wed The Inferior Sex and For Husbands Only 16-year-old actress Mildred Harris whom he believed to be pregnant with his child. Unsurprisingly, the marriage only lasted two years and though Harris eventually gave birth to his first child, the baby died only three days later. Their marriage initially proved fruitful for Harris, who increasingly received movie offers; however Chaplin was unsupportive and questioned her talent because of her young age. This behavior would manifest as a toxic pattern for Chaplin.

2. Lita Grey

Chaplin quickly moved on to his second wife, Lita Grey in 1924, whom he cast in his film, The Gold Rush. Once again, the 16-year-old actress claimed to have been forced to marry Chaplin after becoming pregnant unexpectedly. Later, in a messy 50-page divorce, Grey revealed Chaplin’s abusive measures to conceal their private affairs, including his demand for an abortion after the pregnancy. Grey endured the matrimony for three years and gave birth to two sons before finally walking away. Their bitter court battle added fuel to the fire, with Grey profiting a whopping $100,000 per child, and publicly defaming Chaplin as a manipulative playboy. Their divorce was the biggest public Hollywood scandal at the time, defaming Chaplin’s name.

3. Paulette Goddard

Undeterred by his failed relationships, Chaplin continued working as the biggest film star of his generation. Nine years later, he married former child fashion model and Broadway star, Paulette Goddard. Goddard, 22 when they first met, lied to Chaplin, claiming to be 17 which didn’t stop Chaplin from moving her into his mansion shortly after. Conflicting sources question the legality of the marriage, nonetheless, the couple lasted seven years before Chaplin’s jealousy drifted them apart. Chaplin’s bullish ways resurfaced as his attempts to control Goddard’s career pushed her to her limits. The couple split shortly after the 1940 premiere of their film, The Great Dictator. Unlike his former wives though, Goddard was an independent twenty-something starlet who found success before and after their relationship, landing contracts with Paramount Studios.

4. Oona O’Neil

In his 50s and with a mockery of dysfunctional marriages behind him, it’s surprising that Chaplin found true love in his fourth marriage with 18-year-old Oona O’Neill, daughter of Pulitzer Prize-winner Eugene O’Neill. An aspiring actress, Oona had previously dated J.D. Salinger and Orson Welles before settling down with a man her father’s age in 1943. Their age difference held no barrier and the two were inseparable, bearing eight children and building a life in Switzerland, before returning to the U.S. after exile. The inexplicable magic shared between the two kept them in marital bliss with O’Neill looking after Chaplin’s health till his passing in 1977.

What About the Others?

Outside his marriages, Chaplin has also been connected to several other more illustrious women and, in some ways, more problematic scandals. His first public girlfriend and, many said, the person Chaplin should have married was film actress and constant collaborator Edna Purviance. They appeared in 35 films together and may have had a more long lasting relationship if the beautiful Mildred Harris hadn’t captured Chaplin’s attention.

However, it would be with a little known aspiring actress Joan Barry that would cause Chaplin the most pain. They had a small affair in 1942 that ended when Barry began behaving irrationally and harassing the director. A short time after Barry gave birth and immediately sued Chaplin to financially support the child. Although, blood tests showed that Chaplin was not the biological father, the evidence was argued as inadmissible by the prosecution and he was ordered to support the baby.

Joan Barry and her child Carol Ann

In addition, Chaplin was also rumored to also had brief flings with actresses Pola Negri, Louise Brooks and, controversially, with fellow actress and mistress of media mogul William Randolph Hearst, Marion Davies.

All through his successful and groundbreaking career, Charlie Chaplin had been followed by several scandals, rumors and controversies. His was accused of being inappropriately attracted to young girls and fathering children by them, being falsely married to another and having many extra-marital affairs. No one could call Charlie boring, but thankfully, his immense and groundbreaking input into filmmaking has overtaking his personal life to shape the legacy Chaplin has today.

(via The Artifice and Biography)

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