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
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister

TV reviewIt has taken seven episodes for Game of Thrones season five to hit its stride

Arts and Entertainment
Jesuthasan Antonythasan as Dheepan

FilmPalme d'Or goes to radical and astonishing film that turns conventional thinking about immigrants on its head

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

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Måns Zelmerlöw performing

Arts and Entertainment
Graham Norton was back in the commentating seat for Eurovision 2015

Arts and Entertainment
Richard Hammond, Jeremy Clarkson and James May on stage

Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
Arts and Entertainment
Jessica Hynes in W1A
tvReview: Perhaps the creators of W1A should lay off the copy and paste function spoiler alert
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

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

    Blundering Tony Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

    Blundering Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

    For Arabs – and for Britons who lost their loved ones in his shambolic war in Iraq – his appointment was an insult, says Robert Fisk
    Fifa corruption arrests: All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue

    Fifa corruption arrests

    All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue, says Ian Herbert
    Isis in Syria: The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of President Assad and militant fighters

    The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of Assad and Isis

    In Syrian Kurdish cantons along the Turkish border, the progressive aims of the 2011 uprising are being enacted despite the war. Patrick Cockburn returns to Amuda
    How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields: Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape the US

    How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields

    Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape to the US
    Stephen Mangan interview: From posh buffoon to pregnant dad, the actor has quite a range

    How Stephen Mangan got his range

    Posh buffoon, hapless writer, pregnant dad - Mangan is certainly a versatile actor
    The ZX Spectrum has been crowd-funded back into play - with some 21st-century tweaks

    The ZX Spectrum is back

    The ZX Spectrum was the original - and for some players, still the best. David Crookes meets the fans who've kept the games' flames lit
    Grace of Monaco film panned: even the screenwriter pours scorn on biopic starring Nicole Kidman

    Even the screenwriter pours scorn on Grace of Monaco biopic

    The critics had a field day after last year's premiere, but the savaging goes on
    Menstrual Hygiene Day: The strange ideas people used to believe about periods

    Menstrual Hygiene Day: The strange ideas people once had about periods

    If one was missed, vomiting blood was seen as a viable alternative
    The best work perks: From free travel cards to making dreams come true (really)

    The quirks of work perks

    From free travel cards to making dreams come true (really)
    Is bridge the latest twee pastime to get hip?

    Is bridge becoming hip?

    The number of young players has trebled in the past year. Gillian Orr discovers if this old game has new tricks
    Long author-lists on research papers are threatening the academic work system

    The rise of 'hyperauthorship'

    Now that academic papers are written by thousands (yes, thousands) of contributors, it's getting hard to tell workers from shirkers
    The rise of Lego Clubs: How toys are helping children struggling with social interaction to build better relationships

    The rise of Lego Clubs

    How toys are helping children struggling with social interaction to build better relationships
    5 best running glasses

    On your marks: 5 best running glasses

    Whether you’re pounding pavements, parks or hill passes, keep your eyes protected in all weathers
    Joe Root: 'Ben Stokes gives everything – he’s rubbing off on us all'

    'Ben Stokes gives everything – he’s rubbing off on us all'

    Joe Root says the England dressing room is a happy place again – and Stokes is the catalyst
    Raif Badawi: Wife pleads for fresh EU help as Saudi blogger's health worsens

    Please save my husband

    As the health of blogger Raif Badawi worsens in prison, his wife urges EU governments to put pressure on the Saudi Arabian royal family to allow her husband to join his family in Canada