For many of Charlie Chaplin’s peers his seemingly effortless grace, style and timing were a wonder, but a source of much frustration. ‘The son of a bitch is a ballet dancer’, wailed comedian W. C. Fields after watching The Great Dictator (1940). ‘He’s the best ballet dancer that ever lived and if I get a good chance, I’ll strangle him with my bare hands’.
Chaplin’s comedic gifts have never been disputed, not during his lifetime nor after it. His personal life, on the other hand, has long been held up as an example of Hollywood stardom at its lecherous worst; for the man took advantage of his extraordinary popularity and fame to bed young, wide-eyed starlets whenever and wherever he could. Of course, not all of them were ‘wide-eyed’, but most of them were certainly young, often very young, as we shall see.
Charlie’s first love was a 15 year-old dancer named Hetty Kelly whom he saw perform at the London Music Hall in 1908 when he was 19 and unknown. True to his later form he proposed marriage to her at once and was devastated when she refused him. She would die at 25 during the great Flu Pandemic of 1918. Several writers have tried to prove she had a child by him, but so far no proof of this has been unearthed.
In 1943 he suffered the embarrassment and eventual disgrace of a very public paternity trial when would-be actress Joan Barry accused him of fathering her baby. Barry had arrived in Hollywood in 1940 with stars in her eyes, bent on becoming a movie actress. Oil millionaire J. Paul Getty soon took her off to Mexico for fun and games and it was there she met one of Chaplin’s agents. At a party at Charlie’s place soon afterwards she threw her meagre charms at him and the comedian responded for a few weeks before tiring of her.
While he was ‘grooming her for stardom’ the girl, reputedly, underwent a couple of abortions. When Chaplin decided to get rid of her, however, she dug her heels in and refused to go. She also invaded his home several times (usually when drunk), and even brandished a pistol at him on one of her unscheduled, nocturnal visits. In October 1942 Charlie paid $5,000 to clear some of the troublesome woman’s debts and purchased one-way tickets to New York City for the girl and her mother, in an endeavour to rid himself of both of them once and for all. A month later Miss Barry was back and she was not happy.
After yet another break-in and another pistol-brandishing episode she landed a 90-day suspended sentence and a court order to leave town. In May 1943, by this time six-months pregnant, she bobbed up again and announced to the press that Charlie was the father of her unborn child. An exasperated Chaplin could have settled out of court quietly, but he chose to fight her in court. It was a bad decision.
Joan Barry gave birth to a daughter in October 1943 and a paternity case was ordered for the following February. In the interim Chaplin was forced to defend himself against a Federal indictment for violation of the Mann Act ‘transporting a female (or females) across a state line for purposes of engaging in illicit sex’. Attorney to the stars Jerry Giesler got him off that one, but then Charlie, unwisely, went into the paternity trial without his super-attorney and paid the penalty.
The court case was little short of a farce. Blood tests proved conclusively that Charlie could not possibly be the father of the child, but the judge chose to overrule the evidence! This, coupled with one of the most vitriolic attacks ever heard from a prosecutor in an American court of law, saw the world’s funniest clown pronounced guilty by an 11-1 vote. Those present in the courtroom, with the exception of the judge it seems, were staggered to hear the prosecutor refer to Charlie as, ‘a lecherous hound’ and ‘a little runt of a Svengali’.
At one point the prosecution instructed the jury to ‘stare hard at the child’, (it was a little girl just a few months old), and then at Chaplin, and to note the facial resemblance. Inexcusably, the judge permitted such shenanigans. In the end the court ordered the beleaguered comedian to pay $75 a week to the child, (increasing to $100 a week as her needs grew), until she reached the age of twenty-one. Curiously, billionaire J. Paul Getty paid all of Miss Barry’s legal fees, yet nobody, not even the media, ever bothered to ask him to explain why he did so.
Charlie may have been innocent of fathering that particular child, but the prosecutor’s description of him as ‘a lecherous hound’ was not far off the mark. Not counting little 15 year-old Hetty in his ‘unknown’ days, and without including all his seductions along the way since then, his marriages present an all too familiar pattern. Charlie fancied young girls, and the younger the better.
His first proven trip down the aisle was in 1918 when he was 29. His bride was 16 year-old Mildred Harris. She would soon divorce him and move in with Hollywood’s most famous lesbian of the day, actress Alla Nazimova. Actually, the two had been lovers long before the divorce became final and while Mildred was pregnant with Charlie’s baby. He was happy to be rid of her anyway.
In 1924, 35 year-old Charlie trotted another 16 year-old to the altar. Her name was Lita Grey and she was already carrying his child. He had met her (and ravaged her several times) when she was just fourteen and bearing the name of Lolita McMurray. At their divorce hearing she accused ‘the Little Tramp’ of making her perform, ‘abnormal, against nature, perverted, degenerate and indecent acts’ before and during their marriage. It is doubtful she even knew the meanings of most of those words, but she had an eloquent lawyer who did. In private she threatened to name five famous actresses who had slept with her husband. That well and truly put the wind up him and he immediately agreed to settle out of court. Lita eventually got $65,000 or $625,000, depending on which source you believe. Charlie was worth about 16 million at that time so he wouldn’t really miss it, but whatever amount the girl was awarded, it was a lot of money back then.
Enter wife number three, the stunning Paulette Goddard. She was 19, (old by Charlie’s standards) although she was 28 years younger than her betrothed and a regular little sex kitten. Sex was extremely important to Chaplin; sex with young girls, (surprise, surprise), even more so. As Goddard (and others) would later say, ‘Charlie referred to his very large ‘equipment’ as ‘the eighth wonder of the world’. Wonderful or not, it got him into a lot of hot water over the years. Even the accidental death of director Thomas Ince aboard newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst’s yacht in 1924 has been attributed to Charlie being caught in bed with Hearst’s mistress, actress Marion Davies. The story is an intriguing one involving several possible explanations that will be dealt with here in a future article.
Charlie’s fourth (and last) wife was 17 year-old Oona O’Neill, whom he wed in 1943. He was 55 by then. Interestingly, the age differences between husband and wife had steadily risen as he had gotten older; going from 13 years, to 19, to 26 to 38! Whichever way you look at it, the world’s greatest comedian liked to get his hands on very young girls, especially young actresses. He really was a ‘little runt of a Svengali’.
The House on Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) went after him with a vengeance during the McCarthy witch-hunts of the fifties, convinced that at least two of his movies were ‘anti-capitalism’ and, therefore, subversive. Chaplin was aboard a ship bound for Europe in 1952 when he learned that he had been barred from ever returning to the USA. Such was the committee’s clout. Being London-born enabled him to be branded an ‘undesirable alien’ and unceremoniously booted out of ‘the land of the free’. It was not until he accepted an Honorary Oscar in 1972 that he finally returned to America. He was 83 by then. On Christmas Day 1977 Charlie Chaplin passed away at the age of 88. Later, somebody stole his coffin from its resting place. It turned up sixteen days later with him still in it.