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Chaplin, Oona O'Neill (1925–1991)

Chaplin, Oona O'Neill (1925–1991)

Well-known daughter of Eugene O'Neill and wife of Charlie Chaplin. Born Oona O'Neill on May 14, 1925; died in 1991; only daughter and youngest of two children of Agnes Boulton (1893–1968, a writer) and Eugene O'Neill (a playwright); attended Brearley School, New York; married Charlie Chaplin (the film actor), on June 16, 1943; children: eight, including Geraldine Chaplin.

The product of the intense, tempestuous union of playwright Eugene O'Neill and his second wife, writer Agnes Boulton , Oona O'Neill Chaplin was raised primarily by her mother after her father deserted the family when she was just two. The divorce that followed left Eugene angry and bitter toward Boulton and had a scarring effect on his relationship with Oona and her older brother Shane. Despite her splintered family, Oona grew into a bright and self-assured young woman, as well as a great beauty. While still a senior at Brearley, a swank private school in New York, she was voted "New York's Number One Debutante" and counted the then unknown writer J.D. Salinger among a string of admirers.

At the age of 17, Oona left New York for Hollywood, hoping to break into acting. There she met and fell deeply in love with the legendary English-born screen actor Charles Chaplin, who offered to coach her for a screen career. "What blue eyes he has!" she wrote to her girlhood friend Carol Matthau , wife of actor Walter Matthau. Charlie, at age 53, was something less than the ideal suitor. The veteran of three failed marriages with women half his age, he had two teenage sons—one Oona's age and one a year younger—and was embroiled in a paternity suit brought against him by a young actress named Joan Berry , who claimed he was the father of her unborn child. (A blood test later cleared Chaplin of the charge.) His career was also on the skids, the result of unfavorable headlines criticizing him for his womanizing and for his support of Russia in its plight with the Nazis. Although many believed that Oona merely saw Chaplin as the father she had never had, she denied it at the time, claiming that Charlie made her more mature while she kept him young. The two eloped in 1943, much to the consternation of Oona's father Eugene, who was so infuriated by the marriage that he disowned his daughter.

Against all odds, the couple proved to be a perfect match. "It was a great, great love affair," said Carol Matthau, "not only because of the intensity but because of the lasting intensity." Oona helped revive Charles' interest in work and also produced eight children, the oldest, Geraldine, born when Charles was 55, and the youngest, Christopher, when he was 73. Charles, however, always remained Oona's top priority, and the children, who were raised by a legion of nurses, were frequently denied access to their parents. "Sometimes I felt like I was intruding on their intimacy," said daughter Jane, "but now I understand a love like that. It's once in a lifetime."

In 1953, after Chaplin was blacklisted in Hollywood for his leftist leanings, the family moved to Switzerland, settling on a 37-acre estate overlooking Lake Geneva. It became their world apart until Chaplin's death on Christmas Day, 1977. Oona, who never recovered from the loss of her husband, lapsed into alcoholism and remained something of a tragic figure until her death of cancer in 1991.

sources:

Gelb, Arthur and Barbara. O'Neill. NY: Harper and Row, 1962.

"Charlie Chaplin and Oona O'Neill," in People. February 12, 1996, p. 173.

suggested reading:

Scovell, Jane. Oona: Living in the Shadows. Warner Books, 1998.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts

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