The Wife of the Life of the Party: A Memoir

It’s not easy or pretty being adored, rejected and ultimately ignored by the most popular and beloved entertainer in the world. For Lita Grey, it was a wound that never healed. In her book, The Wife of the Life of the Party: A Memoir, the second child bride of Charlie Chaplin (wed at age 16 in 1924, bore two sons and divorced in 1927), it appears that her response was to make a long and dubious career of clinging to and capitalizing on her famous marriage (and divorce).

After being awarded and eventually squandering what was at the time the highest divorce settlement in U.S. history, Lita pursued a performing career that was initially stalled by her marriage and pregnancies. She created a vaudeville act where she sang the novelty tune, “The Wife of the Life of the Party” – to construe the act as Chaplin inspired didn’t take much of a stretch. Even though she was by accounts talented and successful, she decided to rely on the box office popularity of her famous ex-husband by billing herself as Lita Grey Chaplin. She milked his name for the rest of her life, even after numerous marriages.

The care of their two sons caused further strain between the former spouses. When Charles Jr. and Sydney were a little older they lived with their father (during his marriage to Paulette Goddard) while their mother had a second childhood. She mentions later in her life that she was “harboring a neurosis caused by Chaplin’s rejection of her which she found to be highly traumatic.” The trauma Lita suffered played itself out in nervous breakdowns, alcoholism and broken love affairs. The only recourse Chaplin ever took publicly about his wayward ex-wife was silence. It was a deafening silence that confounded and infuriated her. It certainly affected their boys. Sydney, their surviving son, relates his inner-most feelings over the split in the book’s forward:

For my father, the divorce from my mother was a bitter period in his life that he decided was better left as a forgotten bad memory. In fact, he didn’t discuss that part of his life at all. He barely mentions it in his own autobiography – dismissing it in a few terse lines. He never even talked to me about the marriage. Never. It is quite amazing if one thinks about it. After all, she was my mother, and I did work closely with my father. One would think he would say something like “we didn’t get along,” or “she was too young,” or “it wasn’t meant to be.” Nothing. Not a single word. I never asked because it was clear that it was not a subject for discussion. He never even asked how she was doing. It really is difficult to imagine that if a man had a child by somebody that he would never ask vaguely about how the mother is doing or what is happening with her. It was just too painful for him.

Lita’s first book, published in 1966, My Life With Chaplin: An Intimate Memoir (Bernard Geis Associates), was a response to being all but passed over in Charlie’s 1964 autobiography. Her side of the story stirred up the buried and bitter past in graphic detail. The critics roundly panned it and thought the book “distasteful in its revelations.” She was deeply distressed with the final edit because her co-writer Morton Cooper embellished her experiences with sordid hyperbole. The Wife of the Life of the Party was her attempt to explain it all the way she meant to the first time. Sydney admits, “the project totally consumed my mother until she finished this manuscript, nearly two months before she died. Mother was obsessed with setting the record straight – and set it straight she did.”

Their Infamous Divorce

The Chaplin’s divorce proceedings became a salacious display of dirty laundry. It was messy, scandalous and very, very publicized. The record of testimony, found within the divorce complaint, indicates a no-holds-barred account by Lita. Cemented with legalese, the accusations took Chaplin’s private expressions and intimate relations with his wife and used them against him. Here too, Lita wanted to set the record straight:

I was 18 years old when the complaint was drawn, and the lawyers had completely taken charge of the case, putting everything in their language and exaggerating it. It was such an ugly document that they sold it on street corners. I’m not saying that it is untruthful; I’m merely saying that I am not proud of it because I could have exercised better judgment.

The complaint is not inaccurate but it is worded in such a way that it is exaggerated. It expresses things that occurred that should not be mentioned in polite society, particularly the parts referring to activities in the bedroom. It is hard for me to discuss it because I can’t deny the things happened, but I can say that I am ashamed of making it public.

If she really felt that way, why did she make the entire transcript public again? More than half the book is taken up by the original and prolific divorce complaint submitted to the court. While perusing this massive document may be fascinating to Chaplin scholars and the morbidly curious, it’s re-dredge that calls into question her credibility about this issue and instead makes Chaplin look like a martyr.

For his own reasons, Chaplin behaved like a cad to Lita after the bloom of their relationship was off the rose, and this was even before the marriage took place. The comedian was certainly the instigator of their love affair if by no other logic than the fact that she was an immature teenager and he over twice her age. Chaplin’s attraction to teenage girls is analyzed with regularity and is an integral part of what makes him a controversial personality. The very attributes that attracted Chaplin to girls of this age, the budding sexual awareness, innocence, naiveté and a malleability that a Pygmalion-like artist would find challenging, would ultimately disappoint him. For someone as young, impressionable and star struck as Lita, shattered illusions from the failure of a first love can be devastating. (Imagine a formidable first love as Chaplin, the world-famous movie star?) The tragedy is that the resentment over the betrayal sent a young mother, who was grappling with her own rebellious adolescence, into a smoldering rage and grief that festered for decades. Chaplin, too, paid dearly for his choices. There were decades of scorn that the public and private sectors heaped upon him for his political and personal dalliances. This would result in his eventual exile from the U.S., his home for nearly 40 years.

Lita’s final attempt to set the record straight may not elicit the understanding she sought. Because of the world’s affection for The Little Tramp, it is not surprising that she has been vilified for the way she led her life from Chaplin onward. Lita herself said, “They’ll forgive Chaplin for anything.” Her pronouncement seems to be bearing out. It has been many years since Chaplin’s death and even longer since the scandals that dogged him. His artistic popularity is stronger than ever, and Chaplin fans are simply getting weary of the Chaplin bashing. Yet, Lita Grey Chaplin has her defenders.

In the last 20 years, silent film revival has inspired fans and historians to seek out the survivors of a bygone era. Lita, who died in 1997, granted numerous interviews and gave candid accounts of the amazing times she lived through. She won the respect of many writers and researchers who had personal contact with her. Some developed a warm friendship. When all is said and done, for them, Lita had truly loved Charlie and was an admirable survivor of the pain, regret, sadness and re-dredging of it all.

Madison Morrison