One of the biggest movie stars of the 20th century, Charlie Chaplin exploded onto movie screens as unforgettable characters that changed Hollywood forever. Off screen however, a string of marital affairs, estranged children, and allegations of abuse with actresses half his age plagued the comedic actor’s reputation. Despite a prosperous film career, personal drama followed Chaplin worldwide, eventually forcing the star to flee the United States. On his 126th birthday, we review Chaplin’s Hollywood matrimonies and their shocking twists.
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.
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.
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.
Fourth Time’s A Charm
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.