My father Charlie Chaplin and his very young wives: Son insists the actor ‘fell in love’ with his teenage brides and ‘wasn’t forcing them to have sex’ – despite impregnating a 15-year-old when he was 35

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Charlie had four wives, marrying Mildred Harris, then 16, when he was almost 30. Mildred and Charlie pictured on their honeymoon at Catalina in 1918

Charlie Chaplin’s son has insisted his father ‘fell in love with a lot of young ladies’ but he ‘wasn’t forcing them to have sex’. 

The comedy pioneer had four wives, marrying Mildred Harris, then 16, when he was almost 30, Lita Grey, just 16 at the time, when he was 35, Paulette Goddard, then 26, when he was 47, and Oona O’Neill, aged just 18, when he was 53.

Michael Chaplin, 77, the second child and eldest son from Charlie’s fourth marriage, told The Guardian that he does not defend his father’s controversial marriages, however, he added: ‘They were young brides, but he was not breaking the law.’

‘The rock singer Jerry Lee Lewis married a girl of 13 and he got into trouble. My father didn’t get into trouble because she was a bit older, I suppose,’ said Michael, who resides in south-west France.

He continued: ‘I don’t want to defend my father, but I don’t think he was ever someone to use women purely sexually. He fell in love with a lot of young ladies, but he wasn’t forcing them to have sex.’

Charlie had four wives, marrying Mildred Harris, then 16, when he was almost 30. Mildred and Charlie pictured on their honeymoon at Catalina in 1918

The English comic actor, who rose to fame in the era of silent film and is best known for his on-screen persona, The Tramp, remained married to Michael’s mother Oona for 34 years, from 1943 until his death in 1977. 

Charlie Chaplin’s children confessed to being ‘frightened’ of their comedic father  

In 2022, Michael Chaplin said in The Real Charlie Chaplin film: ‘I was kind of frightened of my father. He was so powerful, you couldn’t argue with him, because he couldn’t be wrong. 

‘Everyone who gets too close to him, he’ll end up suffocating. He couldn’t help it.’ Charlie’s daughter Jane also confessed: ‘I had grown up with the icon – but the man, I had no idea who the man was.’ 

Michael’s sister Geraldine, 77, added: ‘My father wasn’t Charlie Chaplin. I knew they were the same person but they looked nothing alike – except when he had an audience, he would become Charlie Chaplin, that other man.’

Chaplin’s first wife Mildred gave birth to their son, named Norman, on 7 July 1919. Sadly, he died due to complications three days later. 

His first child with second wife Lita, Charles Jr, appeared in several films in the ’50s, including ‘Limelight,’ where he shared the screen with his father.

Charles Jr. passed away on March 20, 1968. He was 42.  

The second son of Chaplin and Lita Grey was named Sydney.  He died in 2009.

O’Neill gave birth to eight of Charlie’s children Geraldine, Michael, Josephine, Victoria, Eugene, Jane, Annette, and Christopher.

Charlie’s early years in London, where he was born in 1889, were marked by poverty and hardship – he had been sent to a workhouse twice by the age of nine.

His mother, part-Romany music-hall singer Hannah Chaplin, was committed to a mental asylum when he was 14 years old. 

She’d already had one son out of wedlock and, although she was married to a successful music-hall artist called Charles Chaplin, it’s unlikely that he was Charlie’s real father.

Whatever the truth, Chaplin senior gave the infant his name. But a year after the birth, he walked out — probably because he suspected Hannah of infidelity — leaving her and the boys to lead an impoverished existence.

From a young age, Charlie worked as a stage actor and comedian, touring music halls, until aged 19, he was scouted by the Fred Karno company and taken to the United States, where he later appeared in Keystone Studios in 1914.

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Charlie adopted his most famous screen persona in the 1915 movie, The Tramp, which gained global recognition – and starred in thirty-five films within one year at Keystone Studios.

The actor went on to produce his own films, releasing them through Essanay Film Manufacturing Company and the Mutual Film Corporation.

By 1918, he was one of the world’s most prominent figures – and yet, his time in the spotlight was not without controversy, thanks to his four marriages with ‘young brides’. He is also alleged to have slept with over 2,000 women.

Here, FEMAIL delves into the stories of his controversial age-gap marriages… 

Mildred Harris, 16, when he was 29

One of the first to fall for Charlie’s charms was 16-year-old child actress Mildred Harris, whom he met at a party in 1918.

By then aged 29 and one of the richest actors in Hollywood, he was infatuated. He sent bouquets of roses to the hotel in which Mildred was staying, and lay in wait for her in his car outside the studio where she was working. Before long, they became lovers.

