David Shipman
Sunday 23 October 2011 07:18

The "genius" of Charlie Chaplin is as elusive today as it was assured throughout his long career. Even those most confident of his stature have difficulty with his love life. His very fame was a factor in his undoing. He was 29 when in 1918 he married the 16-year-old Mildred Harris - who neglected to tell him that Louis B. Mayer had already signed her to contract with billing as Mrs Charles Chaplin. Lita Grey was his second wife and the marriage ended equally messily. It also established him in the public eye as a man who preferred young girls.

A long liaison later with Paulette Goddard helped to rehabilitate him, but a paternity suit after their separation resurrected the long-dead headlines from his two divorces. He won, but his wedding soon after to the 18-year-old Oona O'Neill didn't help his image, especially as her father (the playwright Eugene) publicly and very loudly disapproved. The marriage endured and produced a brood of children, though her life ended in an alcoholic haze.

Chaplin does not mention Lita Grey in his My Autobiography (1964), perhaps because the memories were too painful. Lillita McMurray was seven when in 1915 a chance visit took Chaplin to Kitty's Come-On Inn where her mother, Nana, was a waitress (she was of Mexican descent; the father was Irish- American). After his divorce from Harris he continued to see Lillita and gave her walk-ons in two of his films, as an angel in The Kid (1921) and as a maid in The Idle Class (also 1921). His leading lady in both was Edna Purviance, and when he failed to make her a star in her own right in A Woman of Paris (1923) it was Mrs McMurray's daughter who took over her dressing-room - her Christian name shortened from Lillita to Lita and the "Grey" derived from a cat which Chaplin had given her.

She was to co-star with him in The Gold Rush (1924), but collapsed on the set when two months pregnant. As Georgia Hale replaced her in the role, there stepped forth a lawyer uncle, Edwin McMurray, to point out that Lita's age could bring charges of statutory rape. Their marriage took place on 24 November 1924 - and not secretly, as Chaplin had hoped. Among the many reporters covering the story was one who claimed to have heard him say, "Well, boys, this is better than the penitentiary but it won't last."

Nor did it, despite producing two sons (Charles Junior, who died of alcoholism, and Sydney, who became an actor). After Chaplin had complained about the endless parties he found going on in his house when he returned from work, Lita moved out. When she filed for divorce, in January 1928, Uncle Edwin had Chaplin's assets seized, demanding $1m (over pounds 206,000 by the exchange rates of the day) in settlement; the lengthy statement issued - or at least, which found its way to the tabloids - asserted, inter alia, that Chaplin read banned books to his bride and claimed "all people do it" when she objected to the "abnormal, against nature, perverted, degenerate and indecent act" (fellatio).

Chaplin's own statement admitted that he had behaved "like many other foolish men" but that he had married partly because he believed himself incapable of fatherhood; and he concluded, if rather limply, that "her mother deliberately and continuously put Lita in my path".

The controversy split America. As Chaplin gained support, Grey threatened to name five actresses who had enjoyed "intimacy" with him during the marriage. Five careers - and conceivably five studios - were threatened with ruin. Negotiations resulted in a cash settlement of $625,000 for Lita, whose accusations were reduced to a single one of cruelty. A grateful industry honoured Chaplin's "versatility and genius" with a special Academy Award for making The Circus in the first-ever Oscar ceremony, in 1929.

Grey married three more times, and although a report in 1970 called her "independently wealthy" it said that she was working as a clerk in a department store because she wanted to. She spent her last contented, peaceful years in the Motion Picture County Home, dismissing the scandals of 70 years ago as due to Chaplin's "insecurities" and "his notoriously deprived background".

David Shipman

Lillita McMurray (Lita Grey), actress: born Los Angeles 15 April 1908; four times married; died Woodland Hills, California 29 December 1995.

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