American History04 Jul 2009 07:42 pm
Oona Lady Chaplin (May 14, 1925- September 27, 1991) was a woman largely distinguished by the powerful men in her life; namely, her Nobel and Pulitzer Prize winning playwright father, Eugene O’Neill, and her legendary husband of 35 years, Charlie Chaplin. Oona was born while her parents were living in Bermuda, and was effectively abandoned by her father at two-years-old when he left her mother, writer Agnes Boulton, for actress Carlotta Monteray (who later became his third wife). Perhaps motivated by his guilt, O’Neill largely avoided seeing his daughter while she was growing up, but the two of them remained on good terms throughout her teenage years.
A noted beauty, seventeen-year-old Oona was named “Debutante of the Year” in 1942. Eager to seek fame and fortune as a Hollywood actress, Oona moved to California, briefly dating both director Orson Welles and the famously reclusive author J.D. Salinger. However, her high-profile romantic flings (and career aspirations) came to an abrupt end when she met Charlie Chaplin, then 36 years her senior. Despite their age difference, the two of them fell passionately in love with one another, and the still underage Oona sought permission to marry Chaplin from her estranged father.
O’Neill was so incensed at his daughter’s relationship with the older actor that he rejected her entreaty and subsequently cut her completely out of his life, refusing any and all attempts at a reconciliation. Despite her father’s strong paternal misgivings (or perhaps in spite of them), Oona married Chaplin when she turned 18, and remained happily married to him until his death 35 years later (they had eight children together, including actress Geraldine Chaplin, who played Tonya in the film Dr. Zhivago (1965)).
Despite Oona’s happiness with Chaplin, her estrangement from O’Neill remained a source of great sadness for the rest of her life. In 1981, moved by Jack Nicholson’s depiction of her father in the film Reds, she wrote the actor a letter saying, “Thanks to you, I now can love my father.” Nicholson reportedly said that this was the best compliment he had ever received.
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