The lurid story is up-to-the-minute familiar: Worldly comic film genius seduces a much younger woman. But quit thinking Woody Allen. Try Charlie Chaplin, whose shotgun marriage to 17-year-old Mildred Harris on Oct. 23, 1918, started the beloved movie clown on the road to notoriety.
Chaplin was 29 and an international star when he first met the then sweet-16 starlet. According to the comedian, ”There were dinners, dances, moonlit nights, and ocean drives, and the inevitable happened.” Harris told him she was pregnant. With a career at stake, Chaplin had to wed Harris — although the pregnancy turned out to be a false alarm.
The marriage was a disaster. Chaplin’s obsessive work schedule was a troubling mystery to the child bride, who naively hoped to turn her husband into a family man. Mildred sued for divorce after two miserable years, and headlines blared her accusations of cruelty (”He humiliated me before the servants”). At their 1920 divorce hearing, she was awarded $100,000 and a share of the community property. She would need it. Without the Chaplin name, her acting career faded out. After an appearance in Cecil B. deMille’s Fool’s Paradise (1921), Harris’ life fell into a sad cycle of bankruptcy and alcohol abuse; she died in 1944.
The punctured romance did not diminish the Little Tramp’s affinity for younger women. Wife No. 2 (1924-27) was actress Lita Grey, 16 when they wed. Wife No. 3 (1936-42) was actress Paulette Goddard, an older 25. Wife No. 4 was Oona O’Neill, 18 — and that 1943 union would last 34 years.
But the happy marriage did not prevent one more scandal. A paternity suit was filed in 1943 by a 23-year-old actress; that along with the anti-Communist frenzy of the time, took its toll on the left-leaning Chaplin. A threatened boycott of his 1947 film, Monsieur Verdoux, contributed to its failure at the box office. Chaplin bitterly abandoned the U.S. in 1952, settling in Vevey, Switzerland, until his death on Christmas Day in 1977.
To the end, he never regretted his politics — or his priapic antics. In his 1964 autobiography, Chaplin blamed ”America’s insults and moral pomposity” for his downfall and claimed that his only ”prodigious sin was…being a nonconformist.”
Time Capsule: October 23, 1918
In the last days of World War I, George Gibbs’ The Golden Bough was popular reading. George M. Cohan’s ”Over There” revved up a nation. Chaplin did his part for the war effort in the silent Shoulder Arms.