Celebrity couples: Charlie Chaplin’s wife & others say Hollywood marriages destined to fail (1920s)

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Charlie Chaplin's wife says Hollywood marriages destined to fail

Why aren’t the movie “real” life stories like the reel life stories? (1922)

Why must Cupid, who smiles so happily in the first “close-ups,” so often frown in the final “fade-outs?”

Perhaps the explanation of the many infidelities in Reel Life is summed up in the statement of Mildred Harris Chaplin. She says, you can’t make a genius husband a fireside companion. Don’t wed a genius, even if he tells you that you are his sole inspiration, because it won’t last long. It can’t.

Classic Hollywood actors - silent movies c1922

by Marguerite Mooers Marshall

Why aren’t the movie real life love stories like the REEL life love stories?

Why do the greatest stars of the screen, successful in scores and hundreds of difficult roles, so often score a failure in the role of happy husband — or wife?

Hundreds of thousands of disenchanted movie fans must be asking themselves these questions, for in the short space of two years they have read of the matrimonial misfortunes of each individual member of that all-star quartet, the so-called “Big Four” of the moving picture world — Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, Charlie Chaplin — and now William S Hart.

Rudolph Valentino, Gloria Swanson - couple starring in Beyond the Rocks 1922
Rudolph Valentino, Gloria Swanson – couple starring in Beyond the Rocks 1922

It is Hart, the rough-and-ready lover of so many “dramas of the Great West where men are MEN, and yet even the roughest craves the love of a Good Woman” — you know how the caption goes — it is the same keen-eyed, square-chinned WS Hart, whose pictured countenance has given a thrill to so many little waitresses and ribbon-counter girls, whose romance in real life — as distinguished from reel life — is the latest to crack up.

And he’s been married only a little over six months.

Charlie Chaplin quote: “This is a ruthless world and one…”

It was on the seventh of last December that dainty, youthful, pretty Winifred Westover, herself a motion picture actress and the daughter of a San Francisco newspaperman, promised to love, honor and obey the two-gun lover of the screen.

There was a charming story, at that time, about Hart’s exceeding diffidence as a wooer. A confirmed bachelor, he was said to be so devoted to the girl of his choice that he actually didn’t dare risk putting the question in person, and therefore sent a fervent but diffident proposal by mail. He got the “yes” back by wire, according to this account.

After the marriage, there were not merely the usual stories and pictures to illustrate the supreme happiness of the wedded pair, but there was an announcement that Hart intended to forsake even his art in order to devote his life to making his bride happy.

And now — the little girl-wife has gone home to mother, at No 307 Washington Avenue, Santa Monica, Cal, and “Bill” Hart is alone in his Hollywood home. He himself has stated:

“Mrs Hart and myself separated about three weeks ago, and a few days later property contracts were executed making ample provisions for her maintenance, as well as for our unborn child, which is expected in September. Whether she contemplates divorce proceedings or not I have no knowledge.”

Iron Fox movie from 1924

In any event, it seems to be clearly the “fadeout” of conjugal happiness for one of the million-dollar-a-year masters of the movies — such a different “fadeout” from the familiar one of united lovers flashed almost nightly on the screen in the moving picture houses.

Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks are three other supreme successes of the screen who have failed where many of their poorest and most obscure admirers succeed — failed in their matrimonial relations.

Mildred Harris Chaplin, who married “the funniest man in the films” when she was only seventeen, found her marriage a failure in less than two years. Apparently, the comedian didn’t make life a very amusing affair for his bride. Before she received her decree, for cruelty, in November 1920, she made more than one public statement of her unhappiness as Charlie’s wife. Perhaps the most pathetic utterance was in the course of an interview in The Evening World.

MORE: I married a Hollywood movie star – and here’s why celebrities don’t stay married (1939)

“I do not think a genius cares for parenthood,” said the young wife, whose baby had died within a few days of its birth. “Our baby lived but three days and Mr Chaplin was very unhappy over the fact that I said I was ill. He wanted me to be bright, gay, always sparkling. Because I was a woman and wanted tenderness and a little affections just at that time he was disgusted with me. Just at a time when I needed him most, he left me alone.

“You can’t make a genius husband a fireside companion. Don’t wed a genius, even if he tells you that you are his sole inspiration, because it won’t last long. It can’t.”