When Mildred informed him that she was pregnant, however, he panicked; the last thing he wanted, at the time, was domestic responsibility. But he was well aware that he needed to avoid a terrible scandal.

Mildred Harris married Charlie Chaplin when she was 16 years old

Mildred Harris married Charlie Chaplin when she was 16 years old

The English comic actor is best known for his screen persona, The Tramp Michael Chaplin (right) said he doesn't 'defend' his father but insists he was not 'forcing' any of his much younger brides

The English comic actor is best known for his screen persona, The Tramp (left). Michael Chaplin (right) said he doesn’t ‘defend’ his father but insists he was not ‘forcing’ any of his much younger brides  

A quiet wedding was arranged at the home of the local registrar, and he took Mildred home to a leased house, described by one of her friends as a ‘symphony in lavender and ivory, exquisite in every detail’.

Soon after they’d moved into this paradise, however, it became clear that Mildred wasn’t pregnant at all. She’d either misread her symptoms or tricked him into matrimony.

This suspicion could not have made married life any easier to bear — particularly as Chaplin knew that he wasn’t in love.

He gave Mildred her own chauffeur, servants and unlimited credit at the shops, but he was irritable and moody in her company and gave nothing of himself.

Soon, the new Mrs Chaplin was indeed carrying his child. It was not a happy time for anyone concerned: at one stage, she was reported to have suffered a nervous breakdown and been hospitalised for three weeks.

Her situation wasn’t helped by Chaplin’s frequent affairs with other women. Mildred later complained that ‘Charlie married me and then he forgot all about me’. While Chaplin was working on a film called A Day’s Pleasure in July 1919, she gave birth to his son.

Norman had malformed intestines and died three days later. Charlie was inconsolable for a day or two, but then moved out of the house and took up permanent residence at the Los Angeles Athletic Club.

In April 1920, Mildred Chaplin began divorce proceedings, citing ‘cruelty’. During the subsequent case, she painted a bleak picture of life with Charlie.

If she invited her own friends to the house, he simply wouldn’t come home. Nor would he ever tell her when he’d be back: ‘He said he had to be free to live his own life and do as he pleased.’

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‘He was short-tempered, impatient and treated me like a cretin,’ she protested.

In an out-of-court settlement, Mildred was granted $100,000 and a share of Chaplin’s property. For Chaplin, who was in many respects a withdrawn and secretive man, the case had been deeply wounding. 

Charlie claimed the marriage stunted his creativity and subsequently struggled to produce his film Sunnyside. 

The union officially ended in April 1920, with Charlie penning that they were ‘irreconcilably mismated’.

Married Lita Grey, 16, when he was 35

Charlie is pictured with his second wife, Lita Grey, and their son, Charles Jnr, on board the SS City of Los Angeles in November 1926

Charlie is pictured with his second wife, Lita Grey, and their son, Charles Jnr, on board the SS City of Los Angeles in November 1926

Lita Grey with her two children, Sidney Earl (left) and Charles Spencer Jr. (right)

Lita Grey with her two children, Sidney Earl (left) and Charles Spencer Jr. (right)

Lita (pictured) was awarded a divorce settlement of more than $800,000, which would be around $14m today and the most expensive split in Hollywood history at the time

Lita (pictured) was awarded a divorce settlement of more than $800,000, which would be around $14m today and the most expensive split in Hollywood history at the time

The actor is thought to have seduced his second wife, Lita Grey, when she was 15 and he was 35.

By this stage, Chaplin’s star was on the rise and he became a huge hit with audiences with films The Kid and The Gold Rush, attracting vast crowds to his public appearances. 

In 1920, he spotted 12-year-old Lillita Louis MacMurray on the set of The Kid and set about modelling her into an actress. 

He changed her name to Lita Grey and is thought to have seduced her in 1924, when she was 15 and he was 35, which could have led to a charge for statutory rape even then in California.

The teenage actress revealed a surprise pregnancy, adding to the despair of Lita’s mother, who threatened to report Charlie to the police.

The unexpected news forced the actor into another discreet marriage – this time in Mexico. Lita was 16 and Charlie was 35 on their wedding day in 1924.

On the pairs wedding night Chaplin was also said to have confided in friends that the union was a better prospect than prison.

In her 1966 memoir My Life with Chaplin, Lita wrote:  ‘We were married in Mexico because Charlie didn’t want much said about the marriage. On the way back on the train he was quite nasty.

‘We were standing out on the platform between cars while the train was travelling and he said, ‘We could just end this whole situation if you just jump’.’

Despite his contempt for his wife, however, he was ‘a human sex machine’ she later revealed, who could make love six times a night without noticeable fatigue.

