In a third-floor apartment near Sunset Boulevard hangs a photograph of one of the most famous faces in the world: Charlie Chaplin in his Little Tramp makeup. By his side is a gorgeous, dark-haired young woman.
A caption beneath the photo reads: "In the 'good ole days' when I was 15 and Charlie was 35."
Chaplin died on Christmas Day in 1977. Lita Grey Chaplin -- the only one of Chaplin's four wives who is still alive -- resides today in Hollywood in a home filled with memories.
At 84, this tall, handsome, silver-haired woman is as sharp and energetic -- despite two artificial hips -- as when, back in the early '20s, she first caught the eye of the man many consider the world's greatest comic.
"Everyone thinks I'm dead," says the sparky octogenarian, who lives with her poodle in modest quarters surrounded by memorabilia of her husband.
On the walls are photos of Chaplin, Lita and their two sons, Charles Jr., who died at age 43 ("He was an alcoholic," his mother says, sadly) and Sydney Jr., 66, who lives in Palm Springs, where until recently he ran a restaurant. Lita was Chaplin's second wife.
His last wife, Oona O'Neill, who died in Switzerland in 1991, was married to Chaplin for 34 years and bore eight of his 11 children. Wife No. 1, Mildred Harris, a child actress, and No. 3, Paulette Goddard, an actress who also lived in Switzerland with her husband Erich Maria Remarque, a novelist, are both dead.
Hollywood is abuzz with talk of the Little Tramp because on Dec. 25 -- 15 years after his death in exile on the shores of Lake Geneva -- "Chaplin," the life story of Charles Spencer Chaplin, will open in selected cities.
Directed by Richard Attenborough, it stars Dan Aykroyd, Robert Downey Jr. (as Chaplin), Anthony Hopkins, Kevin Kline, Diane Lane and other big names.
Lita says she loves the film, though she has not met the actress who plays her: Deborah Maria Moore, the daughter of Roger Moore, famous for his role as James Bond. She was married to the London-born "king of comedy" for only two years -- but their rela tionship was one of the stormiest in Chaplin's women-filled, trouble-plagued life. He had just ended a turbulent and also short-lived marriage to Harris, the 17-year-old starlet he wed in 1918 when he was 29.
Chaplin married Harris because she claimed she was pregnant. She wasn't and they divorced. Chaplin met Lita when she was only 6, and still called Lillita McMurray. Six years later he had her signed to a contract to star in his films and change her name to Lita Grey. When she was 16 and pregnant with his child -- he seduced her in the sauna at his mansion on Summit Drive in Beverly Hills -- he married her.
The year was 1924 and Chaplin was also dallying with several other women in Hollywood, including Marion Davies, an actress. But he found himself dragooned into a shotgun wedding in Mexico with Lita. Her uncle, who was also her attorney, wielded the gun. It was not a match made in heaven. Lita, who has reached that stage in life in which she can be brutally honest, says, "On our honeymoon he told me straight out ... 'I don't intend to be a husband to you, but marrying you is better than going to the penitentiary.'"
In quick succession she bore him Charles Jr. and Sydney Jr., who was named after Chaplin's beloved half-brother. "When I was pregnant with our second child," Lita says, "I discovered that Charlie had paid off one of the servants and was sleeping with Marion Davies in his bedroom downstairs." Their divorce was "sensational" -- even by today's standards. Chaplin's lawyer tried to paint Lita as a teen-age floozie.
Lita's lawyer eviscerated Chaplin in a 42-page injunction, which was later bound and sold for 50 cents on Los Angeles street corners. In her statement, Lita claimed Chaplin had had affairs during the marriage with "five prominent motion picture actresses." ("Actually we counted seven," she says today.) She also charged that he demanded she gratify his "degenerate sexual desires, too revolting, indecent and immoral to set forth in this complaint."
Fueling Lita's outrage was the fact that Chaplin regularly read her passages from "immoral literax ture" such as the novel "Lady Chatterley's Lover." "Of course, that was from the perspective of a 16-year-old girl," Lita says. "And my lawyer got a bit carried away with all that. I feel very differently about it now." i
Chaplin's sexual tastes as described in the suit seem tame today. But they ran counter to the puritanical laws of the time and would have landed Chaplin in jail for up to 15 years. Almost 70 years after she married Chaplin, Lita says she understands why he was attracted to women young enough to be his daughters: "Although I have to say he was a destroyer of girls, I believe Charlie was a creative person and he liked to see a young girl awakened. This was his fetish." While Attenborough doesn't soft-pedal the actor's penchant for young women, "Chaplin" focuses on the story of a talented youngster from a broken home who was reared in a poverty- stricken neighborhood in East London and went on to become one of the most famous personalities in the world.
Lita says Downey has done a remarkable job capturing the essence of the Chaplin she knew. "There (are) two Chaplins. One is a most remarkable genius, known to people in places in the world where English isn't even spoken. ... And then there's the other ... a very frightened, egotistical, easily intimidated man. ... (When) threatened, he could be the most vicious, mean man in the world. "I don't suppose he ever got over (his childhood). I vividly remember he once told me that his two big fears in life were poverty and insanity." (Chaplin's mother, Hannah, played in the movie by Chaplin's daughter Geraldine, was in and out of mental institutions all her life.) Even with his great wealth -- in 1916, at age 27, Chaplin's salary was reportedly $670,000 a year -- Lita found Chaplin tightfisted.
"He was awfully stingy," Lita says, "because he was so very frightened of being poor again." Lita says she had to nag him to buy her a wedding ring after they were married because she was embarrassed to appear "bare-handed" at the lavish parties to which he took her. The couple hobnobbed with the likes of William Randolph Hearst, Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford. Hollywood and Chaplin parted company when the actor, who was hounded by the FBI for years, went to Europe and was barred from returning to America in 1952, the height of the McCarthy era, because of his leftist political beliefs. He went into permanent exile on the continent. Chaplin made a brief return to Hollywood in 1972 to receive a special Oscar. He died in the grand mansion he purchased in Vevey, Switzer land, an enormously wealthy man. Lita, who has been married and divorced twice more, toured the world as a cabaret singer after she and Chaplin divorced.
"I knew Charlie probably better than anybody else because I've known him since I was 6 years old," she says. "I saw all sides of the man, when he worked, when he didn't, when he was happy, when he was fearful. ... "He was never a Communist as they accused him of being. He just liked to talk about the things that were good for every individual, all the people of the world. "His talent was too big to be confined to one nation or one culture. He called himself a citizen of the world -- and of humanity. And he was."