Nation on the March

Nation on the March
Nation on the March

Oct 30, 2010

Part-II: The Nobel playwright who disliked his daughter & hated wonderful son-in-law


( The physiotherapist’s restrictions are gone & I am back at the keyboard… apologies at the outset  for the long interval)

The most unforgiving father
who disliked his loving daughter
& hated talented son-in-law

Eugene O’Neill. Four times Pulitzer Prize winner. Nobel laureate.  

Such a great playwright, acclaimed all over America.

Tormented by family catastrophes in form of alcoholism and suicides.

Such a sensitive master of the loving family dog, Blemie, & such a considerate husband who wrote a “will” on behalf of this dying dog just to ensure that his wife is able to bear the shock and feel lighter enough to go for another dog.

Could he be so harsh with his loving teenage daughter that he would disassociate from her for the entire lifetime?

But before anything else, let us meet one of the great jovial characters the silver screen has ever seen.

Charles Spencer Chaplin, better known to his fans as Charlie Chaplin!
Who can forget his trademark Little Tramp costume of baggy pants, bamboo cane, bowler hat, and over-sized shoes? Reigned the Hollywood in the early days of silent film and even brings a smile on million faces today.

Very handsome and only the make-up would make  his face look comical. . Most people believe that Chaplin had brown eyes because they had only seen him in black and white with black eye makeup on. It fact they were very blue.

Remarked in his autobiography that people meeting him for the first time were always struck by his blue eyes.

Had a brilliant insight into what the human mind was observing and he could make comedy out of almost anything.

He had a very interesting life – mixed with deprivations and achievements. Some glimpses :

  • Was the first actor to appear on Time magazine, on July 6, 1925 issue of Time magazine.
  • Made  one of  his most audacious comedy - The Great Dictator, making fun of Adolph Hitler himself. Although Adolf Hitler was not at all a fan - in fact he had been misinformed that Chaplin was Jewish, and therefore despised him - he was also well aware of how beloved Chaplin was throughout the world at that time, and that was the reason he grew the Chaplin mustache: he thought it would endear him to the people. Obviously, this 1940 classic was banned in Germany

  • Won the Best Music Oscar for “Limelight”, a film he had made 21 years earlier, yet had not been shown in Los Angeles until 1972!
  • Two  months after Chaplin died on Christmas, 1977, his body was stolen a small group of Swiss mechanics in an effort to extort money from his family.  Lake Geneva.  He is now buried under 6 feet of concrete to prevent further theft attempts.

  • Four years after his death, Ukrainian astronomer, Lyudmila Karachkina, named an asteroid after him. Ms. Karachkina, discoverer of 131 asteroids, named one of them 3623 Chaplin. It is visible in a moderately strong telescope.

However, despite Chaplin's great sense of humor the recurrent theme in his life seems to be surrounded by sadness and loss where his escape was to help others feel a sense of joy.

Born in England in 1889 . His parents divorced early in his life. His mother , an English Gypsy , went to mental asylum time and again. In Chaplin's 9th year he toured with a stage company. He also met a young Arthur Stanley Jefferson as part of the troupe, better known to us as Stan Laurel,  the unforgettable personality of the great comedians  Laurel  & Hardy duo!

At the age of 12, Chaplin's father died. Later, his mother’s illness  relapsed, and she was  institutionalized for the next 7 years. Chaplin is just 16 years old.

He joined a famous traveling stage show company and visited USA. In 1912, on his second visit, he decided to stay back in the US. Coincidentally,  Stan Laurel also sailed with him in the same ship.

Chaplin was 23 at that time. At this time, according to Ellis Island immigration records he had $45 in his pocket. (His bowler and cane was sold- ten years after his death-  for $150,000 in 1987).

Chaplin's salary quickly rose during the Teens from $150 per week in 1913 for Keystone, $1250 per week at Essanay, and $10,000 per week with plus a $150,000 bonus at Mutual to $150,000 per film in 1918 at First National.

A little known dimension of his persona! He had a great fascination for very young and beautiful teenagers, and, and for young wives!

It started with his first crush  when  one night in 1908, Chaplin  was in London in the wings of a theatre watching the other acts on stage when his eyes met the eyes of one of the dancers on stage. After she came off stage, she asked Chaplin to hold a mirror for her.

Her name was Hetty Kelly. Her sister was married to a multi-millionaire. Chaplin was nineteen and Hetty was fifteen, but it was Chaplin who was in love at first sight, not Hetty. She was not ready for a long-term relationship with Chaplin, and as quickly as they met, they parted. But Hetty would become the girl he would never forget. He even re-created her in some of his classic films in later years.  Unknown to Chaplin, within a month after he left UK to settle in the US, in November 1912,  his first true love, Hetty Kelly, died. Chaplin didn't come to know this fact  until he visited England in 1921.

