“We all felt he was … the definitive artist of the 20th century. He helped create the medium that would change the world.”
“Smile, though your heart is aching …”
—Charles Chaplin, “Smile”
Hollywood’s elite began calling Carol Matthau, trying to wrangle invitations to the garden party welcoming Charlie Chaplin back to America. Carol had worked with Oona, Chaplin’s adored wife of 30 years, on the invitation list—a mix of Old and New Hollywood.
It was going to be a fabulous party.
The character Charlie Chaplin had created long ago, the Little Tramp, had been the beloved face of Depression-era America before Chaplin was ignominiously chased out of Hollywood in 1952 for violating the Mann Act, accused of “indecency” over an affair he’d had with a 22-year-old actress named Joan Barry. Now, after a 20-year exile from the country where he had made his fame and his fortune—and had helped launch an industry—the 83-year-old legend was thinking of coming back to America. Not to live—there was too much blood under the bridge for that—but, perhaps, to forgive.
The former silent-screen actor nearly changed his mind on the plane coming over. Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea after all. How would he be received? Would policemen be waiting for him at the gate? It was too late to turn back. Two of Oona’s closest friends, Gloria Vanderbilt Cooper in New York and Carol Marcus Matthau in Los Angeles, were throwing parties to welcome him back, and at the Matthaus’ Pacific Palisades home he would be seeing his old Hollywood pals.
“They All Love You, Charlie”
Chaplin’s return came about through the efforts of producer Bert Schneider. By 1972, Schneider had produced three era-defining movies—Easy Rider, The Last Picture Show, and Five Easy Pieces. Schneider and his partner, Mo Rothman, made a pilgrimage to Vevey, Switzerland, to convince Chaplin to let them re-release his pictures in America. Like the Little Tramp himself, many of Chaplin’s films were too long in exile. Schneider also arranged with the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for Chaplin to receive an honorary Oscar, to coincide with the re-release of his films.
Candice Bergen, then making her name as a photojournalist as well as an actress, was living with Schneider at the time, and he arranged for Life to hire her to shoot Chaplin’s return. “I don’t want to have photographers buzzing around him,” he’d told Life, “and I would like just one photographer, and I would like it to be Candice Bergen.” Although Bergen didn’t feel she was accomplished enough at the time, Life agreed to hire her.
Candice met the Chaplins when they arrived in New York from Vevey and photographed them for Life’s cover under a banner reading, Hello Charlie, for a gala honoring Chaplin. The event was spectacular. From his vantage point in Lincoln Center’s Philharmonic Hall, seated in an upper-tier box with Oona beside him, Chaplin could gaze down at the 2,836 guests gathered for the Film Society’s tribute, where two of his films, The Idle Class and The Kid, were screened.
Chaplin was genuinely moved, and he said to the gathered crowd, “I feel as if I were the object of a complete renaissance—as if I were being reborn.”
Gloria did her part to welcome Charlie and Oona back to America, with a dinner party held in his honor. Chaplin was wearing black-tie and was seated between his hostess and the elegant New York socialite Amanda Burden, his eyes sparkling with the attention paid to him. But even a glorious evening at Lincoln Center did not fully allay Chaplin’s fears about returning to America. When he walked into the dining room at ‘21’ the next day, he was met by spontaneous applause. After the meal, someone called out, “They all love you, Charlie.”
“Yes, but they loved Kennedy too,” he replied.
Candice accompanied the Chaplins on their flight from New York to L.A. She could see that he “wasn’t in any way confident that it would be a warm reception. He’d been fêted at Lincoln Center very warmly … but L.A. was the scene of the crime, as it were, and he was very nervous about going there.… He worried that he could have been jailed if he’d come back, not unlike Roman Polanski.... It was so traumatic for him.”
The former silent-screen actor nearly changed his mind on the plane coming over. Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea after all. How would he be received? Would policemen be waiting for him at the gate?
Two disasters had forced Chaplin out of Hollywood. The most public was his being charged with violating the Mann Act. Chaplin was acquitted in the ensuing trial, and then Barry turned around and brought a paternity suit against him.
Despite a blood test proving he was not the father of Barry’s child, Chaplin lost the lawsuit. But more ominously, he’d fallen afoul of the McCarthy witch hunts. The two people behind the humiliating charges against Chaplin had been Hedda Hopper, working hand in glove with Joan Barry, and F.B.I. director J. Edgar Hoover.
