Legendary silent film comedian Sir Charles Spencer Chaplin was born in London, England on April 16th, 1889 into a relatively well-to-do theatrical family. His father, Charles, and his mother Hannah were both headliners in their day in the English music halls. Charlie’s childhood became Dickensian in its poverty and tragedy however, for his father separated from his mother when he was a young boy and remarried another woman, rarely providing financial support to his first family, Hannah, Charlie and his older half brother Sydney Chaplin.
Hannah had another son by comic Leo Dryden named Wheeler, but that relationship ended as well. She tried to resurrect her stage career, but her voice began to suffer from weakness and lack of projection, and ultimately she had to leave theater work behind, however not before Charlie had had a chance to perform in his mother’s place on stage, singing a popular tune to thunderous applause. Hannah became a seamstress to try and make a living to support Charles and Sydney for whom she had custody. For awhile she was successful; her clients were her old friends from her music hall days; Charlie and Sydney went to school and life was relatively normal.
Young Charles had little contact with his father growing up, and Charles Sr. eventually died from alcoholism. After his death what little extra support Hannah had been receiving from him disappeared. Her sewing jobs began to diminish, and her mind began to fail from malnutrition; any food she bought she gave to her two boys instead. Charles and Sydney spent the rest of their childhoods in and out of charity homes and workhouses, wandering the streets, or doing occasional acting jobs to make some extra income. Young Syd left to join the navy as soon as he was able, and for a time Charlie was alone, living with his insane mother in a slum area of London, waiting desperately for his older brother to send them money. Charlie avoided school in the hopes of not being discovered, so that he would not be separated from his mother. But Hannah was eventually discovered by neighbors to be completely insane and she was committed to an asylum in 1903. She remained there until 1921, when Charlie moved her to California to a more professional nursing home. Hannah died in 1928.
Charlie’s professional success in films was tempered by much unhappiness and controversy in his personal life. His first two marriages, to actress Mildred Harris, who had a son with Charlie who lived only a few days, and to actress Lita Grey ended in bitter divorce. Charlie had two sons with Lita named Charles Jr. and Sydney, but he had restricted access to them for years after the divorce. A third marriage to actress Paulette Goddard was a happier experience, though it too ended in divorce when the two grew apart professionally and personally. His fourth marriage to Oona O’Neill, daughter of the playwright Eugene O’Neill, in 1943 was his happiest and most stable marriage, lasting until Charlie’s death in 1977. The fact that Oona decided to give up her own acting ambitions to be a wife and mother no doubt contributed to the success of the marriage; for once Charlie had a mate who was not in competition with him. Charles had eight children with Oona, including Geraldine Chaplin, who went on to become an actress and to appear as Tonya in David Lean’s classic “Dr. Zhivago” in 1965. In the early years of Charlie’s relationship and marriage to Oona he had to undergo the stress of a paternity suit charged to him by an imbalanced actress named Joan Barry who had been obsessed with him. A blood test proved that Charles could not possibly be the father of Barry’s illegitimate baby; nevertheless Charlie had to submit to two trials on the matter, the second one finding him guilty. At the time blood tests were not admissible in court as evidence. He was ordered to pay child support for a baby that was not his biological child. This incident, combined with the investigation into his life and political views by J. Edgar Hoover of the FBI and the House Committee on Un-American Activities, finally helped Charles and Oona decide they were better off raising their children in Europe. Although the U.S. government never had anything concrete they could pin on him – in fact they seemed to forget the millions of dollars he had raised for them in war bonds during World War One and the millions United Artists had paid in taxes to the U.S. government – Charles and Oona left Hollywood and their old friends and family behind and moved to Switzerland, where they lived out the remainder of their lives in relative peace and quiet, raising their children, traveling, entertaining, and involved in occasional film projects. Charles published his autobiography, “My Autobiography” in 1964, an interesting, if incomplete read, filled with accounts of his poignant childhood and his personal encounters with the humble and famous. He published a second autobiographical volume, “My Life in Pictures”, in 1974.
Sir Charles Spencer “Charlie” Chaplin, KBE was an English comic actor, film director and composer best known for his work in the United States during the silent film era. Wikipedia
Born: April 16, 1889, Walworth, London
Died: December 25, 1977, Vevey
Children: Geraldine Chaplin, Sydney Earle Chaplin, Victoria Chaplin, More
Spouse: Oona O’Neill (m. 1943–1977), Paulette Goddard (m. 1936–1942), More
Charlie Chaplin, his wife Oona Chaplin, and their first two children,
Geraldine and Michael, in March 1946