A drunken widow in a gilded cage

Hidden Star: Oona O'Neill Chaplin A memoir by Patrice Chaplin Richard Cohen Books, pounds 17.99

In the dedication to Long Day's Journey into Night, Eugene O'Neill describes how his wife Carlotta's love enabled him to "write this play - write it with deep pity and understanding and forgiveness for all the four haunted Tyrones''. The playwright showed less compassion for his descendants: on his deathbed, he "cursed his children and their offspring and the offspring to come.'' It's this curse, in the view of Patrice Chaplin, that her former mother-in-law, Oona O'Neill Chaplin, bore for the rest of her life.

For O'Neill, genius seems to have been less an infinite capacity for taking pains than for evading responsibilities. Oona saw her father only half a dozen times after he abandoned his family when she was three. This did not prevent his sending her censorious letters concerning her frivolity (in 1942 she was Deb of the Year) or protesting bitterly when, in the company of her friends, Carol Marcus (later Saroyan, later still Matthau) and Gloria Vanderbilt, she journeyed to Hollywood. There, she married a man three times her age and even more famous than her father: Charlie Chaplin.

At first, neither Chaplin's staff nor his associates took her seriously and she was not even given control of her own home. She gradually asserted her place until, by the time of her husband's death, she was both a respected matriarch and in control of a large financial empire. Her loyalty to Charlie was unswerving and they remained lovers until he was well into his eighties. But her devotion to her husband led to the alienation of some of her eight children, particularly her favourite, Michael, who married the author of this account.

Patrice was a natural choice to write her mother-in-law's life. They maintained close, if sometimes strained, relations long after she and Michael divorced. Oona admired Patrice's novels and even toyed with the idea of authorising the book herself. After Oona's death, Patrice put the idea to various of the children (despite their age, their behaviour makes the noun particularly apt), but their opposition led her to abandon the idea of a full-scale Life in favour of a personal memoir, focusing on Oona's 14 years of widowhood.

Oona was not a merry widow but a drunken one. After 30 years as the archetypal bird in a gilded cage, she flew off - into a vat of whiskey. This was partly delayed adolescence and partly revenge for a life spent as the perfect wife and mother. On a deeper level, it was a manifestation of the pattern of addiction that had affected her father, her mother, her uncle, her grandparents and her brothers. She also repeated the pattern of her courtship by embarking on spring-autumn romances with Ryan O'Neal and, reputedly, David Bowie. Oona's children were horrified by her behaviour - and their horror apparently returned on seeing it in print.

Patrice, a reformed alcoholic herself, shows more sympathy; but then her attitude to Oona is a mixture of the reverential and the competitive. She seems constantly to compare herself to her erstwhile mother-in-law and to bask in reflected Chaplin glory, referring to them more than once as the Royal Family of show-business - although they often seem more like the ruling family of an Italian Renaissance city state, such as the Borgias.

This is a far from complete life. The lack of detail about Oona's meeting with Charlie, for instance, makes it seem more of a fairy-tale romance than it must have been; nothing is said of Oona's politics and little of her close friendship with Truman Capote. Yet it is the very subjectivity and selectivity of Patrice's account that give it its power.

She writes from a position of informed ignorance, dotting the book with rhetorical questions about motives and relationships. By retracing her steps as a licensed intruder in a very exclusive family, she leads her readers far closer to the enigma of an extraordinary personality than any amount of conventional research.

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Kathy (Sally Lindsay) in Ordinary Lies
tvReview: The seemingly dull Kathy proves her life is anything but a snoozefest
Arts and Entertainment

Listen to his collaboration with Naughty Boy

music
Arts and Entertainment
Daniel Craig in a scene from ‘Spectre’, released in the UK on 23 October

film
Arts and Entertainment
Cassetteboy's latest video is called Emperor's New Clothes rap

film
Arts and Entertainment

Poldark review
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Katie Brayben is nominated for Best Actress in a Musical for her role as Carole King in Beautiful

film
Arts and Entertainment
Israeli-born actress Gal Gadot has been cast to play Wonder Woman
film
News
Top Gear presenter James May appears to be struggling with his new-found free time
people
Arts and Entertainment
Kendrick Lamar at the Made in America Festival in Los Angeles last summer
music
Arts and Entertainment
'Marley & Me' with Jennifer Aniston and Owen Wilson
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jon Hamm (right) and John Slattery in the final series of Mad Men
tv
Arts and Entertainment
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Place Blanche, Paris, 1961, shot by Christer Strömholm
photographyHow the famous camera transformed photography for ever
Arts and Entertainment
The ‘Westmacott Athlete’
art
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
News
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
people
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

music
Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    War with Isis: Iraq declares victory in the battle for Tikrit - but militants make make ominous advances in neighbouring Syria's capital

    War with Isis

    Iraq declares victory in the battle for Tikrit - but militants make make ominous advances in neighbouring Syria
    Scientists develop mechanical spring-loaded leg brace to improve walking

    A spring in your step?

    Scientists develop mechanical leg brace to help take a load off
    Peter Ackroyd on Alfred Hitchcock: How London shaped the director's art and obsessions

    Peter Ackroyd on Alfred Hitchcock

    Ackroyd has devoted his literary career to chronicling the capital and its characters. He tells John Walsh why he chose the master of suspense as his latest subject
    Ryan Reynolds interview: The actor is branching out with Nazi art-theft drama Woman in Gold

    Ryan Reynolds branches out in Woman in Gold

    For every box-office smash in Ryan Reynolds' Hollywood career, there's always been a misconceived let-down. It's time for a rethink and a reboot, the actor tells James Mottram
    Why Robin Williams safeguarded himself against a morbid trend in advertising

    Stars safeguard against morbid advertising

    As film-makers and advertisers make increasing posthumous use of celebrities' images, some stars are finding new ways of ensuring that they rest in peace
    The UK horticulture industry is facing a skills crisis - but Great Dixter aims to change all that

    UK horticulture industry facing skills crisis

    Great Dixter manor house in East Sussex is encouraging people to work in the industry by offering three scholarships a year to students, as well as generous placements
    10 best compact cameras

    A look through the lens: 10 best compact cameras

    If your smartphone won’t quite cut it, it’s time to invest in a new portable gadget
    General Election 2015: The masterminds behind the scenes

    The masterminds behind the election

    How do you get your party leader to embrace a message and then stick to it? By employing these people
    Machine Gun America: The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons

    Machine Gun America

    The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons
    The ethics of pet food: Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?

    The ethics of pet food

    Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?
    How Tansy Davies turned 9/11 into her opera 'Between Worlds'

    How a composer turned 9/11 into her opera 'Between Worlds'

    Tansy Davies makes her operatic debut with a work about the attack on the Twin Towers. Despite the topic, she says it is a life-affirming piece
    11 best bedside tables

    11 best bedside tables

    It could be the first thing you see in the morning, so make it work for you. We find night stands, tables and cabinets to wake up to
    Italy vs England player ratings: Did Andros Townsend's goal see him beat Harry Kane and Wayne Rooney to top marks?

    Italy vs England player ratings

    Did Townsend's goal see him beat Kane and Rooney to top marks?
    Danny Higginbotham: An underdog's tale of making the most of it

    An underdog's tale of making the most of it

    Danny Higginbotham on being let go by Manchester United, annoying Gordon Strachan, utilising his talents to the full at Stoke and plunging into the world of analysis
    Audley Harrison's abusers forget the debt he's due, but Errol Christie will always remember what he owes the police

    Steve Bunce: Inside Boxing

    Audley Harrison's abusers forget the debt he's due, but Errol Christie will always remember what he owes the police