In the l940s, Chaplin had made speeches backing Russia, America’s wartime ally in the Second World War, so he quickly became a target of right-wing, anti-Communist hate groups, such as the John Birch Society.
Hedda Hopper “despised Charlie Chaplin, and in Hollywood those ladies who [wore] hats at their desks [were] not to be trifled with,” Carol Matthau later wrote in her lively and candid 1992 memoir, Among the Porcupines. “Louella Parsons … was known to be a drunk. But not Hedda Hopper. She managed, somehow, to organize a group of haters and arrange that incredible shipboard act of the U.S. State Department.”
Chaplin and Oona had set sail on the Queen Elizabeth in September of 1952 for a brief holiday in Europe: Charlie’s re-entry permit had been suddenly canceled. They were told that “Charlie could not re-enter this country without appearing before a government board of inquiry, ‘to answer charges of a political nature and of moral turpitude.’” He refused, and spent the next 20 years living in Vevey, Switzerland, in exile.
Three Extraordinary Women
But to know how Carol Matthau’s welcome-home party came to be, nearly 50 years ago, you have to know something about the friendship among three extraordinary women: Carol, Oona, and Gloria.
Besides their striking beauty, the three friends had something else in common: They had grown up in New York City, and they had all been abandoned, one way or another, by their fathers. At the age of eight, Carol went from a foster home on the Lower East Side to an 18-room apartment on Park Avenue, when her mother married a Bendix Aviation Corporation executive named Charles Marcus, who adopted her. Oona’s father, the great American playwright Eugene O’Neill, divorced her mother, the writer Agnes Boulton, when Oona was just two years old. And Gloria’s alcoholic father died when she was just a baby, making her the subject of the most infamous custody case in America.
Carol recalled how all three of them were wallflowers, with their noses always buried in books. She would meet Oona every day after school (she attended Dalton, while Oona was a Brearley student) and stroll down to the Marcus-family apartment, at 420 Park Avenue, where they would spend endless hours talking about writers. Carol sensed and responded to a great sadness in both of her friends, though she would remain closest to Oona.
When he walked into the dining room at ‘21’ the next day, he was met by spontaneous applause.
Carol Marcus Matthau has been described by one of her many admirers as “a very white skinned, blue-eyed Dresden doll.” Many believe she was the inspiration for her close friend Truman Capote’s Holly Golightly, in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Before meeting Matthau, whom she would eventually marry, she had had several conquests: an unhappy marriage—and re-marriage!—to playwright William Saroyan, a love affair with the writer James Agee, and a would-be affair with the English theater critic Ken Tynan. The latter was interrupted in the Palace Hotel in Madrid when a lawyer sent by Tynan’s then wife, Elaine Dundy, burst into the room. Carol cabled Gloria: “The pain in Spain comes mainly from Elaine.” Her Dresden-doll appearance belied a quick and beguiling wit.
Matthau, who died in 2000, had entered America’s bloodstream playing sly, lovable cranks in dozens of leading roles—mostly comedic—after his breakthrough as Oscar Madison in Neil Simon’s The Odd Couple. Simon once described Matthau as “the greatest instinctive actor I’ve ever seen.” Craggy, charismatic, with his tall man’s slouch, Matthau could be wildly funny (Elaine May’s A New Leaf) or surprisingly menacing (Charade, with Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn). His endearing, curmudgeonly persona was perfectly suited for two of his last films with his friend Jack Lemmon, Grumpy Old Men and Grumpier Old Men.
He and Carol made a kind of odd couple themselves—he was a down-to-earth product of New York’s Lower East Side and a legendary gambler; she was an ethereal, eccentric original, also born on the Lower East Side but mostly a product of Park Avenue. They adored each other.
Oona O’Neill was an 18-year-old, freshly minted high-school graduate and fledgling actress when she married 54-year-old Charlie Chaplin on June 16, 1943, in Santa Barbara—Chaplin’s fourth and most enduring marriage.
“Oona O’Neill was born with a broken heart,” Carol later wrote, “but when she met Charlie Chaplin, her life really began. He was everything she never had and didn’t dare hope for.” She saw that Oona and Chaplin “had both known lovelessness—aloneness, deep despair, and desolation—in their youngest years … ”
After graduating from New York’s premier girls’ school, Brearley, Oona became a prominent young socialite, dating J. D. Salinger and Orson Welles. She decided to head west to Hollywood, where she made a brief attempt at an acting career. Oona met Chaplin when she was recommended for a part in one of his films. O’Neill, her father—who was the same age as Chaplin—was so angry about the marriage that he disinherited his daughter.