This fascination for beautiful teenagers lasted for next 36 years. He had a great fondness for young wives. Chaplin was married 4 times.  He was 29 and his first wife Mildred Harris was 16 when they married. His second marriage was to 16-year-old Lita Grey, when he was 35. His third and possibly fictional marriage to Paulette Goddard, was rumored to have occurred when he was 47 and she was 28.

In 1918, at the age of 29, he marries for the first (but not the last) time, to Mildred Harris, aged 16. His fascination for  marrying teen-aged  ‘women’ became almost a die-hard addiction. 

Chaplin began in his personal life a recurring, destructive pattern -- he chased & married a young woman, lost interest in her being consumed by his creative energies, went  through a messy breakup or divorce, typically impacting his professional life, and then repeated the pattern. Sadly, he and Mildred Harris were divorced in 1920 one of the most bitter Hollywood divorces seen up to this point.

In 1924, while he was Shooting his film ‘The Gold Rush’, Chaplin's leading lady, Lita Grey, had to be replaced because he had married her, and she had become pregnant. Lita was only 16 at the time. She suspected she had become pregnant by Chaplin, who was then 35. Chaplin, who could have been imprisoned for having sexual relations with a minor, married her in secret in Mexico to avoid a scandal.

Chaplin & Lita's marriage broke apart -- bitterly, and publicly. The divorce ended in 1927 with a record-breaking divorce settlement of $825,000. The stress was enough to permanently turn Chaplin's hair prematurely white. Lita, at the ripe age of  60-70, worked as a clerk in a departmental store in the Beverly Hills – where most Hollywood stars live.
Chaplin and Paulette Goddard - a stunning and mesmerizing natural beauty - were married  1936 in secret, while on vacation near  ChinaJapan on a cruise.  The marriage lasted for six years. 

In the 1940s, Chaplin had a brief relationship with actress Joan Barry. 
Several months after their breakup, she claimed that Chaplin was the father of the child to which she had just given birth. By all accounts, Joan Barry was a troubled young woman,  so much so, she broke into Chaplin's home armed with a gun.  In the more immediate term, Chaplin denied the charge and a blood test proved his innocence. However, the blood test was inadmissible in the California court in those days, and a jury of his peers ordered Chaplin to pay child support to pay Barry $75 per week for child support, a respectable amount 70 years ago. 

He married his last wife, Oona Eugene O’Neill , 18 years old . Chaplin was 54.

In summary,
He was 29 years old when he wed Mildred Harris; she was 17.
He was 35 years old when he wed Lita Grey; Lita was 16.
He was 47 years old when he wed Paulette Goddard; Paulette was 26.
He was 54 years old when he wed Oona O'Neill ; Oona was 17. 

Net result : He was 73 years old when the couple’s youngest son, Christopher, was born.

So, after a little detour and acquainting ourselves with the Tramp,  we are back at Nobel laureate playwright’s Eugene ON’eill’s household.

Oona, Lady Chaplin (née O'Neill) (1925 –1991) was the daughter of Nobel and Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Eugene O'Neill and writer Agnes Boulton,
Oona was born while her parents were living in Bermuda, during a period of heavy drinking by Eugene O'Neill.  

She was two years old when O’Neill left the family to marry actress Carlotta Monterey as  his third wife ( Remember the dog’s will? He wrote it for comforting Carlotta ). 

As she grew older, she planned to become an actress & why not? Her father was a great playwright, and her grandfather, James O'Neil, was a noted theater actor. 

She attended boarding school in New York City, and became a socialite with many boyfriends, with her name appearing regularly in the society pages.
Her father, who was now a Nobel Laureate, disapproved all this, believing that she was attempting to cash in on his fame. He wrote her, "...All the publicity you have had is the wrong kind, unless your ambition is to be a second-rate movie actress of the floozie variety...". (floozy= sexually promiscuous.)

Although Oona always wanted a close relationship with her father, she was disappointed. Her last face to face contact with her father was at his home on the west coast in 1941, when she was 16 and still in high school. She never saw him again, despite her attempts; in fact, Eugene O'Neil disinherited Oona, her brother Shane, and all their children.

In 1942, Oona O'Neil  , now  17, traveled to Hollywood to pursue an acting career. It was there that she first met Chaplin. Oona auditioned for one of his films, but did not get the part. And this future wife Oona wrote to a girlhood friend in 1942.  "Just met Chaplin. What blue eyes he has!" 

In the beginning, 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. 

However, in 1943 she got something entirely different from the audition; she became married to Chaplin.

Eugene O'Neill was outraged at the news of his daughter's affair with Chaplin and refused to give his consent so that she could marry him before her eighteenth birthday falling in May, 1943. 

After their marriage in June 1943, he cut Oona out of his life, refusing her attempts at a reconciliation, but  such was Chaplin's marital track record to date that no one can hardly blame O’Neill’s outrage.

