Top photo: Charlie
cavorting like Pan with a quartette of nymphettes in his film Sunnyside
. Lower photo, a snapshot of Hannah Chaplin (circa1925).
Chaplin is remembered—due in part to that FBI-orchestrated, politically motivated smear campaign in the 1940s and Vladimir Nabokov’s 1955 novel Lolita
--as a lecher with a penchant for adolescent girls. Three of his four wives were teenagers: Mildred Harris, Lita Grey and Oona O’Neill (the playwright’s daughter). But many, many more non-adolescent women were important to him over the years (Edna Purviance, Clare Sheridan, Sari Maritsa, Peggy Hopkins Joyce, Pola Negri, Louise Brooks, Marion Davies, Georgia Hale and Paulette Goddard, to name but a few).
By his own admission (or gross exaggeration), Chaplin claimed intimacy with 2,000 women in his life. Tactfully alluding to his own promiscuity in My Autobiography,
he wrote “to gauge the morals of our family by ordinary standards would be like plunging a thermometer into boiling water.” (That casual remark was also a reference to his mother and brother’s promiscuous behavior).
Without putting Chaplin on the couch, it is impossible to know precisely why he had such a weakness for nubile women. Attempting to explain his attraction to young girls, his friend Sam Goldwyn and his son Charlie Jr. each wrote of Chaplin’s “horror” of old age. Much more significantly--and poignantly—Chaplin himself recalled his shock and dismay at the painful loss of all emotional contact with his prematurely aged and no longer vivacious or attractive 38-year-old mother as she descended into madness. That traumatic adolescent experience of permanent estrangement from Lillie Harley
was followed 25 years later by Hannah Chaplin’s actual physical death in 1928. For an in-depth discussion of this Hannah Chaplin/Lillie Harley memory split and the Loss-Restitution Hypothesis of Creativity (see Chaplin A Life,
Briefly stated: as a loss-sensitive artist with a tendency to live in the past, Charlie Chaplin drew his creative strength from his powerful need to recapture a poignant attachment to his formerly beautiful and vivacious young mother. Those idealized images of Lillie (not Hannah) served as templates for all of the screen heroines that his boyishly infatuated tramp character quixotically rescued from predicament after predicament in his greatest comedies (including The Kid
, The Gold Rush , City Lights
and Modern Times
From an artistic point of view, Charlie’s need to re-live and re-write the past paid off. However his arrested emotional development was more problematic in his private life. On numerous occasions, as an apparently mature man in his thirties, Chaplin frequently described himself as still feeling (and behaving ) like a lost boy of fourteen: a self-observation independently confirmed by many of his friends and confidantes (including Thomas Burke). When the mood struck him, Chaplin occasionally autographed studio stills of himself from that little waif, Charlie Chaplin.
Lita Grey--his second teenage wife--recalled Charlie’s begging her never to grow old during the torrid-romantic, “Napoleon-Josephine” courtship phase of their relationship that preceded their shotgun wedding. Fifteen-year-old Lita was in the dark about what this meant. Why Napoleon? Why Josephine? And what was this handsome 35-year-old man’s morbid dread of aging about?