But Carol was all for the marriage, later writing that Chaplin “fell in love with Oona as a young boy would fall in love for the first time. That had never happened to him before.… She was the two girls that he always sought—the waif and the princess.”
As with Oona, one of Gloria Vanderbilt’s four marriages was to a much older man: the conductor Leopold Stokowski, 42 years her senior. She’d survived the mawkish, sensational headlines of her childhood custody fight, as well as the tragic suicide of one of her children, to become an artist, writer, and a designer of fashion jeans. Just stitching her name on the back of blue jeans brought her unimaginable success in the l980s.
The 93 Chosen Few
Charlie Matthau, Carol and Walter’s son, was named for the great silent-screen star, who was, along with the actor Richard Widmark, also his godfather. He became a director. (His credits include a poignant adaptation of Capote’s novella The Grass Harp, and Freaky Deaky, a comedic crime thriller based on Elmore Leonard’s novel.) Charlie Matthau was nine years old when Chaplin returned to America, but he remembers the momentous occasion.
Even as a boy, he was not surprised when his mother planned with Oona a grand garden party for the returning exiles: “My mother and Oona were friends from high school and kind of grew up together, and then Oona married Charlie, and then Carol married Walter, and, in due course, a party was formed.”
Oona O’Neill was an 18-year-old, freshly minted high-school graduate and fledgling actress when she married 54-year-old Charlie Chaplin.
First, there was the guest list—93 people for lunch—a majority of the names having been provided by Oona Chaplin. It was the most coveted invitation to a Hollywood event in memory.
“When the invitations went out,” Carol recalled, “absolutely everyone I’d ever heard of began to telephone us about the party and how they had to come, because they were very dear friends of the Chaplins’. A lot of this was nonsense, because I knew all their friends.”
Carol had a hard time turning down entreating callers, so she asked Walter to do it. He gave them the bad news with such charm and sweetness that “most of those people had more fun during that conversation with Walter than they could have had at the party.”
Carol knew the party could be canceled at any moment, as Chaplin’s moods “were always changing, and every once-in-a-while he’d remember how terrible Hollywood had been to him and he threatened not to come to California at all. I didn’t really feel sure he was coming until he boarded the plane.” Nonetheless, she ordered the Porthault tablecloths, the Baccarat crystal, the best wines, and the most beautiful flowers for the occasion.
Charlie Matthau recalled, “He had so many happy years here before the government went crazy on him. I remember, at the time, my parents talking about how America doesn’t know how to treat its artists, and now I have more of an appreciation of just how right they were. I haven’t seen the Billie Holiday movie, but I hear it’s about the same thing.”
“Like a Little Kid”
As they drove through Los Angeles, Chaplin felt sure he should not have come. “Oh, well,” he sighed, “it wasn’t so bad. After all, I met Oona there.” Driving through the now unfamiliar city, he muttered, “It’s nothing but banks, banks, banks.”
Chaplin never really got over his broken heart at being so unceremoniously ousted from Hollywood. Like Lieutenant Hiroo Onoda, who emerged in 1974 from the Philippine jungle after 29 years, one of the last Japanese soldiers to surrender his sword, Chaplin saw America’s war with him as not over, even if it was. He still seemed uncertain how Hollywood would receive him.
Candice saw that, for Chaplin, being in Vevey “was like being in a penal colony, on an island, Devil’s Island.… He obviously had been quite a tiger in his heyday and very full of snap and vigor, but he was just child-like, and it was just so striking.” She noticed his delight when he was served a mai tai, “sipping it with a straw with both hands around the glass like a little kid.”
The luncheon was held on a balmy Sunday afternoon in April, the day before Chaplin was to receive his honorary Oscar. Candice recalled that “anyone who was anyone in the industry was there, and Carol Matthau was blessed, because the weather was sublime, and they have a fantastic house on a cliff in the Palisades that looks over the ocean … ”
Charlie Matthau remembered the Chaplins arriving by car. “My nanny, who was smarter than any of us, filmed all of this on Super 8. From the back of our house you could see the ocean and dozens of sailboats. Chaplin made a joke with my dad, saying, “Now that really must have cost you a fortune.”
Carol later wrote, “Charlie kissed and hugged everybody, though actually he remembered no one except the one person he wanted to see more than anybody else. And that happened to be Martha Raye.” The wide-mouthed comedic actress arrived in a chauffeured Rolls-Royce, and as soon as she saw Chaplin, she ran over and jumped into his lap. “He was genuinely happy to be with someone he recognized and particularly Martha, whom he had adored since she played the woman he’d tried repeatedly to kill in Monsieur Verdoux.”
