When trying to understand a man like Charlie Chaplin, we'd be remiss if we didn't take the time to get to know the women in his life. And of all the many (many, many) women Chaplin was romantically involved with over the years, surely Oona O'Neill Chaplin stands out as one of the most important and fascinating of them all.
Oona O'Neill was no stranger to the complexities of life. As the daughter of famed playwright Eugene O'Neill and writer Agnes Boulton, her background was one of outward privilege and private tumult. Her parents' marriage was plagued by infidelity and alcoholism, and they divorced when she was four years old. Eugene O'Neill married his mistress less than a month later; Oona seldom heard from him after that.
As a teenager, O'Neill attended the prestigious Brearley School in New York City. She was a regular fixture at local nightclubs like the Stork Club and the El Morocco, where she hung out with a popular crowd that included such notables as Gloria Vanderbilt, J.D. Salinger, Carol Grace, and Truman Capote (Holly Golightly is sometimes rumored to be partly based on Oona.) She began acting in summer stock productions as well, and when the time came to go to college, she decided to make the trip to Hollywood instead.
The 53-year-old Chaplin met O'Neill while casting for Shadow and Substance,
a successful Broadway play he hoped to turn into a film. At 17, he initially
felt she was a bit too young for the part. But she was not too young, it
seems, to capture his interest. As he recalled later: "...I was confident that she was not subject to the caprices of [her] age. Oona was the exception to the rule - though at first I was afraid of the discrepancy in our ages."
O'Neill and Chaplin married soon after her 18th birthday in 1943, and her father disowned her immediately after. Chaplin had been married three times before -- always to actresses -- and the subsequent divorces had often led to public scandal. In Oona, however, he had finally found his match. "Soon after we married Oona had confessed she had no desire to become an actress either on the screen or the stage," he wrote in his autobiography. "This news pleased me, for at last I had a wife and not a career girl."
Chaplin remained married to Oona for the rest of his life. She stayed by his side through a messy public paternity trial in 1943, his persecution by the House Un-American Activities Committee in the late 1940s, and the government's refusal to allow him re-entry to the United States in 1952. After Chaplin was banned from re-entering the U.S., Oona moved with him to Vevey, Switzerland, renouncing her own U.S. citizenship in favor of his British one. They raised their eight children there together.
After Chaplin's death in 1977, Oona lived a life of quiet and seclusion in Switzerland and New York until her own death in 1991. They are buried together in Vevey.