Charlie Chaplin 1920s

Charlie hasn’t yet tried matrimony again, although when his engagement to May Collins was reported a year ago he admitted he was “flattered.” And he told me himself, last summer, that he “certainly wanted to marry again — very much!” So far, however, his matrimonial score must be marked a failure. Another fadeout showing conjugal unhappiness for a movie star was a reputed income of a million a year!

Although the union of Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford seems successful to date, this famous screen lover and equally famous sweetheart found love and marriage a failure the first time trying. Their romance doesn’t at all follow the lines of the popular scenarios.

MARY MARY: Want to know more? See some books about Mary Pickford here!

It was only a trifle over two years ago that “America’s Sweetheart” — Gladys Mary Moore, to give her legal name — obtained a divorce at Mindon, Nevada, forty-five miles outside Reno, from Owen Moore, the young motion picture actor, whom she had married in the early days of her career, but from whom she had been separated for some time.

At that time, Mary of the curls, the sweet, childish pout and smile, publicly acknowledged her failure in the role of happy wife. Choking with sobs on the witness stand, she said that her husband had deserted her first in 1917, that he had stayed away from her months at a time despite her pleas that he return.

She obtained a decree for desertion. She was still weeping when she returned to Los Angeles. The next day she declared in an interview that she would never marry again, as she “wanted her freedom,” but before the month was out she became the bride of “Doug” Fairbanks.

He was the first of the “Big Four” to play a leading role in a real life — as distinguished from a reel life — domestic tragedy.

Douglas Fairbanks & Mary Pickford
Douglas Fairbanks & Mary Pickford

In April, 1918, a few days after his trip East with Charlie Chaplin and Mary Pickford, on a whirlwind Liberty Loan tour, his wife, Mrs Beth Sully Fairbanks, gave out a statement in New York admitting their final separation. She said it was to protect herself and her seven-year-old son, Douglas Jr. She was the daughter of Daniel J Sully, the “cotton king,” and had been married in 1907 to “Doug” of the athletic prowess and the wide, gleaming smile.

MORE: Check out “The Taming of the Shrew,” starring Douglas Fairbanks & Mary Pickford

She declared at first that there would be no divorce proceedings. Her husband, who had returned to the West, attributed the whole story to “German propaganda.” Then Mrs Fairbanks asserted that her husband had admitted his love for a famous film actress, and said she had been the cause of all the trouble.

When the divorce actually took place, in December, 1918, the correspondent was not named. Mrs Fairbanks received the custody of her son, and financial arrangements were “amicably settled.” A few days after her interlocutory decree became final she was married in the Church of the Ascension by the Rev Percy Stickney Grant, to an old friend of her family, James Evans, Jr. He is a well-known oil man of Pittsburgh and New York.

Owen Moore also took a second matrimonial plunge and wedded Kathryn Perry, to whom New York artists once awarded a golden apple as the most beautiful girl in the city.

So the Fairbanks and Pickford fadeouts of conjugal woe were succeeded by sequels registering bliss — so far as the reels have been run off.

Nevertheless, it almost seems to be a law that triumph before the camera spells catastrophe in the home. The big screen stars make their scenarios end happily. But what’s the matter with their domestic dramas?

Romance - actors - vintage celebrities


Later: Charlie Chaplin’s second marriage on the rocks (1927)

By Adela Rogers St. Johns – Photoplay, Jan 1927

All Hollywood is awaiting official news of a proposed divorce in the Chaplin family.

Charlie Chaplin genius husband - 1927

Whether or not matters will get that far it is difficult to say just now, but the present separation is being unofficially discussed by everybody, including some people who ought to know.

The strange aloneness that always marks genius exists to the nth degree in Chaplin. He stands off from his fellow men, wistfully, a little sadly. You see an amazing mixture of egotism and humility What such freedom would cost Charlie Chaplin is also a matter of infinite speculation and though surmises as to the actual figures differ they all agree that it will be plenty. Which is as it should be, for nobody doubts that Lita Chaplin has done her very best since she married Charlie and if she isn’t a superwoman that isn’t her fault.

And unless she is a superwoman, the marriage is doomed and was doomed from the beginning.

It would take a superwoman to make a success of marriage to the one recognized genius of the films, the great comedian whose art alone has won certain great critics to include the motion picture among the arts at all.

I don’t know exactly what is back of the present split between Charlie and his girl-wife, but I am convinced that whatever the particular trouble is, the real trouble lies in those tremendous difficulties that always beset the marriage of genius.