But Chaplin also recognized and loved seeing the director Lewis Milestone, Danny Kaye, Frances Goldwyn, and Groucho Marx. (Charlie Matthau remembers Groucho saying to him, “So you’re in fifth grade?,” and replying, “No, I’m not, Groucho,” to which Groucho answered, “I know you’re not Groucho, but are you in fifth grade?”) Chaplin was disappointed that Sam Goldwyn was too ill to accompany his wife, Frances, to the party, because the film mogul had been one of the few people to speak up for Chaplin during his troubles.
Chaplin never really got over his broken heart at being so unceremoniously ousted from Hollywood.
Chaplin dined at a special table inside the house to protect him from the sea breeze. (He’d once been told by a gypsy that he would die of pneumonia, so he avoided drafts and dressed in extra layers of clothes, no matter the temperature.) He then moved to a small table on the flagstone terrace, wrapped in a cloth coat, looking frail and thin.
Chaplin was delighted to see another familiar face: the pianist and wit Oscar Levant, now a virtual recluse in Beverly Hills. Emerging briefly from his own self-imposed exile on North Roxbury Drive, Levant was one of the few guests Chaplin greeted with genuine warmth, and his presence became an event in itself. The silent-screen legend and the legendary talker briefly reminisced.
The party guests milled about on the lawn, dotted with pink, white, and blue hyacinths. Charlie remembers noticing that Chaplin “was having a great time, and there was a lot of expression in his eyes. I realize he must have been thinking about how he had lived here for so many years, and then been forced to leave.... I knew that it was an emotional big deal for him, as it seemed to be for everybody else. For me, I just knew that my parents were having a big party for this very important man.”
A 12-Minute Standing Ovation
The following day, April 10, 1972, Chaplin was presented with an honorary Oscar at the 44th Academy Awards event. Security was extremely high at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, as the anti-war movement was still raging, and across the street were picketers. Charlie and Oona were ushered through an underground garage, deemed safer than the artists’ entrance.
They watched the Oscar show on a TV in their dressing room, excitedly pointing out friends they spotted in the huge audience. Chaplin was relieved. He had been afraid nobody would come.
The Academy screened a 13½-minute montage of highlights from Chaplin’s films, lovingly assembled by Peter Bogdanovich. (It was also a big night for the 31-year-old filmmaker, who had received a best-director nomination for The Last Picture Show, which would win two Oscars, for best supporting actress and actor, for Cloris Leachman and Ben Johnson.)
When Chaplin finally appeared onstage, he was met with the longest standing ovation in the history of the Academy Awards—12 minutes. Chaplin was moved almost to the point of tears. He blew a kiss and thanked “the sweet people” who lauded him.
Was all forgiven, on both sides, or was it too little, too late?
The Chaplins returned to their home in Vevey, and Charlie died five years later, in 1977, at the age of 88. “I remember the Christmas Day that Charlie died,” Carol wrote. “Oona always referred to his death as ‘the long good-bye.’ He had been sick for so very long.”
Oona was inconsolable. For all the bloodletting that had preceded it—a squalid paternity suit, the humiliation of the Mann Act trial, and the fierce opposition of Eugene O’Neill to his daughter’s marriage—theirs had been a tender and loving relationship. “Being around them,” Candice Bergen had observed, “the institution of marriage seemed less obsolete.”
Nonetheless, Carol Matthau—who died in 2003—thought that “his exile destroyed him. He would rant on and on, for years to come, about what he would have said to the House Un-American Activities Committee.” What he didn’t have the chance to do in life, though, Chaplin did through his art. In 1957, five years after leaving America, Charlie wrote, directed, and starred in A King in New York, a political satire of the McCarthy era, shot in London.
Chaplin plays King Shahdov of Estrovia, a penniless monarch who runs afoul of HUAC but eventually turns a fire hose on the full committee. The film was not shown in America until 1972, the year of Charlie Chaplin’s brief but triumphant return.
Sam Kashner, a Writer at Large for AIR MAIL, is the co-author, along with Ash Carter, of Life Isn’t Everything: Mike Nichols, as Remembered by 150 of His Closest Friends
Nancy Schoenberger is the author of Wayne and Ford: The Films, the Friendship, and the Forging of an American Hero and the co-author, with Kashner, of The Fabulous Bouvier Sisters: The Tragic and Glamorous Lives of Jackie and Lee