Oona Chaplin (O'Neill) (1925 - 1991)

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Birthdate:
Birthplace: Warwick Parish, Bermuda
Death: Died in Corsier-sur-Vevey, Switzerland
Managed by: Constantinos Melissas
Last Updated:
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Immediate Family

About Oona Chaplin (O'Neill)

Oona, Lady Chaplin (née O'Neill) was the daughter of Nobel and Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Eugene O'Neill and writer Agnes Boulton, and the wife of British actor, director and producer Charlie Chaplin.

She was born on May 14, 1925 while her parents were living in Bermuda, during a period of heavy drinking by Eugene O'Neill. She was two years old when he left the family for actress Carlotta Monterey who became his third wife. Oona and her brother Shane (born in 1919) rarely saw him afterward.

Oona spent her summers in the Boulton family's rambling Victorian house in Point Pleasant, New Jersey; the rest of the year she lived in Manhattan with her mother, where she attended the Brearley School. In 1942, seventeen-year-old Oona was named "Debutante of the Year." When asked by a reporter whether she considered herself "lace curtain" Irish or "shanty" Irish, she replied, "Shanty Irish!" Deciding to pursue an acting career instead of attending Vassar College, she got a part in a stock company stage production of Pal Joey and formed close friendships with Carol Grace Saroyan and Gloria Vanderbilt, later chronicled by Aram Saroyan in the book Trio: Portrait of an Intimate Friendship.

Oona dated cartoonist Peter Arno, director Orson Welles, and author J. D. Salinger. To Salinger's disappointment, however, their relationship ended when she met Charlie Chaplin, after having been suggested to him for a part in one of his films. Despite the 36-year age difference, Chaplin wrote in his autobiography that he was instantly smitten by Oona's "luminous beauty and sequestered charm."

Eugene O'Neill was outraged at the news of his daughter's affair with Chaplin and refused to give his consent so that she could marry him before her eighteenth birthday. After their marriage in June 1943, he cut Oona out of his life, refusing her attempts at a reconciliation. According to her biographer Jane Scovell, playwright Clifford Odets "saw something vindictive in O'Neill's behaviour and thought that O'Neill could not forgive Oona perhaps because he had abandoned her." Her half-brother, Eugene O'Neill Jr., was the son of a woman to whom his father had reneged on a promise to marry before attaining success as a writer; the younger O'Neill later suffered from alcoholism and committed suicide in 1950 at the age of 40. Oona's brother Shane became a heroin addict and moved into the family home in Bermuda, Spithead, with his new wife, where he supported himself by selling off the furnishings. He was disowned by his father before also committing suicide (by jumping out a window) a number of years later.

When Oona saw Jack Nicholson in the 1981 film Reds, where he portrayed her estranged father, she wrote him a letter saying "Thanks to you, I now can love my father". Nicholson has said that "that is the best compliment I ever got".

While attending the London premiere of his film Limelight in September 1952, Chaplin was accused of "Communist sympathies" and denied re-entry into the United States. Because of the tax laws in England, the family (which by then included four children), chose to relocate to Switzerland. Oona returned to the United States by herself to close their California house and to surreptitiously collect all Chaplin's assets from safe deposit boxes, even as the FBI was questioning the members of their staff. She later admitted to sewing $1,000 bills into the lining of her mink coat, thereby saving the Chaplin fortune. Oona renounced her American citizenship shortly after returning to Europe. She and Chaplin settled permanently with their family in Vevey, Switzerland, where they spent the majority of their thirty-five year marriage, visited by Hollywood friends.

Chaplin and Oona maintained a close relationship for 35 years and had eight children together. It was by all accounts a happy marriage despite the age difference.

Charlie Chaplin and Oona had eight children together and they include:

  • actress Geraldine (b. July 31, 1944, who married Spanish film director Carlos Saura)
  • Michael (b. March 7, 1946)
  • Josephine (b. March 28, 1949, mother of Julien Ronet (b. 1980) by Maurice Ronet)
  • Victoria (b. May 19, 1951, married to Jean-Baptiste Thieree, parents of Aurelie and James (b. May 2, 1974, in Lausanne))
  • Eugene (b. August 23, 1953)
  • Jane (b. May 23, 1957, unmarried)
  • Annette (b. December 3, 1959, unmarried)
  • Christopher (b. July 6, 1962, unmarried)

She was also the second stepmother (after Paulette Goddard) to Charles Chaplin, Jr. (1925–1968) and Sydney Chaplin (1926–2009). Their mother was Lita Grey (1908–1995).

Geraldine thought very highly of her mother, and when she was cast in Doctor Zhivago (1965), she decided to base her performance as the title character's wife on her mother, whom she described as "a woman who was willing to give her life to an artist."

In 2006, Chaplin's granddaughter, model and actress Kiera Chaplin (daughter of Eugene Chaplin), visited Tao House, where her maternal great-grandfather lived. She has announced that she would like to play her grandmother in a film. The same year, daughter Jane Chaplin announced that she had written a memoir entitled "Seventeen Minutes with my Father," which she said would not be easy on her mother.

Oona was a fan of Arsenal Football Club (the club that Charlie had supported all his life) and described their 1989 League Championship victory as 'One of the greatest moments of my life.'

In March 1975, three years after briefly returning to the United States to receive a special Academy Award, Chaplin was knighted. His health declined rapidly afterward, however, and he died on Christmas Day 1977 at the age of eighty-eight.

Following Chaplin's death, Oona moved to New York where she attempted to build a life on her own. She retreated to the manor in Switzerland where she became a recluse, and struggled with alcoholism. She ultimately died of pancreatic cancer on September 27, 1991, in Corsier-sur-Vevey, Switzerland.

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Oona Chaplin's Timeline

1925
May 14, 1925
Warwick Parish, Bermuda
1991
September 27, 1991
Age 66
Corsier-sur-Vevey, Switzerland