Which brings us face to face in the flesh with some of the most interesting psychological questions in the world.

Should a genius marry?

What is it like to be the wife of a genius? More specifically in this case, what has it been like to be the wife of the greatest comedian in the world?

As far as I know, Lita Gray Chaplin has never told anyone. She is very, very young and neither very analytical nor very articulate.

But it is possible just the same to get an awfully dear picture of the thing and to feel somehow a great throb of sympathy for them both, the little girl-wife and the great genius. Any marriage is a great and dangerous adventure to a girl in her teens.

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Marriage to Charlie Chaplin would, therefore, be a thousand and one adventures. For to be married to Charlie Chaplin must mean living with all the known or imagined eccentricities of genius since the world began. Nobody who knows Charlie Chaplin can doubt that.

The strange aloneness that always marks genius exists to the nth degree in Chaplin. His soul stands off from his fellow man, wistfully, a little sadly. You see it in his eyes in the midst of a crowd. You see it in the amazing mixture of egotism and humility in his conversation. He can ne\xT tmd the happy medium, that common ground upon which exists the normal.

Charles Chaplin with wife Lita Grey Chaplin 1920s

It must be an awful thing to live with a person whose soul you can never touch, either in its joys or its sorrows. It must give you an unbearable sense of strangeness and loneliness, like living in a solitary house without clock or calendar.

Somehow, I have a picture of Lita Chaplin watching her husband with those great, dark eyes, her young throat tight with tears. No marriage can be a real success without some spiritual union.

Spiritual union with a genius like Chaplin is almost impossible. The super-sensitiveness, the introspection, the nervous suspense, the colossal selfishness of all creative genius makes it a task only a superwoman, lit by the fires of a great passion, could accomplish.

Still, some marriages do manage to get by without being a huge success–that is, marriage manages to be a pleasant and convenient thing, without achieving great heights. I think everybody has hoped very deeply that the Chaplin marriage would thus survive. Two things will make that difficult in the case of the Charlie Chaplins.

One is that Charlie is the most supreme individualist I have ever come in contact with. Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford, for instance, have made a beautiful thing of their marriage by the great modern commandment of 50-50. They are comrades, equals, giving and taking, exchanging, sharing. But neither one of them is a genius.

Charlie Chaplin, like every man endowed with that glorious and spontaneous ability to give out the new and fresh and unexpected, wants QQ-oi*^,,’ all the time.

And just here, lest you misunderstand Charlie’s side of this tragedy — for any broken marriage where there are children is a tragedy — let me explain just a little of what Charlie Chaplin means to the motion picture.

To the public, he is just the great comedian, who makes them laugh and weep. To those of us working to make motion pictures, he is the way-shower, the trailblazer. He is the master. Almost every new step in motion picture technique, every advance step in motion picture art, has come from Charlie Chaplin. He is the creator of the new forms, the new ideas.

To the greatest directors and the greatest stars, his pictures are like a text-book. I know directors, for instance, whose names stand at the very head of the list, who went ten and twelve times to see “The Gold Rush.” And, when I asked them why, they explained that it was the greatest example of perfect motion picture timing ever seen, and that it opened new fields in that direction just as “The Woman of Paris” opened new dramatic and directorial fields. His mind, therefore, is like a giant sponge, taking in everything, sucking up every idea, suggestion, emotion. And nothing stops him. Nothing.

For instance, I have known Charlie to do things like this. He has a friend — a young man of decided artistic talents — who lives in a funny house on a hillside, with a lovely balcony overlooking the whole of Los Angeles, from the mountains to the sea. The young man is a good listener, he has original ideas.

Charlie will go to visit him and they will settle in the wicker chairs on the balcony and sit there — literally — for three days. A little Japanese boy who understands these matters will bring them food and drink on a tray whenever it occurs to him. They will go off to sleep in their chairs — and awake to continue the idea where they left off.

Little Mrs. Chaplin will sit at home, perhaps, watching the clock, listening to the sounds outside, just like any other wife. Charlie has forgotten her. He has forgotten himself. He can’t help it. The tremendous sincerity of the man in pursuit of his ideas makes you forgive him.

Charlie is just as reliable, in big things and little things alike, as a young hurricane. Time does not exist, so far as he is concerned. Nor do people, in the ordinary sense.

Yet when he finds a human brain that has something to give, or a human character that is new and worth studying, he grabs it like an octopus.