Even with the age difference, the couple had a special bond that would last a lifetime. Even Chaplin'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. 

Oona dropped all plans of becoming an actress upon her marriage to Chaplin. Unlike his previous marriages, Chaplin's marriage to Oona was a match made in heaven, even though he was 54years old, and Oona was only 18. Despite this, they were inseparable and devoted to each other.

She was intelligent, cultured, sophisticated, well educated and immediately abandoned her show business aspirations when their affair began. 

Commenting on his attraction to teenagers, Chaplin later confided to a friend: “I have always been in love with young girls, not in an amorous way—just as beautiful objects to look at. I like them young because they personify youth and beauty. There is something virginal in their slimness—in their slender arms and legs. And they are so feminine at that age—so wholly, girlishly young. They haven’t …discovered the power of their looks over men.” 

As his oldest son Chaplin Jr. observed : “[my father’s] troubles sprang from incurable romanticism…[he was] utterly blind to the fact that he was dealing with flesh and blood…”

But not so with her. Oona in many  ways became his partner. Chaplin would often ask her ideas, and often use them. Oona was the only wife Chaplin actually liked and respected. 

In September, 1952, Chaplin, 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, on the suspicion of his leftist views.  Remember, Chaplin had lived in the US for long 40 years, but had maintained his British citizenship.

When questioned about his membership of the Communist Party, Mr. Chaplin answered, "I do not want to create any revolution, and all I want to do is create a few more films. "I might amuse people. I hope so." 

After this strict US govt. action, when Chaplin arrived in the UK, he quickly realised it would be impossible for him to return to the United States. He turned against his erstwhile home, saying, " I have no further use for America. I wouldn't go back there if Jesus Christ was President."

Ready to fight the US government decision, , 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 Switzerland in January 1953 due to unfavourable British tax laws.
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. 

There would have been an attempt by the US government to seize Chaplin's enormous assets.  Oona returned to the United States by herself to close their California house and to surreptitiously collect all Chaplin's liquid assets from safe deposit boxes, - everything she could - even as the FBI was questioning the members of their staff , leaving the government without a penny. 

She later admitted to sewing $1,000-currency notes into the lining of her mink coat, thereby saving the Chaplin fortune. Oona renounced her American citizenship shortly after returning to Europe. She and Chaplin settled permanently with their family in Vevey, Switzerland, where they spent the majority of their thirty-five year marriage.

It was by all accounts a happy marriage despite the age difference. Oona & Chaplin, in a very real sense, they lived happily ever after. The couple truly loved each other, was devoted to each other, and grew closer as time went on.
Chaplin and Oona maintained a close relationship for 35 years and had eight children together.

In 1946, the first of Oona and Chaplin's children, Michael, is born. The marriage produced eight children; their last child, Christopher, was born when Chaplin was 73 years old. Oona survived Chaplin by 14 more years. .

Chaplin and Oona had eight children together including the last one , who was born as late as 1962, when Oona was 37 years old and Chaplin was just 73 !
Chaplin may 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.

In 1968, Chaplin was now 79 years old. It is not surprising that more and more of his friends and coworkers died. 

In 1972, Chaplin did something he never thought he would do -- he returned to the United States of America. He was returning to accept a lifetime achievement Academy Award. The foolishness of 20 years previous had been forgotten, and Chaplin was greeted by America with open arms. Correcting another old injustice, Chaplin's name was added again to the 'Walk of Fame' in Los Angeles. Chaplin was also awarded the Golden Lion at that year's Venice Film Festival.

In March 1975, three years after briefly returning to the United States to receive a special Academy Award, he was awarded the Knight Bachelor of the Order of the British Empire in the 1975 Queen's Honours List for his services to entertainment industry.

He came twice on US postage stamp, despite FBI actions: first, on one of ten US commemorative postage stamps celebrating stars of the silent screen, issued 27 April 1994. And again, on one of fifteen US commemorative postage stamps in the "Celebrate the Century" series, issued 3 February 1998, celebrating the 1910s.

This endearing  Santa Claus who cheered many a hearts through naughty, silent pranks died in on the Christmas day in 1977 at the age of eighty-eight. He left behind grieving family and friends, and millions of fans worldwide.

Following Chaplin's death, Oona moved to New York where she attempted to build a life on her own. She retreated to the manor in Switzerland where she became a recluse, and struggled with alcoholism. Like her father and brother, she fought her own unsuccessful battle with alcohol. 

She ultimately died of pancreatic cancer on September 27, 1991, in  Switzerland.

Chaplin used to say: I don't believe I deserve dinner unless I've done a day's work.

Going by the life he & Oona lived, even the disgruntled father in law, Eugene O’Neill would be compelled to admit that the couple earned their on each & each of long, blissful wedded life!