A few years before her passing in 1995, Lita Grey, second ex-wife of master comedian Charles Chaplin, wrote her second "autobiography," WIFE OF LIFE OF THE PARTY, in cooperation with silent film enthusiast Jeffrey Vance. According to her son Sydney's foreword, the book was largely intended as a correction of her 1966-memoir MY LIFE WITH CHAPLIN, which apparently had included exaggerations, as Grey's then-editor had pointed out that a more sensationalistic approach would likely result in more sales. However, the first book seems to have actually turned many readers against Grey, as that account appeared too one-sided to be fully believable. With this second book, Grey reportedly wished to be more balanced.
It is a sad story. I must clarify that I am one of Chaplin's most devoted fans; his films have probably meant more to me than the work of any other artist, and needless to say they have had a strong personal impact on me. Despite this, I'll try to remain as neutral as possible here, and admit that I did feel sorry for Lita several times as I read this book. It is not hard to recognize that the work of Chaplin is the outcome of a very complex mind, and on a personal level, this complexity may not always have been beneficial to his surroundings. To be married to a creative genius cannot be an ideal situation for everybody, and it certainly wasn't for Lita. In retrospect, one could say they seemed almost "ridiculously" different as human beings to be a good match as husband and wife, and then there was the age difference as well.
Chaplin first acquainted his future-wife in 1920, while working on his first feature-length film THE KID. She was only 12 at the time, and received a role in the film after the suggestion of Chaplin's co-director. The book starts off with some rather interesting recollections of Chaplin's working methods (something which the comedian himself seldom discussed at length). She also appeared briefly in his next film THE IDLE CLASS, but after that did not see Chaplin for three years. When she suddenly turned up at Chaplin's studio as a 15-year old, however, Chaplin became interested in her, and signed her once again, this time to play leading lady in his current production THE GOLD RUSH (for which she was later replaced). Soon after that, the two began an affair, and Lita became pregnant, which had not been Chaplin's intention. Frustrated that he would now have to marry a girl he had rather little in common with, Chaplin offered her a large sum of money if she would marry another man. Lita's mother would not hear of this, however, and in late 1924, the 16-year old Lita Grey became the wife of 35-year old Charles Chaplin.
Inevitably, most of this book provides details about the unhappy marriage; Chaplin is generally put in a far from favorable light. Although there were some reasonably happy moments in their household, these seemed scant compared to the numerous difficulties. According to Lita, her husband had a habit of accusing her of trying to ruin his career. He was apparently quick to adapt harsh name-calling. When the two finally divorced three years later after much unhappiness, it resulted in one of the most publicized Hollywood-scandals of the 1920's. As biographer David Robinson has pointed out, it is a testament to Chaplin's popularity (and probably his talent as well) that his reputation eventually survived the scandal, as many of the accusations made against him from Grey would have ruined almost any other celebrity in America. He did have a nervous breakdown and was forced to close his studio for months, much delaying his next film THE CIRCUS.
There is no doubt that Chaplin must take much, or even most responsibility for this situation. He did choose to have a romantic affair with Lita, 15 years old at that time, promising to marry her if she became pregnant but reluctant to do so when this did happen, though eventually forced by Lita's mother. He should certainly have known better. There is an "however" here, though, which remains largely uncovered also in Lita's second book, as far as I'm concerned. The more I've read about the Chaplin-Grey-marriage, the more complex it all appears. Also in this second book, Lita portrays her mother as pretty much an innocent saint who was deeply shocked when she found out about her daughter's affair with Chaplin, which she by Lita's account must have been totally unaware of up to that point. However, several other people who knew Lita personally, including the grandson of one of Chaplin's closest associates (won't name names), have the impression that her mother was a sort of "blind spot" to Lita. Indeed, while Lita repeatedly emphasizes the innocence of her mother in this matter, she also states at one point (p.103) that her mother was essentially "Charlie's defender" during the marriage, asking Lita to "have patience, he'll change," no matter how Charlie is supposed to have behaved at some points. Maybe I don't understand the era in question well enough, but it seems to me that a truly responsible mother would not have allowed her teenaged daughter to remain with a husband who is supposed to have made life so acutely miserable to her--unless, perhaps, the mother had something to gain herself from the marriage. I really do not wish to imply anything, but Chaplin was undeniably a truly rich and famous man, and I do not see how readers are expected not to wonder slightly why Lita's mother insisted that her young daughter should put up with so much strain for two whole years. (I am aware that divorce was much more of a taboo back then, but Lita's mother was actually since long a divorced woman herself by the 1920s.)
Furthermore, there is no mention from Lita in this book of the difficulties she caused her two sons while they were growing up, when she suffered from alcoholism; I do not know whether she originally planned her manuscript to end with the divorce settlement from Charlie, as it turned out here, or if her passing caused the book to end abruptly. Co-author Jeffrey Vance fills in some of the voids in his afterword, but I am still not convinced that this version of the story is as balanced as Grey apparently intented it to become. She states that "Charlie had a tendency to blame all other people for his own troubles and believe that he himself was faultless." I never knew the man; it may have been one aspect of his character. But the reader should be aware that Chaplin barely touched the subject of his marriage to Lita Grey in his autobiography, and that his version of the story was thus never heard publicly, at least not in retrospect. It is also worth to note that Lita's lawyers are reported to have used some quite unethical methods during the divorce battle (which, again, Lita seems to barely acknowledge in this book), and some of the points listed in the complaint included in the latter half of the book should be read with some grain of salt, at the very least.
I usually avoid books on celebrities written by ex-wives, and did an exception here only because it's Chaplin-related. Although sad, all in all WIFE OF THE LIFE OF THE PARTY stands as a bit too one-sided, and I am often bothered by memoirs of this kind especially since they tend to rely on a prose-like style of writing, quoting conversations word for word when in fact they occurred decades ago; it can be really difficult to determine "who said what" so long afterwards. Some parts of the book are interesting, though, such as the recollections of Chaplin's work on THE KID. If you have to read it, I urge you to also check out Charles Chaplin Jr.'s wonderful book MY FATHER CHARLIE CHAPLIN as a sort of counter-balance, or otherwise you'll possibly end up with a rather one-sided view on Chaplin the man. (This review has later been revised and updated, 2014)