He may bring home a tramp, a great psychiatrist, a colored washwoman, an English duchess, and spend hour upon hour talking with them.

His moods are mad, terrific, uncontrollable. Sometimes he is gay as a diamond, he will hold everyone spellbound for hours with his wit, his mimicry, his delicate and ever-fresh clowning.

At other times he will be almost in tears with nerves and depression, unable to say a word, trembling with strange apprehensions, his face a mask of tragedy. All this a woman can understand and forgive, if she is big enough. And there is so infinitely much of the maternal in Lita Chaplin that I think she has the understanding heart.

But that isn’t enough. A woman married to a genius must be wise enough never to let him know he has been forgiven. She must be clever enough not to bore him with her sweetness, and yet not to annoy him with reproach. She must be an individual and still be only 00.99% of a marriage, She must have chann. but never intrude it and she must be a lightning change artist in moods to follow his.

And then it won’t be enough. Did Lita Grey ever have a chance — has she still a chance–to make a success of her marriage to Charlie Chaplin?

Let us consider this Lita Grey Chaplin, who has tried, like the Empress Josephine, to be the wife of a genius.

In the first place, she is still — after three years of marriage and two experiences of motherhood–at the age when most girls are being graduated from high school.

She is a slim, dark beauty. For she is a beauty. She has now the perfect and arresting loveliness of a rosebud. Her eyes are enormous and dark as a blackbird’s wing in her white face, and her dark curls cluster close about her perfect head. Her mouth is almost heart-shaped and she has slim legs, like a gazelle’s.

Charlie Chaplins sons - 1927

Everyone likes her, and feels a little sorry for her. She is gentle and sweet, she is a nice little thing, quite interesting to talk to. She dresses with exquisite taste. I think she would have made a marvelous wife for almost any man, for she instinctively desires to please and there is much about her that is pleasing. Her nature is happy and placid and kindly. Her disposition is obviously domestic and maternal.

If she does succeed in averting this threatened break, it will be because she has developed. through suffering and motherhood, to the selflessness necessary to the wife of a genius. At first, domesticity appealed to Charlie Chaplin. It was a new role. It soothed his heart, worn and frayed by intense and frequent emotional upheavals.

But as an ordinary man loves life, so a genius loves many lives.

The wife of a genius must either be great enough to supply all these herself–and the woman who can do that is rarer than a mermaid–or she must be willing to sit at home and keep the fire burning and the children fed, until her husband returns.

Return he will. I believe that Charlie Chaplin loves Lita, his wife, as much as he could love any wife. I believe he means to be kind to her, and I know that he loves his children.

But that is not and can never be enough for him. He must be free–free to allow those impulses that bring created art into the world. If Lita Chaplin can leave him free, if she cares enough to leave him free and to realize that she is playing a great part in great things by doing it, the marriage may still come through.

Tom Mix once made a profound remark to me. Tom is a profound thinker.

He said, “There are many things a woman may be to a man, some of them good, some bad. But there is only one thing she must be to him if their love is to be successful — and that is an inspiration.”

If Lita Chaplin can grow to the measure of that — but I do not know whether one woman could ever inspire Chaplin. His sense of the dramatic is so intense that he must have an entirely new phase of womanhood to inspire each new phase of his work. He is like Napoleon in that.

THE greatest marriage of genius of which I know was that of Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Personally, I am not yet convinced that Browning was a genius, but certainly Mrs. Browning was, for she wrote poems of a beauty surpassed only by Keats himself.

And to me she put into words the sort of love that must exist to make marriage to a genius a success, the sort of love without which no genius should ever marry.

“How do I love thee? Let me count the ways. I love thee to the depth and breadth and height my soul can reach…”

That’s the only kind of love that can surmount the tremendous temperamental obstacles a woman encounters when she marries a genius. And it is the love of a superwoman, it is the divine fire that strikes, but too seldom into mortal clay.

If Lita Grey Chaplin is inspired with such a love, she may win through, and refine and inspire and increase the Chaplin genius. If she is such a superwoman as Elizabeth Barrett Browning was, she may be the thousand women in one woman, or the saint-and-mother woman, who alone can make a success of marriage to a genius.

Otherwise, this separation will be permanent, for the genius who burns up his whole heart and soul and mind in his work has nothing to give to help make a marriage a success. That must all be done by the woman.

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