The couple had two children: Charles Jr. and Sydney Earl. The marriage, which lasted three years, came to a bitter end in court. 

Lita accused her husband of statutory rape, seduction of a minor, soliciting abortions and ‘perverted sexual desires’.

She filed for custody of their two children and alleged cruelty and forced sex acts in her petition, while Chaplin referred to her as a ‘blackmailer, gold-digger and little w****’.

Lita was awarded a divorce settlement of more than $800,000, which would be around $14m today and the most expensive split in Hollywood history at the time.

For years afterwards, she struggled with depression and alcohol. She tried to set the issue straight in interviews, but the topic often strayed back to matters of his genius. 

In his autobiography, Charlie dedicated three sentences to Lita, and never mentioned her by name. In an interview he said: ‘I’m not going into that sort of thing. I don’t owe it to anybody.’ 

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Married Paulette Goddard, 26, when he was 47

A portrait of American actress Paulette Goddard, circa 1945

A portrait of American actress Paulette Goddard, circa 1945

Charlie Chaplin and Paulette Goddard pictured on the Dollar liner President Coolidge, returning to San Francisco in 1940

Charlie Chaplin and Paulette Goddard pictured on the Dollar liner President Coolidge, returning to San Francisco in 1940

Paulette Goddard and Charlie Chaplin pictured in The Great Dictator, 1940

Paulette Goddard and Charlie Chaplin pictured in The Great Dictator, 1940

Charlie’s third marriage was to Paulette Goddard, a former child model and actress who featured The Great Dictator. She was 26 and Charlie was 47.

She soon moved into his mansion, and he cast her as his leading lady in Modern Times, a satire on the machine age. 

Once, in her presence, Chaplin told his oldest son that ‘your stepmother worked very hard today and I had to tell her a few things about acting’. Paulette lay down on the sofa and cried. 

Paulette’s career spanned six decades – from the 1920s to the 1970s – and she was a leading actress during the Golden Age of Hollywood. 

While the relationship only lasted from 1936 to 1942, it is said to have ended on amicable terms. 

Married Oona O’Neill, 18, when he was 53

Charlie Chaplin and his bride 18-year-old Oona pictured making their first public appearance at the nightclub Mocambo

Charlie Chaplin and his bride 18-year-old Oona pictured making their first public appearance at the nightclub Mocambo

Charlie Chaplin pictured with his wife Oona on their arrival from Geneva

Charlie Chaplin pictured with his wife Oona on their arrival from Geneva

Charlie, aged 77, with his wife Oona in 1966. The couple were said to be soulmates. They tied the knot in June 1943 when Oona was 18 and Charlie was 53

Charlie, aged 77, with his wife Oona in 1966. The couple were said to be soulmates. They tied the knot in June 1943 when Oona was 18 and Charlie was 53

Left to right: Eugene, Chaplin with Jane on his lap, Geraldine, Oona holding Annette, Michael, Victoria and Josephine

Left to right: Eugene, Chaplin with Jane on his lap, Geraldine, Oona holding Annette, Michael, Victoria and Josephine

Charlie pictured with Josephine, Victoria, Michael, Geraldine, Eugene, Jane, and Oona at the premiere of film The Countess of Hong Kong in 1967

Charlie pictured with Josephine, Victoria, Michael, Geraldine, Eugene, Jane, and Oona at the premiere of film The Countess of Hong Kong in 1967

Within a year of his and Paulette’s divorce, he moved on to his fourth and final wife Oona O’Neill, who bore him eight children and stayed with him until his death in 1977. 

The couple were said to be soulmates. They tied the knot in June 1943 when Oona was 18 and Charlie was 53. 

They had met the previous year when Charlie was considering the teenager for a part in his film Shadow and Substance – and were inseparable from then on.

Their daughter Geraldine said in a 2022 film: ‘My mother was so young when she met him, she was 17 and he was 52. They fell in love and then as soon as she turned 18 they married.

‘Everyone thought she was just a bimbo and she would be gone soon. But they were mad about each other.’

Meanwhile Eugene called his mother ‘the sunshine’ in their family’s lives. 

In 1952, the producer travelled to London for the premiere of his latest film, Limelight.

However, the following day, Attorney General James McGranery revoked Charlie’s re-entry permit, stating that he would have to agree to an interview about his political views before returning to the US.

Charlie gave a press conference in London where he insisted that he was not a communist and said he ‘wants nothing more for humanity than a roof over every man’s head.’

Oona stood by her husband and the pair eventually set up home in Switzerland.  They had eight children: Geraldine, Michael, Josephine, Victoria, Eugene, Jane, Annette and Christopher.

Charlie’s next visit to the US would be to accept an honorary Oscar in 1972 for his contributions.

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